How D.C. began to empower gay Americans after Stonewall
Pride Month is long over. These celebrations, held in June, celebrate the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York City when a police raid of a gay bar in Greenwich Village erupted into a days-long protest. Gay men and their supporters began physically resisting the coercive nature of the state, helping to establish a worldwide Gay Rights Movement.
In “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington,” James Kirchick documents a much longer history between the LGBT+ community and the federal government, dating back to the turn of the 20th century. This book, organized by successive presidential administrations, begins its examination with FDR in 1933 and ends with Bill Clinton’s presidency 60 years later.
Scandal is nothing new in politics, and there are moments in “Secret City” that recall “Washington Confidential,” the salacious 1951 exposé that claimed that perversion was rife in the nation’s capital. Archetypically, an administration official – or sympathetic journalist, colleague or fellow traveler – was accused of homosexuality, either through a legal proceeding or more commonly, a whispering campaign. Each administration had its scapegoats, who would declare their innocence, ritualistically receive support from administration officials, and then be dismissed soon afterwards without a proper hearing.
Everything changed after World War II. In 1948, After years of research and thousands of interviews, Alfred Kinsey published the first of his scientific surveys of sexual behaviors. One of the report’s most startling findings was the sheer incidence of homosexual behavior, previously thought of as a rare aberration. Kinsey posited that perhaps 10% of men engaged in homosexual behavior sometime in their lives, with a fewer though significant number of women following suit.
At the height of a Cold War, accusations of homosexuality became weaponized, and the Lavender Menace became as much as a part of political rhetoric as the Red Scare. Richard Nixon accused Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers of nefarious tendencies; Roy Cohn turned gay-baiting into a fine art despite his own proclivities, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover consolidated his power while remaining a lifelong bachelor.
In 1953, Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, prohibiting the employment of sexual perverts in government, citing the heightened security risk that gay men and lesbians posed to the state, with thousands consequently removed from their jobs.
Rather than arguing for their rights – the homophile movement before Stonewall was relatively marginal and ineffective — most lesbians and gay men in government developed personae that rivaled Clark Kent’s. Paradoxically, discrimination helped created the twilight world it feared: Informal codes and signals alerted gay bureaucrats to each other’s presence and in turn, gay networks developed in both the city’s liberal and conservative camps.
Even calamity kept gay omerta intact. Cohn went to his grave insisting on his heterosexuality in spite of his AIDS diagnosis, and the Reagans – who were surrounded by a coterie of gay men who could be described as court eunuchs – stayed quiet during the first seven years of the epidemic until Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor forced the issue. In the aggregate, no one is going to mistake Kirchick’s history for “Profiles in Courage.”
Increasing gay political clout meant that the federal government would take steps to end systematic discrimination. Clinton attempted to lift the gay ban in the military, eventually implementing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy to no one’s satisfaction. LGBT candidates began running for office, and AIDS engendered an increasingly visible political stance in a period when public opinion towards homosexuality was changing. In 1995, Clinton issued Executive Order 12968 that rescinded federal discrimination based on sexual preference, helping pave the way for the repeal of sodomy laws and court decisions that legalized gay marriage.
There are other stories that still need to be told about Washington D.C. The District of Columbia was a majority African American city for most of the 20th century and Kirchick leaves the LGBT+ history of Black Washington largely unexplored, in spite of its fraught relationship to the federal government and civil service.
Nevertheless, “Secret City” is a groundbreaking piece of archival research and lucid exposition. This book deserves to be placed alongside Chauncey’s “Gay New York” and Shilts’ “And the Band Played On” as a seminal exploration of an essential American history.
Tim Haggerty is the director of the Humanities Scholars Program at Carnegie Mellon University.
First Published September 7, 2022, 5:00am