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Secret City: Behind the Untold Gay History of DC Politics | Books

LGBTQ+ people have always existed, although they have been largely erased from historical accounts and even forced to participate in their own erasure. This is true of American politics, where the 20th century saw many gays and lesbians participate in the highest levels of power, but almost totally erased from the narrative of our nation’s history. In the new book Secret City, historian James Kirchick attempts to place in the historical record gay men and women who served and contributed to their country in Washington DC throughout the 20th century.

“I want to intertwine these two threads – the common thread of history that we all read about and this gay history that has been ostracized and sequestered,” he said. “I wanted to bring them together to show that they are connected stories, that they interact and complement each other. It doesn’t subvert that established narrative, it adds to it and complicates it.

Kirchick was first intrigued by the idea of ​​a gay history of American power politics in 2007, when he moved to DC and realized he was steeped in cultural life and a living gay story. In fact, census data shows that DC has the highest proportion of gay people in the United States. As he began work on the massive project, Kirchick began to believe that as a gay man he was uniquely equipped to write Secret City. “It needed a gay person to do that,” he said. “Even straight liberal historians would feel uncomfortable writing this kind of book. It’s important that we have these stories. My being gay informs my ability to say this.

Beginning with the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and continuing through the presidency of Bill Clinton, Kirchick has spent a decade uncovering long-hidden stories that have been lost to history. At 800 pages, with well over 100 just for notes and sources, Secret City’s scope seems momentous. Although Kirchick found the writing of the book to be overwhelming as he worked to piece together all the information he uncovered, and as he occasionally became angry at the historical wrongs he found, his dominant emotion while working on the project was gratitude. “I feel enormous gratitude for the people who came before. For the people who have been through this pain so that I don’t have to.

Congressman Bob Livingston (right) and John Rhodes discuss the legislation Photography: Capital City Press/Georges Media Group and Baton Rouge, LA.

Kirchick shrewdly points out that fear of homosexuality has been a driving force in presidential politics, operating similarly to other historically recognized forms of prejudice like anti-Semitism and purges of so-called communists. This prejudice was launched with the revelations of the Kinsey Reports in 1948 and 1953, when people suddenly realized that the gay population was far larger than anyone had guessed. Even scarier, they could be anyone. This fear of the “gay next door” fueled stereotypes that gay people are disloyal to the United States, as well as the belief that they were inherently conspiratorial – “if you have three gay people in the room, it’s automatically a conspiracy,” Kirchick said.

A good example of this point is the bizarre story of Bob Livingston. Best known for being forced to resign amid a sex scandal when he was set to succeed Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House when Bill Clinton was impeached, Livingston in 1980 became convinced that gay men working legitimately for Ronald Reagan were actually a sinister cabal secretly controlling him. Kirchick weaves this grim story, which fueled an effort to scuttle Reagan’s presidential nomination in 1980, with a number of gay conspiracy theories attached to the Reagan administration (including one that Reagan himself had sex with another man). Although these allegations are preposterous excesses based on little more than rumor, Kirchick argues that they had the potential to have turned Jimmy Carter’s landslide defeat in the 1980 election into a victory.

Regardless of any plot, Kirchick also reports that the Reagan administration turned out to be “the gayest of any presidential administration to date”, demonstrating two central points of Secret City: the growing acceptance of gay people while throughout the 20th century and their great value in government, even a far-right macho like Reagan. It’s a common irony in stories of LGBTQ+ resilience that the very things that oppressed gays and lesbians – like the need to lead double lives or the isolation that came with not being allowed to marry – were rendered advantageous both for the pursuit of their release and their political career. “During the period documented in this book,” Kirchick said, “the closets were good at producing homosexuals with skills that made them supernaturally equipped to function in Washington—they were good at keeping secrets, had no of family life to distract them, and they were more loyal to those in power.That’s the perverted set of skills the closet could spawn.

Throughout Secret City, Kirchick does a masterful job of conveying the flavor of homophobia in each historical era, while using impeccable research to vividly characterize the dozens of different individuals at play in these stories. This is not just a book about how political power has come to affect the lives of gay men and women; more so, it conveys the texture of an ever-changing world that has constantly controlled homosexuals. It shows how social forces shaped gay lives through constant implicit and explicit threats, the very language gay people had to describe their identity and experience, and harsh control over how they could access sexual practices. that were so central to their identity as human beings. beings.

Rock Hudson with Nancy and Ronald Reagan in 1984
Rock Hudson with Nancy and Ronald Reagan in 1984 Photography: Courtesy of Everett Collection/REX

Because of this rich attention to detail, Secret City also offers a vivid chronicle of the waves of liberation and backlash that characterized the growing acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights in the 20th century. As Kirchick shows, World War II became a national outing of sorts, with homosexuals joining the armed forces in unprecedented numbers. This was followed by a wave of repression in the 1950s, then liberation in the sex-positive 60s, followed by greater repression in the days of Nixon and Reagan, followed by greater freedom during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Across the Secret City sweep, we see homosexuality transform from an absolute career killer into something politicians can be carefully open to.

These waves continue today in Republican efforts to slander LGBTQ+ people as “groomers” and erase the gains trans people have made in access to medical care and social inclusion. Although Kirchick is well aware of the ugly politics of the present, as well as the fragility of the gains LGBTQ+ people have made in society, he ends Secret City on a note of triumph, celebrating the transformative acceptance of gay people as a ” massive achievement”. of liberal society”, and a quintessentially American success story. “I can quote a Gallup poll that self-identified LGBT people doubled,” Kirchick said. “And obviously, there was this explosion of visibility. I can’t predict the future, you can never say never. But in my limited experience, I’m pretty sure there’s never been a better time to be gay in this country.

Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.