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Washington, D.C.'s hidden gay history is uncovered in 'Secret City'

The thoroughly researched work of nonfiction examines the politicians, policies and people who contributed to decades of queer tragedy and triumph in the nation’s capital.
James Kirchick
James Kirchick, author of “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington."Paul Morigi

The existence and influence of LGBTQ people in our nation’s capital is as long as it is invisible.  

A new book examines the unknown or barely known lives of gay people working and living in our nation’s capital, a city known for its mix of power and secrets. The book traces the decades of queer history between the administrations of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton.

“Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington," by James Kirchick, is a 654-page tome that took years of research and an exhaustive investigation into presidential archives, historical interviews and once-classified government records.

"Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington"
"Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington" by James Kirchick.Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.

“I realized that all these stories I was reading, and these personalities and phenomena, whether it was McCarthyism or the Reagans, FDR or JFK, that there were these gay stories lurking in the background,” Kirchick said. 

Those stories lurked in the background out of necessity: The cost of coming out as gay — or, more likely, being outed against one’s will — was enormous professionally and socially. Even being associated with a suspected homosexual could cause the country’s most powerful men to quiver.

“It was the specter of homosexuality that provoked the first and only suicide by a member of Congress in his Capitol Hill office, caused Lyndon Johnson to fret that his historical lead would evaporate, and seized the paranoid mind of Richard Nixon second only to the plots of his ever-expanding enemies list,” Kirchick writes. “It drove the man who saved Gerald Ford’s life into a depression from which he never recovered, and it inhibited Ronald Reagan from mentioning the disease that was killing thousands of Americans (the brother of his chief speechwriter among them).” 

Rumors of homosexuality were catastrophic to those who were accused of it, but Kirchick also asks the reader to consider the broader human and societal impact of such witch hunts on gay Americans working in government. 

“To assess the full scale of the damage that the fear of homosexuality wrought on the American political landscape, one must take into account not only the careers ruined and the lives cut short, but something vaster and unquantifiable: the possibilities thwarted,” Kirchick writes. 

Although openly LGBTQ people have made their way to the highest ranks of government today, it was not long ago that suspected homosexuals working for the federal government were hunted down, publicly humiliated and terminated with the full force of the government. “When in doubt, throw him out,” was the unofficial mantra of the now-defunct Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs.

“I don’t think people understand or realize that it was more dangerous to be gay than it was to be a communist. That was a graver sin,” Kirchick said.

Communism and queer identity are intertwined in American history, and Kirchick writes that the experience of being an LGBTQ person was not unlike that of being a dissident in a communist police state. He writes that “both groups were heavily surveilled, vilified by society, subject to arrest, and threatened with confinement in mental institutions.” 

The “Lavender Scare,” as it came to be known, was a period of moral panic that occurred alongside the anti-communist campaign known as the “Red Scare.” The Lavender Scare began when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450 in 1953, which led to the investigation and removal of thousands of LGBTQ people from the federal government. 

“I don’t think people really understand the vast human toll of these policies on individuals but also on the country itself,” Kirchick said. 

Being a queer person in government meant being aware of the risk of investigation. Kirchick tells the story of Bob Waldron, a skilled administrative assistant working on Capitol Hill in the 1950s and the 1960s, who was “loaned” to then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson by a member of Congress. Waldron was smart, well-dressed and quick at note-taking, and he “soon became something much more significant to the vice president: a combination of aide, travel companion, and personal confidant,” Kirchick writes. Kirchick goes on to describe Waldron as someone “very close to a substitute son” for Johnson.  

Waldron’s secret was that he was gay. He became an expert at sidestepping questions about his romantic relationships, and he learned how to be as discreet as possible about his identity. 

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Waldron was there to support Johnson in the transition. And Waldron’s dream of working for the president of the United States seemed to be coming true. Johnson said he wanted to bring Waldron onto the White House staff and asked Waldron to fill out a job application. A background check commenced. Over 100 people were interviewed, and the vast majority of people were supportive. But one man said Waldron had “homosexual tendencies” and shared a story about Waldron’s making a pass at him. Waldron’s job application was rejected. The story was unknown until Kirchick was able to get Waldron’s FBI file declassified and examine it.

“Had Waldron not been burdened with the same secret that thwarted the dreams of so many other young men and women, and that eventually spelled the ruin of his own, there is no telling what he might have accomplished,” Kirchick writes. “His experience was hardly unique in this regard, but his proximity to Johnson illustrates how even someone unwaveringly loyal to one of the country’s most skillful politicians was vulnerable to destruction.”

There was not one person whose power could not be in danger of being compromised if there was even a whisper of possible homosexuality activity. Kirchick details the period just before the Republican Party nominated Ronald Reagan for president in 1980. There were whispers that Reagan was possibly participating in “homosexual conduct,” and some Republicans saw Reagan’s potential nomination as a “danger to the Republican Party and the country.” It was thought that if Reagan cinched the nomination he would in turn nominate Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., a former Buffalo Bills and San Diego Chargers quarterback, to be his vice presidential running mate — another person rumored to be gay. The possibility that Kemp could join the ticket was evidence that there was a “homosexual ring” around Reagan and that he was “the ventriloquized pawn of shadowy and sinister forces,” Kirchick writes. 

Although operatives within the Republican Party failed in their attempt to thwart Reagan’s nomination, it is possible their campaign was not in vain: Kemp was passed over for the vice presidential nomination in favor of George H.W. Bush. When a congressman later asked Reagan’s communications aide about the loss of the nomination for Kemp, he reportedly said, “It was that homosexual thing,” Kirchick writes.

“Secret City” ends with the presidency of Bill Clinton, who said in a campaign speech in front of a largely gay audience in Los Angeles in 1992, “I have a vision, and you are a part of it.” With those words, Clinton would do something that would have seemed unfathomable to most, if not all, of his predecessors: make an explicit appeal to gay Americans for their support in a presidential election. 

Kirchick said he sees his book as an example of the triumph of LGBTQ people in America. “It’s almost like a David and Goliath story,” he said. When the book begins, queer people are invisible, it’s illegal to be gay, and the medical establishment considers LGBTQ people to be mentally ill. “Denounced by every institution,” he said. “And to go from there to where I end the book, it’s a pretty remarkable journey.”

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