In ‘Secret City,’ James Kirchick Guides Us Along Avenues of Power and Glory and Side Streets of Secrecy and Persecution
This is ‘revisionist’ history at its best, not interested in debunking or canceling but, rather, committed to wider vistas. It gives readers not a lesser and dimmer view of the past but a more human and optimistic drama.
“The struggle for gay rights is over,” journalist and author James Kirchick tells the Sun in an extended conversation about his new book, “Secret City: The Hidden Story of Gay Washington,” which is due at the end of the month from Henry Holt.
Even if that struggle has concluded, the task of writing its history is unfinished, and that is the project toward which Mr. Kirchick addresses his formidable talents. Acquainted with two late icons of gay rights and letters — Frank Kameny and Larry Kramer — Mr. Kirchick is well placed to tell a tale that spans class and race and reaches from flophouses to the White House.
Mr. Kirchick, one of the Sun’s most illustrious veterans, has long since established himself as one of America’s leading conservative reportorial journalists. A columnist for Tablet and writer at large for Air Mail, Mr. Kirchick is widely admired on the right and left for his craftsmanship and courage. With “Secret City,” though, he will be catapulted into the ranks of those journalists whose work will be read for generations.
“Secret City” surfaces not just gay history, but the wider story of America in the second half of the 20h century. It intertwines tales of the Cold War, the evolution of America’s capital, and the rise of what came to be known as the gay rights movement. It paints in broad strokes without sacrificing pointillism when it comes to the persons who often get whelmed beneath the prejudice it chronicles.
Mr. Kirchick uncovers a hidden continent of pain, resilience, and roiling drama below the surface of standard fare American history. This is “revisionist” history at its best, not interested in debunking or canceling but, rather, committed to wider vistas. It gives readers not a lesser and dimmer view of the past but a more human and optimistic drama.
“Secret City” covers the swath of American history from FDR to President Clinton, but the veins it opens inform the political and cultural present. It begins as a story of betrayal of American values and concludes with what Mr. Kirchick calls “an unmitigated success” of equal rights and social acceptance.
Mr. Kirchick explains how the idea for this essential book emerged from his passion for Cold War history — he studied with the dean of that field, John Lewis Gaddis, and worked at Radio Free Europe. It also grew from his ties to Washington, D.C., and his own gay identity. These influences and experiences combine to enable Mr. Kirchick to, in his own words, “weave the known and unknown together into a coherent whole.”
“Secret City” comes alive at the intersection of the Red and Lavender Scares, the hunts for communists and gay persons that frequently overlapped, even as the Soviet Union was indeed a deadly enemy. Both were turbocharged by conspiracy theories and reliant on sordid tales of cabals and treachery. From congressional hearings to the FBI and the press, homosexuality was the obessession that dared not speak its name.
Mr. Kirchick explains in vivid terms that “being a gay man was like being a dissident in a communist country. Your meeting place was illegal, your phones were tapped, you were an outlaw, a dissident in your own society.” Being gay in the middle of the 20th century, according to Mr. Kirchick, “was the worst thing you could be in American society and politics.”
Mr. Kirchick discloses that ideologically, “nobody was good on this issue. Everyone was pretty much terrible.” The first notable outing was of a conservative senator named David Walsh in 1942. The ACLU and the New York Post — then a liberal paper — regularly peddled gay smears against those to the right.
There would be no political voice for gay people until the 1970s, when politicians like New York’s Bella Abzug took up that mantle. Only then did the “unholy alliance” between homophobia and Cold War paranoia find effective counterweights. Visibility was the precursor to viability.
While “Secret History” delivers vibrant portraits of such gay figures as diplomat Sumner Welles, Eisenhower adviser Arthur Vandenberg Jr., lawyer Roy Cohn, and the journalist Whittaker Chambers, the book also gains altitude in drawing connections between homosexuality and espionage, vital in the most frigid days of the Cold War. “Secret City” teems with emissaries and spies, secret agents and clandestine convocations.
Mr. Kirchick expands on this convergence between gay identity and spycraft, noting that “being a gay person you grow up learning to intuit and understand codes and innuendo and sense that someone might share your secret. Those are skills that are excellent for espionage.”
In reflecting on what he learned writing the book, Mr. Kirchick homes in on the value of “free expression.” When we closet “not only people but issues,” the consequences are dire. In contrast to the persecution he spotlights in “Secret City,” Mr. Kirchick now believes that he will see a gay president in his lifetime.
Mr. Kirchick observes that opposition to the country’s highest-profile gay politician, Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation, has mostly emanated from what he calls the “queer left” rather than the conservative right, which is put off mainly by the secretary’s policy errors. What was once unthinkable is no longer radical. According to Gallup, 70 percent of Americans, and 55 percent of Republicans, now support gay marriage.
The result of this, Mr. Kirchick reckons, is that “being gay should not inform whether you are on the political right or left.” Rather, “it is possible to be either.” That possibility hatched in “the secret city,” which, Mr. Kirchick writes, was “as much a collection of intangible concepts as it was a topography of physical locations.”
Out of this cartography gridded onto avenues of power and glory and side streets of persecution and secrecy, an American story was written. Not of perfection, but of citizens, known and unknown, who in their own knowledge of who they were discovered an intuition of the America that would yet be.
Mr. Hoffman is an associate editor of the Sun, where he covers politics and culture. He holds a PhD from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford, and was a 2021-2022 Journalism Fellow at the Hartman Institute. He is an adjunct professor at New York University.