Author James Kirchick’s ‘Secret City’ Brings DC’s Hidden Gay History to Light

Author and journalist James Kirchick recently posted DC’s latest staple, “.”

Driving the news: The book highlights the many ways gay people have served and shaped their country and national politics, while hiding an important part of their identity in order to maintain their careers.

Paige met Kirchick at Diner at Adams Morgan and talked about Secret City over fries. His answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Have you ever hesitated to write about some of these people who have spent their whole lives trying to hide this aspect of their identity?

The book comes out only two people, and they died. My general belief on the release is that when you’re dead, you’re history.

One of the men is Ray Price, Richard Nixon’s chief speechwriter. Nixon knew he was gay. So hearing what Nixon was saying about gay people, while simultaneously having a gay editor, proves the kind of model I write about in my book.

  • You see these presidents, they have a gay friend or a gay adviser, and yet they have public policies that are terrible. I think the public should know that.

The other man is Peter Hannaford, who was one of Ronald Reagan’s best advisers. He, alongside Michael Deaver, who became White House chief of staff, had a consulting firm that essentially managed Reagan’s public image between his governorship and president.

  • They were writing his op-eds, planning his trip, and training him to be president.

At the end of the day, Hannaford does not end up working in the Reagan administration. I can’t prove it was because he was gay. But we can infer that it might have been.

The debate over how to teach American history has recently heated up. What are some of the themes from your book that you would like to see taught in schools?

We all learn about red scare and McCarthyism. Not enough people know that there was also a whole homophobic aspect to it: the Lavender Scare.

When there was a communist threat and there were a handful of communists in government jobs, there was no threat posed by homosexuals. It was totally a product of paranoia and fear. The lavender scare was just as destructive, if not more so, in terms of lives lost and careers destroyed.

  • I think it is important to know the patriotism of these people who wanted to work for a government that did not want them. It reminds me of black soldiers in World War II fighting in a separate unit. They sincerely believed in what they were doing, but they were still discriminated against.
After years of research to shine a light on gay history, how did you react to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and similar efforts?

I think it puts into perspective that the fight for the acceptance of homosexuals has always been a fight against silence. One of the main lessons of the book is that when something is kept secret, and you are not allowed to talk about it, and it is pushed back, then it is very easy to develop ignorant and conspiratorial opinions about it. . And when you ignore something, it can breed hatred.

So your book is all about DC, which used to be called Chocolate City. How does the black gay community fit into this story?

It is complicated, because the book is about political power and black people were almost entirely excluded from political power.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t black figures in the book. One of the most colorful figures was Odessa Madre. describes her as part Al Capone, part Robin Hood. She was sort of that crime boss, but also a community leader. She was the most powerful black woman in Washington.

Another major character I talked about is a personal hero of mine: Bayard Rustin, an openly gay man who organized the March on Washington. Two weeks before the march, in an effort to discredit the event, Strom Thurmond exposed him in the Senate. Interestingly, civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. stood by Rustin.

  • This is probably the first instance of a public figure being exposed and surviving the experience. Rustin went on to have a very successful career…which probably could have been more successful had he not been outed. But he survived it. It’s quite an important moment.

And then in the 70s, I write about racism within the gay community, because there was a lot of it. A distinct black gay social scene has developed, with private clubs, private associations and black gay bars.

DC now has a thriving gay community, how did that turn out?

DC has actually been pretty gay since the New Deal. All of these federal agencies were growing and the size of the city was increasing.

Another milestone is in 1975. The Civil Service Commission – now the Office of Personnel Management – ​​lifted the ban on homosexuals working in the civil service.

  • Homosexuals had been banned from working in government since 1953 by executive order. DC is one of the first places to implement anti-gay anti-discrimination policies; other states and cities only do so much later.

Suddenly, DC’s largest employer, the federal government, allowed gay people to work and not be fired because of it, which is not the case in many places.

What is your favorite story in the book?

I think the story I’ve spent the longest time telling is about Bob Waldron, a gay man who was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s aide. He worked for LBJ when he was a senator and when he was vice president.

  • But three weeks into the new administration after Kennedy’s assassination, Waldron had a background check to join the White House staff and they found out he was gay, which destroyed his career and life in politics.

Go further:

What do you want people to take away most from the book?

The perseverance of these people who served their country when their country didn’t want them is something that I think is really important to recognize. Our country was denied a massive amount of talent, and it was a huge waste of energy and resources to investigate patriotic citizens because of whom they loved. Our institutions are not well served if we do not consider and appreciate people as individuals.

Sometimes when I’m reporting on heavy topics, it can feel exhausting. Did you ever experience this feeling during the process of writing the book?

There were absolutely times when my heart sank. But with this book, I think I came away mostly with a sense of gratitude for the incredible progress that has been made. If you look at the status of homosexuals in this country when the book begins in the 1930s, the very existence of these people was criminal.

  • In the United States, homosexuality was illegal. It was condemned by organized religion and considered a mental disorder by the medical establishment.

I think it’s an amazing trip. I feel grateful. It’s the best time to be gay in America. That’s not to say people don’t struggle…of course they do. But there has never been a better time than today.


Lola R. McClure