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History, when given to a lazy narrator, is merely a series of facts, strung together, often in sequential order. This gave way to that, which brought about those as told in a vacuum. It’s why so many American students know World War I began when a nihilist secret society assassinated the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne—and anything much beyond that is a gray blob of battles, military inventions, and diplomatic treaties that serve as a pretext to World War II.
Stories and arguments matter in history, and for most Americans, it’s why many a U.S. history teacher can spend weeks on World War II, part of the mythology that this newsroom’s founder, Henry Luce, dubbed “The American Century” in a 1941 Life editorial. That reliance on narrative is also why, for so many students, U.S. history barely makes its way to the Korean War and most certainly not into Vietnam or even the Gulf War. Those stories are less easily narrated.
In his new book, James Kirchick breaks those patterns and tells a robust and meaningful history of his town. Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington is a sweeping tour of D.C. from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration into the Bill Clinton years. Smartly written with a flexible aperture for capturing the big picture of a moment and narrowing in on the tiniest of details, the book pulls together far-flung original source documents from archives, memoirs, and a shrewd sense of political history and its corresponding tragedies. This isn’t so much a gay history of D.C. as it is a history of Washington as experienced by its gay power players—figures who were working alongside their straight colleagues to put the country on a post-World War II footing, address the rising Civil Rights Movement, and contend with a Cold War that left everyone paranoid. (Spoiler alert: It’s mostly white men, regardless of their sexual partners.)
The book is set to be published on Tuesday, on the eve of Pride Month. The interview has been lightly edited.
Elliott: Admittedly, I was skeptical of the premise that it was more dangerous to be gay than a communist during the Cold War, but you convinced me. How did you come to that realization?
Kirchick: I cite specifically the Whittaker Chambers case, where we see this man who comes out as a communist or former communist.
Elliott: Reformed, even.
Kirchick: A reformed communist, which is possible. Some of the most prominent figures in the early American conservative movements were former communists. The notion of ‘conversion therapy’ had not taken hold yet. That’s an evangelical thing that happens in the ‘70s. So that was one way.
People who were named as communists, they would come out publicly and defend themselves from being communist. There was none of that during the early years of the Lavender Scare.
I saw it also with the person of Frank Kameny. So he was the first person to come out, whereas leading up to him, there were untold hundreds or maybe thousands of gay people who lost their jobs, who just sort of melted away back into obscurity.
Elliott: And it had tragic consequences.
Kirchick: I’m sure there were some people who were accused of communism that led to suicide and whatnot, but I would expect it was much higher among gay people.
Elliott: You also have the adjacents to those accused. You have a number of examples of just being even in the same orbit costs people their lives and livelihoods.
Kirchick: Being a homosexual also implied, at this point in history, that you were a communist, whereas it wasn’t necessarily the reverse.
Elliott: I don’t know if you did this on purpose, but you really emphasized the puritanical roots of this country. Was that something you sought to illustrate, or is that just a bankshot that I’m picking up by accident?
Kirchick: There was a moral panic in the same way that like the Salem Witch Trials, that was used most famously by Arthur Miller with The Crucible. The difference here is that there were no witches in Salem. There were communists in the U.S. government, just not in the numbers that Joe McCarthy was claiming. With homosexuals, there really was a witch hunt. There was no example of a gay person who was a traitor or who turned over information because they were blackmailed for being gay.
Elliott: But it still was a number of people. Ninety-one is the first public accounting of people being fired for being gay.
Kirchick: The 91 figure came in 1950 from Deputy Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy made the first kind of admission that gays had been fired. What kicked off the Lavender Scare was this admission because no one knew that there was this problem. There isn’t a true figure, though. The estimates vary from 5,000 to 15,000 people. It’s impossible to know because a lot of them quit before they could be found out, pressured to quit, or never applied. A lot of records have been destroyed.
Elliott: Since you bring up the records, you cast a really wide net with this project. How did you figure out where to go? I mean the unpublished diaries, for instance, how did you track those down?
Kirchick: What I did was make a timeline and I would read all the general literature on the subject, so I knew FDR, that was going to be the Sumner Welles story. Yeah. And I knew that the David Walsh story would have to factor in. I knew Whittaker Chambers was going to be a story. I was aware of the whole gay OSS [Office of Strategic Services, an early iteration of the CIA] thing because there’s a chapter on it in a book about the early years of the OSS, and there’s a chapter about Donald Downes that kind of refers to him as being gay. The guy who wrote that book doesn’t dwell on it that much.
I’d then dig deeper, read the newspaper articles, then look for the primary source, the archives. And then some stuff just would come at the last minute, like the story of Robert Waldron, an LBJ aide who eluded Robert Caro. There’s one mention of him in Caro—not having anything to do with being gay.
Some papers opened in the LBJ Library that had to do with Walter Jenkins, and there was a signed confession that he wrote from his hospital bed for the FBI. He named Robert Waldron as a fellow potential homosexual. I knew he had to have an FBI file if Walter Jenkins is naming him to J. Edgar Hoover. So I put in a FOIA request, which can take years.
I happened to be lucky. I wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, and the chief archivist of the United States read it and wrote me a nice email and said I should use the archives. I replied, Well, Mr. Chief Archivist, can you help me with something? A couple months later, I got a thousand-page, totally declassified, unredacted FBI file for Robert Waldron. Now I had this totally original story.
I was going through Ben Bradlee’s papers one day at the University of Texas. And I came across this folder entitled Ronald Reagan, Allegations 1980. All the notes from this investigation that they did into this crazy story of him being controlled by a right-wing cabal of homosexuals.
Elliott: How long were you working on this project?
Kirchick: I came up with the idea in 2009 but I didn’t get the contract until 2014. I didn’t really begin intensive work on this book until 2018.
Elliott: The other theme that runs through so much of this is that keeping secrets was a way of survival in Washington during the 20th century. Is that still the case?
Kirchick: No. Because how long does the secret stay secret in this town? Just look at the Trump Administration. None of those people could keep a secret.
Someone like Joe Alsop could be protected because people would keep secrets—even his worst enemies. Art Buchwald got mailed photos of him naked with a man. If Jim Acosta was mailed incriminating photos of Tucker Carlson, would he protect Tucker Carlson out of some antique notion of honor? Of course not.
Elliott: There are some really talented people who were purged from government service in the national security space. What was the price the United States paid for that?
Kirchick: Most people thought gay people were security threats, that it was a sickness, and rendered them incompatible with government service. We’ll never know the full cost. Look at the case of Sumner Welles, who was one of the more supportive Cabinet members of terms of taking Jewish refugees during World War II. He was kicked out. Could he have changed history in a more positive direction on that front? Maybe.
Elliott: It almost seems like before there was a Deep State, there was a deep state of gays.
Kirchick: There was a fear of a deep state of gays. The conspiratorial rhetoric is quite similar to that of the fears of the Homintern, the secret underground network plotting to subvert the country.
Elliott: So what changed?
Kirchick: It required gay people coming out of the closet. During the David Walsh case, they never used the word homosexual. Through all that series of New York Post articles, not once do they use the word homosexual. So that goes your question about why homosexuality was worse than communism. We talked a lot about communism. You couldn’t talk about homosexuality.
Elliott: It’s the difference between an ideology and an identity.
Kirchick: You can choose your ideology. An identity was seen as being inextricable to your character.
Elliott: I’m curious about your treatment of Roy Cohn as a more complex figure than I had realized.
Kirchick: Most people don’t know Roy Cohn based upon the books he wrote or having watched him on television. They know him because of Pacino playing him in Angels in America. I think Roy Cohn was a terrible human being, but I think all the people who behaved badly under this specter of homosexuality, the real villain is the closet. If there’s a villain in this book, it is the societal fear that our country had of gay people.
Elliott: What does the next century of gay politics in this city look like?
Kirchick: To be honest, I really don’t envision much of the gay politics in the future. As gayness becomes an accepted variety of life in America, I think the political veilance of homosexuality will decline dramatically. I think you’ll see the percentage of gays who vote Republican versus Democrat will resemble that of the country at large. It won’t be associated with the left and the way it has been since the 1980s. I think it’s just an increasingly outdated concept.
Elliott: Finally, this is a book heavy on gay men. Where are the lesbians?
Kirchick: This is a function of this being a book that is about political power in Washington. Unfortunately, from the period of 1933 to 1995, political power in this town was held almost exclusively by white men. That’s why the Lavender Scare didn’t really impact lesbians because women were not in a position to hold security clearances. Their sexuality was not policed and surveilled. There aren’t that many lesbians in the book, not through my own choosing, just because of the subject matter.
Elliott: Thank you so much. This was fun.
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Write to Philip Elliott at email@example.com