James Kirchick, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington. New York: Henry Holt, 2022. xviii + 826 pp. $38
This door-stopper volume gives the most complete history to date of gay and bisexual people, mostly male and deeply closeted, in the nation’s capital. These include elected politicians, high-ranking political appointees, prominent journalists, socialites, as well as scores of minor civil servants and even a few fringe non-political figures like the local pornographer Lynn Womack, who won a major victory for artistic freedom in the Supreme Court in 1962. The temporal range of coverage encompasses the 50-to-60 year period from approximately 1940 to the Clinton administration, when gays in government service began to become more mainstream and visible. Despite the book’s meticulous documentation and attention to detail (including about 160 pages of notes and sources), it is eminently readable and keeps the reader turning the page as one chapter’s intimations lure us into the next chapter’s revelations.
In the growing national security state of the World War II and Cold War eras, the pretext for excluding gays from all federal employment was that they posed a security risk because they could so easily be blackmailed by foreign intelligence services. Even after the civil service reforms of 1975 that admitted gays to most jobs, positions requiring high-level security clearances were still withheld from them. But as Kirchick demonstrates, there was not in fact one single known case throughout this entire period in which any US government official was ever blackmailed or recruited by either the Nazis or the Soviets because of being gay. The closest the Soviets ever came to attempting it was with syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop, when he was visiting Moscow in the 1950s, and they failed spectacularly; Alsop told them he didn’t care about being outed, and in any event he was a journalist, not a US official. If anything, his experience in Moscow made him even more strenuously anti-Communist than before. The irony in this benighted policy, which accelerated during the Lavender Scare of the McCarthy era, was that by guaranteeing immediate dismissal of even the lowliest employees who were found to be gay, exposure became a graver threat than it otherwise might have been for single men and women not in the public spotlight. Married men who carried on extra-marital liaisons in Washington, including with foreign personnel, were far more numerous than the gays and arguably had more at risk from being exposed by a blackmailer, but no one ever thought of making adultery grounds for automatic firing.
In purging itself of gay and lesbian employees, the federal government lost many talented professionals who were just as loyal to the US as anyone else. As Kirchick points out, gays and lesbians were ideally suited for government service: unencumbered by families, they could travel to distant foreign and domestic postings and work long hours. Not needing to fund children in prestigious schools and colleges, they could live comfortably on government salaries, rather than being lured into more lucrative opportunities in the private sector. Accustomed to living in two different worlds, they were used to keeping secrets and exercising prudent discretion. Punctilious dressers, charming, educated, and aesthetically refined, gay men could make a good impression in diplomatic service or be available as unthreatening “walkers” to accompany more powerful men’s wives and daughters to elite Washington social events.
As Kirchick demonstrates, there was not in fact one single known case throughout this entire period in which any US government official was ever blackmailed or recruited by either the Nazis or the Soviets because of being gay. The closest the Soviets ever came to attempting it was with syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop, when he was visiting Moscow in the 1950s, and they failed spectacularly; Alsop told them he didn’t care about being outed.
Kirchick discusses in detail some of the better known gay events with which historians are familiar: FDR’s trusted friend and Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles (who had a penchant for getting drunk and importuning black railway porters, to the outrage of his rivals, especially Secretary of State Cordell Hull), ex-communist Whittaker Chambers and the alleged homosexual subtext to his accusation of Alger Hiss, McCarthy’s aides Roy Cohn and G. David Schine, JFK’s schoolmate chum Lem Billings, and LBJ’s top aide Walter Jenkins, caught by police in a YMCA bathroom near the White House only three weeks before the 1964 election. We hear about many lesser lights as well, whose ambitions for an influential position in proximity to presidents are derailed by threats to reveal them: Arthur Vandenburg Jr. (Eisenhower), Robert Waldron (LBJ), Peter Hannaford (Reagan).
A persistent feature of this period is the nakedly political use of innuendo and speculation to attack completely innocent individuals, like Eisenhower’s nominee to be ambassador to the USSR, Chip Bohlen, or even to fabricate homosexual cabals controlling presidents, including the ridiculous charge, taken seriously by columnist Drew Pearson, that Nixon aides H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin (all of later Watergate fame) engaged in homosexual orgies together. Similar gossip circulated around Ronald Reagan’s political advisors in both Sacramento and Washington. One of the virtues of Kirchick’s narrative is his admission that in many cases we simply cannot and will never know the truth, as for instance with the rumors about the bisexuality of Congressman (and later HUD secretary and vice presidential nominee) Jack Kemp or the exact nature of the relationship between J. Edgar Hoover and his chief deputy Clyde Tolson. Much as we would all love to out the notoriously homophobic FBI director, we must admit the possibility that he and Tolson were both genuine asexuals who were so absorbed in their work that they found it convenient to live together. At 1% of the population, asexuals are almost as numerous as gays and lesbians, but they have always been an even more invisible minority.
Nowhere was the cognitive dissonance greater than in the Reagan administration. The Reagans had long socialized with many gays in Hollywood, including Rock Hudson. While in the White House, Nancy had a gay hairdresser, interior decorator, and fashion designer, and called her friend Jerry Zipkin “a modern-day Oscar Wilde.”
With the increasing visibility of a post-Stonewall gay rights movement, the issue of homosexuality was a particularly fraught one in Republican administrations, dependent as they were on religious conservatives and pro-family traditionalists. Nixon professed no personal animus toward gays, but was not above trying to accuse his enemies, such as Drew Pearson’s assistant and successor Jack Anderson. The infamous White House tapes record plenty of derisive epithets about patrician State Department officers (“fags,” “fairies”) and historically illiterate conversations with Kissinger about homosexuality as the cause of Greece and Rome’s downfalls. Whereas Democratic congressmen who came out in the 1970s and 80s, like Gerry Studds and Barney Frank of Massachusetts, survived, conservative Republicans like Robert Bauman of Maryland or Jon Hinson of Mississippi had far more trouble with the issue and stepped down. Even a liberal Republican like Stewart McKinney, from a wealthy district in Connecticut, could never acknowledge it as he lay dying of AIDS. His large family in Westport and his gay dinner parties in Washington were two separate worlds.
Nowhere was the cognitive dissonance greater than in the Reagan administration. The Reagans had long socialized with many gays in Hollywood, including Rock Hudson. While in the White House, Nancy had a gay hairdresser, interior decorator, and fashion designer, and called her friend Jerry Zipkin “a modern-day Oscar Wilde.” In 1978, Reagan as former governor took a principled stand against a California ballot initiative introduced by the homophobic State Senator John Briggs that would have banned from public school employment any homosexual or “advocate” of homosexuality, and it lost soundly. Many gays hovered around the new conservative policy establishment, including the senior power-broker Robert Gray, Council for Inter-American Security president Lynn Francis Bouchey (central to the Iran-Contra conspiracy), National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty president Spitz Channell, and perhaps most famously, National Conservative Political Action Committee chair Terry Dolan, whose speechwriter brother fanatically denied his homosexuality even after Terry’s death from AIDS. Terry Dolan and many other young right-wing activists openly socialized at gay venues and their orientation was hardly a secret to anyone in Washington. Despite the many gays around the Reagans, so great was the administration’s deference to Jerry Falwell and the Religious Right that AIDS was never acknowledged by the president until very late in his term, and even Reagan’s statement on the death of long-time friend Rock Hudson was cold and distant.
One might wonder why so many gays were Republicans at a time when the party pandered to social conservatives and the Democrat party was more willing to court gay voters by openly embracing their issues. Kirchick avoids the obvious accusation of hypocrisy, but does not really provide a good explanation. In an era when gay men and lesbians were still accustomed to separating their personal and professional lives, such a contradiction is fathomable, especially in view of the strong libertarian strain within Republican politics of the 1980s and 90s. We should perhaps regard it as a strength that gays were not (and are not) politically monolithic and have some presence in both major political parties. Just as affluent citizens do not always vote based on narrow calculations of self-interest (i.e., who will lower my taxes), gay voters also consider a broader range of issues affecting the public interest as they see it: in the 1980s, security against Soviet aggression and renewal of prosperity by trimming back a bloated regulatory bureaucracy seemed more important than public posturing over never-enforced sodomy laws or openly serving in the military. At the time, gay marriage seemed a risible concept even to most gays.
It is perhaps understandable that Kirchick chose to end his already very long book where he did, with only very cursory treatments of the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations. It is disappointing that we don’t get to hear about the downfall of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who, unlike all the gay men dismissed from government service during the waves of the Lavender Scare, actually was blackmailed, in his case for relations with teenage boys during his former career as a high school wrestling coach. Nor was Hastert the only Republican congressman thus disgraced: Florida’s Mark Foley, who authored anti-gay and anti-sex offender legislation, was found to have sent sexually suggestive messages and had sexual liaisons with multiple underage male pages, and the openly gay Arizona congressman Jim Kolbe was accused of inappropriate actions with former pages on a camping trip to the Grand Canyon. In the present century, “sexualizing minors” has replaced mere homosexuality as the vehicle of ultimate disgrace.
The potential for scandal today is not limited to sex with teenagers. Idaho Senator Larry Craig was famously arrested for soliciting sex in an airport restroom in Minneapolis. Nor was inappropriate behavior limited to Republicans: the sleazy New Jersey Governor James McGreevy appointed his lover to a highly-paid state position for which he was completely unqualified, and then attempted to obscure the corruption issue by presenting himself as a hero for coming out as gay. None of these men received punishment for their offenses that was in any way comparable to what an ordinary citizen would have received for the same acts.
Why prominent politicians and political figures, who live in the intense glare of the public spotlight, would put themselves at such risk of exposure is a conundrum, particularly in cases like Foley’s, when their sexual conduct was so diametrically opposed to their legislative record. One might speculate that uninhibited extroversion, sexual risk-taking, and political ambition are connected personality traits, and they are also commonly associated with heterosexual politicians who have extra-marital affairs, from FDR to JFK and LBJ to Bill Clinton. That Clinton’s widely known misdemeanors were ultimately dismissed by enlightened opinion (“it’s just sex”) may have tempted others to believe they would never be held accountable by voters. In an earlier generation, press reticence about politicians’ personal lives may have emboldened some of them to think they could get away with it, but amid the sensationalism of 24/7 cable news and digital media in the 21st century, sexual transgressions seem particularly unwise and self-destructive. Now that same-sex relations in themselves are no longer scandalous, the political animal needs stronger risks to satiate its ego.