Gays and lesbians have been part of America and its politics since the country’s foundation. Still, historically the stigma attached to homosexuality meant that any person whose alternative desires became publicly known was immediately banished from politics as well as mainstream society. James Kirchick has written an epic narrative history, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, which examines American politics alongside and through the experiences of gays and lesbians in Washington, from the New Deal through the end of the 1990s. In this podcast episode, Kirchick discusses the multiple dimensions in which homosexuals and homophobia impacted American politics, particularly in the mid-20th-century “Lavender Scare,” the purge of gay employees from federal service which took place alongside (and outlasted) the Red Scare. “Even at the height of the Cold War, it was safer to be a Communist than a homosexual,” Kirchick writes. “A Communist could break with the party. A homosexual was forever tainted.”
The podcast also focuses on Frank Kameny, a Harvard-trained astronomer who was fired from the Army Map Service for his sexuality in 1957 and became the first person to challenge his termination on those grounds in court. Kameny formed the Mattachine Society in 1961 to agitate for full civil rights for gays and lesbians. He organized the first picket outside the White House for gay rights in 1965, and was instrumental in getting homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973. Kameny, in Kirchick’s telling, comes across as a radical moderate: radical in the sense that the full participation of gays and lesbians in American society was beyond the conception of even political progressives for most of the 20th century, but moderate in that his crusade sought the fulfillment of rights guaranteed by the Constitution, to be achieved through a politics of respectability rather than liberation.
Kirchick discusses how the politics around homosexuality played a key role during the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. He also considers whether the tremendous gains in both legal equality for and public acceptance of homosexuality in recent years are likely to be reversed by Supreme Court decisions or populist agitation by Republican politicians like Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
James Kirchick: There was this span of time stretching from the New Deal to the turn of the century where homosexuality was really the worst possible secret that you could have if you were living in Washington. If you aspired to a political career, if you aspired to political power in Washington, the most dangerous thing to be was a homosexual.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to The Vital Center podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m really happy to be joined today by James Kirchick. He’s a reporter, columnist, foreign correspondent, and author of two books: 2017’s The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age, and this tremendous new bestseller, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington. Welcome, Jamie.
James Kirchick: Thank you for having me.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s great to have you here. James Kirchick, of course, is your authorial byline, but I’ve known you so long as Jamie that I hope it’s okay that I call you that in this discussion.
James Kirchick: Absolutely, absolutely.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, congratulations again on the publication of Secret City.
James Kirchick: Thank you so much.
Geoff Kabaservice: The New York Times, in a glowing review by Alexandra Jacobs, declared that Secret City “is a luxurious, slow-rolling Cadillac of a book, not to be mastered in one sitting. It would be best read at the violet hour with a snifter of brandy in a wood-paneled library.” I know you know that quote because it’s on your website. I didn’t read this with a snifter of brandy or in a wood-paneled library, but I really and truly enjoyed this book.
James Kirchick: Thanks. I’m more of a Manhattan guy myself, and I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a Cadillac or have any desire to. But I appreciate the compliment.
Geoff Kabaservice: I thought it was a good analogy. Secret City is, in brief, a history of American politics as examined alongside and through the experiences of gays and lesbians in Washington, from the New Deal through the end of the 1990s. And really, Jamie, it’s beautifully written. It obviously draws upon years of research, thousands of pages of declassified documents, a hundred-plus interviews. And that depth of research, combined with your really formidable story-telling abilities and the originality and intrinsic interest of your material, did make this a tremendously absorbing as well as an important book.
James Kirchick: Thank you so much. I’m really gratified by the reaction so far.
Geoff Kabaservice: Have you had a lot of good response to the book so far?
James Kirchick: Oh yeah, absolutely. Not just critically, but also just from regular readers, which is really the best feedback I believe one can get as an author.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s great. Can you tell me something about the genesis of the book?
James Kirchick: So I traced the interest I had in this subject back to my days as a student at Yale, where I was a student of John Lewis Gaddis, who’s really the dean of Cold War studies. And I’ve always been very interested in the Cold War — really all aspects of it, domestically and internationally. And I took Professor Gaddis’ survey class on the Cold War, and I also took a somewhat different class he taught: it was a seminar on the writing of biography. It was called “The Art of Biography,” because he himself is George Kennan’s biographer, a book he won the Pulitzer Prize for. And in this class we read a biography every week and discussed it. And then the final term paper was a biography of any figure, living or dead, whose papers were held at Yale. And I chose Larry Kramer, who recently… well, he died in 2020. But he was a playwright, a screenwriter, a novelist, and probably most famously an AIDS activist.
He founded two very critical organizations. The first, called Gay Men’s Health Crisis, was founded in his living room in Greenwich Village, right at the outset of the AIDS epidemic in 1982. And then he was also a founder of the organization ACT UP, the much more radical street-protest group. And he had just donated his papers to Yale. I thought Larry would be a fitting subject for me, and I got to know him through this paper that I wrote. I was interviewing him, going through his papers. And Larry was very interested in gay history and this sort of idea that gay people had been excluded from serious historical scholarship, both through their own desire to hide themselves, given the times in which they lived, but also just through the selections and the ignorance of historians, who are mostly straight and might not have felt a need to record these stories or understood the significance that homosexuality itself as an idea has played in American history.
And so I didn’t come up with the idea for this book until a couple years after I graduated from Yale, when I was living in Washington and really understanding how important secrecy is in Washington as sort of a form of currency and as a way to accumulate power. Secrecy, I think, is the most probably important currency in this city, at least during the Cold War era that I was most interested in.
But I really trace it back to that experience at Yale and sort of this merging of my interest in Cold War history but also my interest in gay history, and realizing that there was this span of time stretching from the New Deal to the turn of the century where homosexuality was really the worst possible secret that you could have if you were living in Washington. If you aspired to a political career, if you aspired to political power in Washington, the most dangerous thing to be was a homosexual. And I realized no one had really approached this from a narrative history perspective. There was one book on the Lavender Scare, which is the purge of homosexuals from the federal government in the 1950s, that actually was concurrent with the Red Scare but stretched on much longer. There was one academic book published about that, but there’s really nothing else.
And the more reading and research I did, I realized that homosexuality has had an impact on so many things in American public life: politics, public policy; foreign policy from the New Deal to the rise of the national security state; World War II; the Whitaker Chambers-Alger Hiss case; the rise of McCarthyism; the Kennedy-Camelot social circle; Richard Nixon’s paranoia; the Georgetown social scene, which people are fascinated with in the ‘60s and ‘70s; the Reagans in particular, their whole social world; AIDS… I mean, I’ve just given you kind of a list of things chronologically that my book touches upon, and no one had put this all together, really, into a sweeping narrative history. And I figured, you know what? It’s going to be a very daunting project, but it’ll be a fascinating one. And I committed myself to doing it about a little over ten… I’m trying to think… I probably came up with the idea in 2009 and I didn’t really start the book in earnest until 2014-15, just to give you an idea of the timeframe.
Geoff Kabaservice: I feel like that’s when I remember you talking to me about it.
James Kirchick: So a long time ago, yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: That sounds about right. I want to say one thing here, Jamie. You have sort of this identity now as a historian, and a really formidable one…
James Kirchick: Thank you.
Geoff Kabaservice: But you also had come up to this, so to speak, as a kind of polemical journalist, often a very hard-hitting one, even since your undergraduate years. And one of the many impressive things about this book is your ability to balance empathy for your subjects without descending into presentism or allowing your own personal politics to color your analysis in any way that I could detect. And this is I think a book that people who might disagree with you on any number of issues could still read and appreciate.
James Kirchick: Thank you very much. And it was a challenge for me, actually… One of the most challenging things was just sort of harnessing the prose style, because it was not one that I was used to. As you say, I came up as a polemical journalist. And I’ve done a lot of reporting too, but mostly of the sort of opinion-journalism type of work. And writing narrative history was just a completely different skill that I needed to learn. And what I did was I just read a lot of it. I read a lot of Robert Caro, who I think is the master at this. And his work on Lyndon Johnson — his multi-volume, ongoing biography of Lyndon Johnson — was really sort what I considered to be the gold standard of this type of history writing, and the type that I wanted to emulate. And so that’s really what I was going for with this book.
Geoff Kabaservice: I mean, we could have an interesting discussion as to whether this book might not have turned out to be worse if you’d actually got a Ph.D. and the kind of academic orientation that people have nowadays. But one thing I can attest personally is to your archival research abilities, because that was after all how we met.
James Kirchick: Yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: I worked my way through graduate school as Sam Tanenhaus’ research assistant on the still-in-process biography that he’s writing on William F. Buckley Jr. And you were, so to speak, the person to whom I passed the torch as Sam’s research assistant.
James Kirchick: Yeah. I actually developed my love of archival research working for Sam. I started doing that as a sophomore at Yale. I’d never been to an archive before. I mean, you don’t do archival work in high school, and you don’t really do it in college unless there’s some sort of project that you’re working on. So this was before the Larry Kramer project I took on. If you could probably possibly think of two more different subjects, by the way, Larry Kramer and William F. Buckley Jr., both of whose papers are at Yale… So I started working on Buckley’s run for mayor of New York in 1965. He had dozens of boxes just on that race alone.
And I had so much fun doing that, just being transported back in time not through reading a book but through the actual documents themselves, the first draft of history. Well, not the first draft — I mean, they say journalism is the first draft of history. This is whatever precedes that. The actual historical documents and dealing with them and reading them — that’s really where I developed my love of archival research. And some of my best… I mean, I think the story that I probably am most famous for as a journalist was soon after graduating college, I went to work at The New Republic and I discovered these old, crazy conspiratorial newsletters that Ron Paul, the presidential candidate who was running at the time in 2008 for the Republican nomination… He had published these really off-the-charts conspiratorial newsletters in the ‘70s and the ‘80s and up to the ‘90s. And I discovered them in archives.
And so I was very lucky to have had that experience in college in sort of learning how to use archives and understanding their use as a writer and as a journalist. And some of the best stories you’ll find are not necessarily stories that are ongoing. There are things that happened decades ago that have never been told before. And that’s sort of what I did. That’s definitely what I did with the Ron Paul story, and it’s what I’ve done with this book. I mean, I’ve done a lot of archival research. Some things have been reported before, but a lot has not. It’s fresh, it’s new.
Geoff Kabaservice: It really is. And I was actually reminded of that journalistic sleuthing episode you describe, when you found Ron Paul’s newsletters I think at the University of Kansas and maybe the Wisconsin Historical Society.
James Kirchick: Both of those, yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: Because in this book you actually have one chapter which relies heavily on “Deep Backgrounder,” which is this scurrilous little tabloid published in DC in the early ‘90s, which tried to whip up a series of scandals about gay prostitution rings and Soviet espionage and has more or less been completely forgotten. And yet you found those issues.
James Kirchick: I found three issues of them, in fact, I think in three different libraries or maybe two. One was actually the same University of Kansas collection. There’s a great collection, the Laird Wilcox collection, on either far right or political extremism — it may be everything extremist, far left, far right. That’s where Ron Paul’s newsletters were. That’s where this issue of the “Deep Backgrounder” was. And then I think it was the University of Oregon that also had an issue. I searched far and wide and I could only turn up three issues of this very scurrilous newsletter that was published in the early 1980s. But yeah, that was something that I had read about. I’d read about the newsletter. It was mentioned in sort of mainstream newspaper reports writing about these… It was a page sex scandal in 1982, and this “Deep Backgrounder” was sort of fomenting it. And it was mentioned in a couple of news stories in the Washington Post and the AP.
And that’s an example of, well, let’s actually find this newsletter. I bet there’s lots of other stuff in it that will be of interest, and it’ll give you a tenor and sort of a flavor of what’s going on at the time, what was the mood at the time. And that’s really what a lot of this work was doing in writing this book. It’s reading a biography, a well-known biography or an autobiography, or a well-known book, or reading the Washington Post and the New York Times — the things that everyone is reading — and then saying, well, what are they referring to that less people are reading, right? Is there a newsletter? Is there a diary? Is there an administration official who’s long been forgotten who maybe has a memoir or has a personal papers collections at some library somewhere? And I’ll find that.
Particularly when you’re doing a book about historical homosexuality, people didn’t want to write about everything that was going on in their lives. They had to disguise it. Oftentimes, families after a gay person died might destroy materials because they were ashamed of their relatives’ sexual orientation or whatnot. So it required, yes, a lot of digging around and sleuthing and trying to get people to open up.
Geoff Kabaservice: And bringing new eyes even to some subjects that had been fairly extensively covered. So it is true, as you mentioned, that the Lavender Scare began with and outlasted the Red Scare. And there were something like 10,000 terminations, seven to ten thousand?
James Kirchick: Yes, in the 1950s. It’s very hard to get a number on this just because there’s so many different federal departments that were firing gay people, and not all of them were really keeping explicit records right about this. So it’s hard to know. I think it’s safe to say that the numbers of people fired for being gay or being suspected as being gay were at least as high as the number of people fired who were suspected of having communist or left-wing affiliations.
Geoff Kabaservice: Which would’ve been about perhaps 15,000 or thereabouts.
James Kirchick: Yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. So this is something that people tend not to… I guess when it was taught, it just wasn’t mentioned as much that there was this almost equivalent number of firings for what was called “perversity” at the time or “deviation.” And we both worked for Sam Tannin-House and you’re completely correct to say that Sam is one of the most knowledgeable thinkers, really, on 20th-century politics. But of course he first made his name with his biography of Whitaker Chambers, which is a great book, but he hadn’t thought as deeply as you had in this book about the sexual dimension of the Chambers hearings and Roy Cohn’s role in that as well. I wonder if you could just talk about how you brought new eyes to that often replayed episode.
James Kirchick: Yeah. So Whitaker Chambers was both a gay man and a communist in the 1930s in both of these sorts of lives that he led. These two secret lives were coterminous and they ended around the same time too. I mean, he left the Communist Party in 1937. He also claimed to the FBI later on that he had sort of stopped living as a homosexual around the same time — although interestingly he said that this was coincidental; it was not connected that these two secret lives ended at the same time.
So by the time 10 years later, 11 years later when he accuses Alger Hiss of being a communist spy, immediately Hiss is insinuating that Chambers is a spurned homosexual. In the public statement that he delivers to HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, he refers to Chambers as a “queer” person four times. Now, you have to understand this word “queer” did not necessarily imply a homosexual in 1948, although it could be used in that sense. The fact that he used it four times I think is suggestive. And then immediately after those hearings in 1948, the Hiss team begins receiving information that Chambers had a homosexual life. They start investigating this.
Word gets back to Chambers that this is being investigated, and it might have played a role in a suicide attempt that he made. He writes about this suicide attempt in Witness, his excellent memoir. And he refers to a “terrible accusation” that was being whispered about him. He doesn’t name it in the book, but one can assume that it was probably the accusation that he was a homosexual. So we know that it played a very important role in this case. It’s never explicitly brought up at the time. It’s not brought up in either of Hiss’ two perjury trials, although there is a lot of insinuation. The Hiss team tries to tar Chambers as a psychopath, as a lunatic. They refer to him as a leper — “a moral leper” is the term that they use. They were afraid of explicitly waging the accusation, I think because if they were to accuse Chambers of having been a homosexual it might lead to what was referred to as perhaps a boomerang effect, that it would bounce back on Hiss because people might start asking, “Well, if Chambers was a homosexual, then maybe he met Hiss through a homosexual connection. Maybe it wasn’t a communist connection, maybe it was the underground gay world where these two men met.”
And so it was too risky for the Hiss team to mention it explicitly, but it was very much present in sort of Washington DC-New York political media circles. It was very known what was going on. You can read Arthur Schlesinger and Diana Trilling: in their memories of the case they allude to the homosexual charge. They don’t say it explicitly, again, because it was such a terrible thing. Chambers was still alive — he lived until 1960, I believe — so no one wanted to discuss this openly while he was still alive. But it was absolutely… it played a role in the case. And it played a role, I think, in sort of shaping what would become a cultural archetype of the traitorous, homosexual communist, which becomes a real cultural archetype in the McCarthy era. It starts a little earlier. It starts with the Hiss-Chambers case.
Geoff Kabaservice: You point out in your book that 1948 is actually a pretty critical year, for various reasons…
James Kirchick: Yes, for homosexuality.
Geoff Kabaservice: Right. It’s in that year, for example, that the Kinsey Report comes out, which states that 10% of American men were more or less exclusively homosexual. It’s also the year that Gore Vidal publishes his novel The City and The Pillar, which is the first major novel to feature a gay protagonist.
But it’s also when you see the national security state forming in response to the Cold War, which in turn brings this emphasis on treachery and secrecy — which is colored by homosexuality, again in a way that I hadn’t fully appreciated before reading your book.
James Kirchick: Yeah, that’s all happening in 1948. 1947, I believe, is the first year that homosexuals were fired from the State Department, but it doesn’t become public until 1950, three years later. On February 9th, 1950, Joe McCarthy delivers his very infamous speech to the Republican Ladies of Wheeling, West Virginia, where he claims to have a list with the names of 205 communists in the State Department. And then just a couple weeks later, the Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, is called up to Capitol Hill to testify about these accusations. And he brings along a deputy undersecretary of State named John Peurifoy, who just in passing — he’s being asked about the various types of people who’ve been separated, terminated from the State Department — he mentions that 91 had been separated for this sort of morals question. And he’s pressed to explain what he’s referring to, and he says homosexuals.
And so this is really when the Lavender Scare begins, and it sets off a frenzy. And there’s a report that of the thousands and thousands of letters and telegrams and messages that Joe McCarthy is receiving at the time from people all across the country, only 25% of them are concerned primarily with the communist threat. 75% are concerned about the “pervert” threat. And they become conflated in the public imagination.
And a Senate committee is called to investigate and come up with a solution to this problem. They call witnesses, they call the head of the CIA, they call various supposed experts. They call the chief of the Washington DC police, a character out of central casting named Roy Blick, whose job is basically… He runs the vice squad of the Metropolitan Police Department, and he’s basically tasked with entrapment operations, arresting gay men in Washington DC. And they come out with a report later that year recommending the elimination — that is the term they used — of homosexuals from all federal government departments. That does not become codified until 1953, after the election of Dwight Eisenhower.
And I should say that in the 1952 presidential election, this becomes one of the issues that the Republicans are running on. Their slogan is to “Clean Up the Mess in Washington,” and they’re referring not just to the corruption of the Truman administration. It’s also to the sort of moral depravity. And the State Department in this period of time also becomes the butt of jokes. In fact, there’s a cartoon I read about in the New Yorker — and again, this is one of the themes in the book, that liberals and progressives and high-minded, open-minded people were no less homophobic than right-wingers at this time. So there’s a cartoon in the New Yorker and it shows a man applying for a job, and he’s saying to the guy interviewing him, “It’s true, sir, I was fired from the State Department, but it was for incompetence.” And so that’s how sort of well-known… It was so much in the zeitgeist at the time that “lavender lads” is the term that was used by Everett Dirksen and McCarthy to describe State Department officials.
And there’s even J. Edgar Hoover, who obviously looms large over this book… He is spreading rumors that Adlai Stevenson, the divorced, sort of intellectual former diplomat who’s running for president on the Democratic ticket — there’s three strikes against him — he’s spreading rumors that Adlai Stevenson is a homosexual. So homosexuality plays a role in the 1952 presidential election. And I think it’s safe to say it was the first American election in which homosexuality would play a role — certainly not the last. And shortly after coming into office, Dwight Eisenhower signs Executive Order 10453, which bars gay people from serving in any federal government job and explicitly prohibits them from holding security clearances. And that’s the real sort of…
Geoff Kabaservice: And it wasn’t repealed until 1995, was it?
James Kirchick: The ban on gays in the civil service was repealed in 1975. The ban on gays in security clearances was, that’s correct, not until 1995. That is one of the facts that shocks a lot of people as I’ve been discussing this book. Most people don’t realize that ban was in effect for so long.
Geoff Kabaservice: It is shocking. And again, there’s some psychological aspect to the anti-homosexual panic as well as the anti-communist panic that’s hard to recapture now because it’s a matter of sensibility. But I think you got at it in a quote from Hoover that you have in your book where he said: “Communism in reality is not a political party. It is a way of life, an evil and malignant way of life. It reveals a condition akin to disease that spreads like an epidemic. And like an epidemic, quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting the nation.” And of course this epidemic was all the more threatening because one could not tell by looking at a person whether or not they were a homosexual or a communist.
James Kirchick: Yes. And that’s one of the reasons why the Kinsey Report, I think, is so important. Because that shocks the country, the notion that 10% of the male population might be gay. It comes as a very rude awakening because it means that the milk man, the schoolteacher, the politician — any of them could be a homosexual. It’s not just the creepy guys hanging around in public parks and criminals. We’re talking one in ten.
And so yes, what do homosexuals and communists share? They’re subversives, in different ways, against society. They can hide. You can’t just tell a communist by looking at them. The same goes for a homosexual. Of course, some of them are very easy to spot out, as J. Edgar Hoover would say later to LBJ: “It’s in the way they walk. You can tell some of them by the way they walk.” But that’s not all of them. I mean, if one in ten is what we’re talking about, then that’s a vast number of people. And so yes, it does very much become a panic.
Geoff Kabaservice: Parenthetically, you also mention that it was worse to be a homosexual in America in the Cold War than it was to be a communist even, because communists could repent.
James Kirchick: Yes. And I think Whittaker Chambers is the sort of example of this in one person. He could come out, so to speak, as a former communist, and become one of the leading figures in American conservatism. He could never have come out as a former homosexual. That would’ve destroyed him, destroyed his credibility. And it was a secret that he kept with him to his grave. And that would not come out publicly until 1975, I believe, when the FBI file — the FBI confession that he wrote out because he was concerned that the Hiss forces might publicize this, and so he wanted to be upfront and to warn the FBI in advance; that’s how we know about his gay life, was his confession — that wouldn’t come out until 1975 through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Geoff Kabaservice: Right. The Senate committee to which you referred came out and said that homosexuals were security risks for three principle reasons. First of all, the claim would be that they could be easily blackmailed by the Soviets or other enemies. There actually was no real proof of this having happened. If anything, it seems to have relied on myths inherited from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
James Kirchick: Yes. There was one story about the head of counterintelligence for Austro-Hungarian Empire, a man named Colonel Alfred Redl, who in 1913, just a year before the First World War began, was discovered as having spied for the Russians. And it actually later turned out that… It’s true that he was spying for the Russians, but it was not because he was being blackmailed over his homosexuality. It was because he was greedy. He had very expensive tastes: multiple cars, a giant wine cellar, multiple houses. But it was in the interest of the Austro-Hungarian regime to spread this word that he had been compromised, because it was very embarrassing that the head of their own counterintelligence service, the man whose job it was to snoop out spies himself, was himself a spy. So they popularized this notion that Colonel Redl was a homosexual traitor who was induced into treason through blackmail.
That record wouldn’t be corrected until after the end of the Cold War, by the way, when the Russian archives opened. But it becomes a very powerful myth, particularly on someone like Allen Dulles, who was the first civilian director of the CIA. He was a young diplomat in Vienna in the World War I period, and he would later recall how the stench of Colonel Redl and his treason in homosexuality was still very pungent in that city — it was something that was very deeply felt — and he was blamed for the war, he was blamed for the battlefield losses of Austria-Hungary against Russia. They blamed it on Redl.
So the Redl story becomes a very powerful myth within intelligence and government circles. He’s paradigmatic example of the homosexual traitor. And when the head of the CIA at the time, in 1950 — this was before Dulles became head of the CIA, this was an army colonel who at the time was head of the CIA — he’s asked for examples, and he can only come up with the Redl case. And later, in the early ’90s, when the gays in the military debate was very much in the news, the Defense Department commissioned a study, I believe by the RAND corporation, or it might have been another think tank. And they analyzed over 100 cases of Americans committing espionage, and there were only six who were gay, and not a single one of them did it under threat of blackmail. It was all because of ideology or money. It had nothing to do with being blackmailed. So there’s actually no evidence of this ever happening in the United States.
And in fact, there’s a quite important case that I document that indicated the opposite. A man named Joseph Alsop, who was an extremely influential journalist in Cold War Washington… He was a widely syndicated newspaper columnist, he was a friend of the Roosevelts, a very close friend of Jack Kennedy…
Geoff Kabaservice: I believe Kennedy actually came over to Alsop’s house after his inauguration.
James Kirchick: Absolutely. And he was very much at the center of the Georgetown social world, and he was very much an anti-communist Cold Warrior. And in 1957, he was visiting Moscow on a reporting trip, and he had interviewed Khrushchev on this trip. And at one point he was lured into a honey trap with a handsome young man, and photographs were taken. KGB agents basically burst into the hotel room, and they tried to force him to become an informant.
And what he did, under massive pressure — he later would recall that he was considering suicide at that moment — what he did was he wrote out a confession about his entire, about being a gay person, dating back… he said that he was an incurable homosexual since youth. He writes this all out in explicit detail, the sort of tradecraft that the Soviets had used to ensnare him in this honey trap. He writes this all out for the CIA. So he does exactly what a gay person in such circumstances would’ve been expected to do by the sort of leaders of our national security state. He did not become a traitor. He did not crumble under pressure and become a spy for the Soviets in Washington. He confessed to the CIA. And this had no bearing whatsoever on government policy. So here they have a very important example of someone actually doing what they would’ve wanted a gay person to do. But it had no impact on the policy.
Geoff Kabaservice: The other two claims of the Hoey Committee were, second, that homosexuals lacked the “moral fiber” and “emotional stability” of “normal” persons, which you would think the Alsop example would’ve refuted…
James Kirchick: Yes, absolutely.
Geoff Kabaservice: But then also the third point I found quite interesting: it was that homosexual loyalty to their own kind superseded their loyalty to their country. And to some extent, this actually comes out of what you communicate in the book, which was that gay society, underground though it was, was in some ways more egalitarian than the regular society. There was no color line there. There was no social selectivity.
James Kirchick: Yes. I think this was actually something that was also deemed as threatening to the people in power that’s gone unremarked upon, which is that homosexuality was seen as transcending all social barriers, whether it was racial lines, class lines, or national lines. And you see this being referred to repeatedly throughout history, this belief that the homosexual will sleep with anyone, regardless of their skin color. You’ll find rich white Southerners chasing after Negro men, and how horrifying this is to them. This term “Homintern” becomes popularized in the early 1950s; it’s a riff on the Comintern, the Communist International. Well, now there’s a Homosexual International, and that homosexuals are loyal not to their nations but to their own kind. And it transcends boundaries, national boundaries. This is quite similar to anti-Semitism and the belief that Jews are cosmopolitans, right? Rootless cosmopolitans who are not loyal to their native lands but to one another, or to the state of Israel. You see a very similar kind of bigotry forming around homosexuals.
Geoff Kabaservice: Absolutely. Let me just circle back around to some of those questions, then, that I wanted to ask you about yourself, Jamie. I think you come from Massachusetts?
James Kirchick: Yes, I do.
Geoff Kabaservice: But you are yourself, I think, too young to really have any real memory of the Cold War, even though the Cold War has formed so much of your professional existence and imaginative space.
James Kirchick: I was born in 1983, so yeah, I didn’t remember much. I definitely remember growing up… I think my most distinct memory of the Cold War was Mikhail Gorbachev’s head and the birthmark on his head. And I found that… I just remember that. And I remember that being the most that I would probably know about the Cold War at the time, that there was this sort of maybe gentle foreign leader; he was sort of portrayed as having a gentle manner. And why is he being portrayed this way? Well, it must mean that what came before him was very bad, perhaps, and very evil and whatnot.
But yeah, I don’t think I really became interested in the Cold War… I’m trying to think… probably not until I went to Yale, actually. I was probably studying the Cold War under John Gaddis when I think I became interested in it professionally, and thinking this might be something I would want to pursue intellectually in my career.
Geoff Kabaservice: And what was it that you found so compelling?
James Kirchick: Well, it was something… It was a global conflict in which ideas really mattered, and I’ve always been interested in the history of ideas. This was a moral struggle with shades of gray. It was a global struggle in which it wasn’t just armies and nuclear weapons that were important, but intellectuals were important and writers were important.
Actually, I might date my interest in the Cold War a little bit earlier, perhaps. I remember being transfixed as a young boy reading 1984. I think I probably read that in seventh or eighth grade. And I read that knowing that it was sort of a dystopian book, but at the same time it was about a real society; it was based on the Soviet Union at the time. And that’s probably actually where my interest in the Cold War began, after reading 1984.
And then understanding that, yes, this was a global conflict in which ideas were very important, and writers and intellectuals were important. I wanted to be a writer, and so I could sort see myself in a person like George Orwell, going overseas — and in his case taking up arms — but being very engaged in the world and taking a side, and fighting for what was right. That doesn’t necessarily mean taking the side of the United States, but it meant taking the side of certain ideas like freedom and liberty and individual rights, against that of collectivism and totalitarianism. And I found that just a very dramatic struggle.
Geoff Kabaservice: How would you define yourself politically? And has that changed at all over time?
James Kirchick: I mean, my political consciousness began, I would say, like most young men, very left wing. In the 1990s, in high school, I became very involved in Amnesty International and letter-writing campaigns to free political prisoners and whatnot. And in the 2000 election, I was a volunteer for Ralph Nader, the Green Party.
Geoff Kabaservice: There’s a certain irony there…
James Kirchick: Yeah, but I worked on other Democratic campaigns in Massachusetts. And then after 9/11, I would say I went through a bit of a conversion, like many people. I was, and maybe still to this day, but I’m certainly a very kind of second-wave neocon, very heavily influenced by someone like Christopher Hitchens, who was going through a similar transformation. Andrew Sullivan in that period. The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, where I would later go to work, was also swept up in that civilizational struggle against militant Islam, which now 20 years later… I don’t want to say it was foolish, because… I think it’s accurate to say that it is a civilizational — well, I don’t know if I’d use the word struggle. But clearly there were extremely… How do I put this? What we were battling in militant jihadism was profound and it was very immoral, but it’s clearly not what’s determining the fate of humanity and global politics today 20 years later.
We thought at the time, or people were describing it — across the political spectrum I think it’s fair to say… In the years after 9/11, you could see in the way in which the federal government was allocating its resources, in the numbers of students who were signing up to take Arabic and Persian and Middle Eastern languages, that this was being portrayed as the next Cold War. It was this sort of generational struggle against militant Islam. Now that’s clearly not the case. I don’t think anyone would describe the global situation, the global order now as being threatened primarily by militant Islam. I think we’ve now returned to a period of great power competition, primarily with China but also with Russia.
Geoff Kabaservice: I don’t think I ever thought that Islam presented a civilizational challenge to America or the West as a whole. But we are speaking in the wake of an attack on Salman Rushdie at Chautauqua…
James Kirchick: Yes, you’re right. You’re absolutely right.
Geoff Kabaservice: My God, he was stabbed ten times, but it seems like he’ll pull through. But I remember 30 years ago when the fatwa was first placed on him, and I remember thinking that the West’s flabby and flaccid response to this challenge to liberal democracy boded poorly for the future. And I still think that.
James Kirchick: Absolutely. I think where I got swept up in, along with a lot of other kind of neocons, was in the war on Iraq, certain sort of state-level kinetic campaigns to combat this, which 20 years onwards are not necessarily looking so good. And that might have not been the right response to something like the Rushdie… No one is seriously suggesting that we overthrow the Iranian regime in response to the attack on Salman Rushdie. Well, some people are arguing that… And I think I should say, I do think it should be our long-term goal should be regime change in Iran, but not through necessarily military means. We shouldn’t go to war over this. We should certainly be reacting in other ways.
But yes, I was very much sort of… That’s really where my interests were politically I would say was in that kind of project, that sort of neocon project in the early 2000s. And then I was working at The New Republic and writing for lots of other publications. And then in 2010, my career sort of took a change and I was able to really act on my Cold War fascination when I got a job at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is one of the great Cold War legacy institutions that still exists, based in Prague.
And so I moved to Prague and worked as a writer-at-large throughout the periphery of Russia, the former Soviet Union, stretching all the way into central Asia. And then I lived in Germany for a year and a half. I would say that my political interests, my geopolitical interests have always been quite broad. That broadened them and I became sort of a Europeanist, if you will. And my first book was based on my time living and reporting on Europe in that period of time, basically since the end of the Cold War. That’s basically what that first book is about.
And politically now I would say I consider myself center-right. Very much a Never Trumper, I guess, in the sense that I would never vote for Donald Trump. I don’t really identify as a Never Trumper because I think that has all sorts of other political connotations that I might not necessarily subscribe to. But honestly, I’m thinking of myself less politically as a writer, really, since tackling this book — probably because I just have been forced to focus on history, not to the exclusion of but certainly focusing less on politics and current events just because I’ve been focused on the history so much.
And I also think as you get older, you should become more skeptical and more cognizant of the complexity of the world. And so that’s put me in the mushy middle on a lot of things, and it’s hard. There are a few issues on where I am militant, free speech being most prominent among them, which is why I absolutely agree with you that what happened to Salman Rushdie on Friday was an obscenity and it really shook me in a way that few other things do when you see a fellow writer attacked physically on stage at a place like the Chautauqua Institution of all places. It really does send a shiver down your spine.
But yeah, I don’t have really strong views on what to do about inflation or healthcare in this country. A lot of things I don’t necessarily have strong views on, certainly on domestic politics. And increasingly global politics now I think have become also much more complicated than they were during the Cold War. I think that’s actually why there’s a lot of Cold War nostalgia, because…
Geoff Kabaservice: Things were simpler then.
James Kirchick: Things were simpler then. Yes, there were gray areas, as I said before, and the United States and the West was certainly not unblemished. But it was pretty clear who were the good guys and the bad guys in that struggle. And certainly I think, at the end of the day, we’re obviously the good guys when it comes to China or Russia. But it’s just a much more… There are a lot of more gray areas, I think. And it’s a lot more confusing global situation on what strategies to adopt, how to deal with, in the case of China, a rising power; in the case of Russia, a declining one. It’s just a more complicated world scene now than it was when the world was just divided into the free world and the unfree world.
Geoff Kabaservice: Parenthetically, we met up in Berlin once and you said how much more interesting it was than Prague.
James Kirchick: Well, that’s certainly true. Yeah, absolutely.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’ve got to say, I remember reading your undergraduate journalism and being really impressed in the sense that you actually seemed to be a fully-formed thinker, even as a teenager, which I found kind of astonishing.
James Kirchick: I’m not sure that’s a good trait, necessarily.
Geoff Kabaservice: Maybe not. But granted that you may not necessarily want to revisit all of the episodes around the battles within the college between more conservative students and more left faculty — which was a strange dynamic at the time — but there also were divisions within the gay community on things like the use of the word “queer” to describe this, and whether Gay Studies should go in sort of a left direction. And I remember you writing against the Larry Kramer Initiative’s having sponsored a symposium on Michael Jackson as kind of a gay figure.
James Kirchick: Well, that was actually… Yeah, I think it was a conference called “Queering Michael Jackson.” And this is actually one of the ways in which I bonded with Larry, because the money for that Initiative had been given by his brother, and what Larry wanted was very straightforward (so to speak): he wanted the study of gay people in history. That’s how he understood Gay and Lesbian Studies. He wanted, say, a historian like George Chauncey, an academic historian who wrote the book Gay New York investigating how did gay people live? What was homosexuality like? How was it experienced? How were gay people treated? What were their roles, their contributions, and whatnot?
And what unfortunately happened — this often happens with academic programs — is that it went in a completely different direction. It basically became a kind of queer theory laboratory. And there was this multi-day conference on the queering of, or the understanding of Michael Jackson as a queer figure. And I should say that this conference was taken — this is crazy to say this — it was taking place amidst his pedophilia trial. So I just found it flabbergasting and kind of crazy. Larry did as well. And that’s sort of how we got to know each other.
But yes, I did write a column for the Yale Daily News opposing the use of the word queer or it’s sort of adoption or reclamation by gay activists. And it’s a position I still stand by almost 20 years later. I don’t like that word. I actually have a footnote on the second… the one and only footnote of my book is on the second page, where I explain the terminology that I use in the book. Because there are a lot of people who will probably be shocked by the use of the word “homosexual,” because that’s not a word we use anymore, really. It’s sort of clinical.
But I think it’s accurate, when you’re writing history, to use the language that people used at the time. And the word “queer” at the time that I’m writing about, from the 1930s onward, was a derogatory term. It was often the last word that a gay man would hear before having his lights punched out. I also oppose the word today for its transgressiveness. That’s what the word means. It basically means weird, odd. And I understand that there are gay people who want to embrace that. They’re perfectly entitled to. But I don’t appreciate it being used to describe the entire community of homosexuals or gay people. I think “gay” is a perfectly neutral term.
It also has radical political connotations. You don’t see anyone center or center-right or conservative — I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of those people use the word “queer” to describe themselves. It’s one exclusively used by people really on the left and extreme left side of the political spectrum. So I do resent that this word, which is really used mostly by activists, is now being basically — it’s almost being written into the style guides of our nation’s newspapers with really no input from outside.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think in a sense this is relevant because the only critics I’ve seen of your book are people who seem to resent that you’re writing the history of gays and lesbians as American history, rather than from the peculiar perspective of Gay Studies programs. And this is something that I really like about the book, to be honest. And to go back to another episode from your past, in 2009 I think it was, you were in Washington to see a ceremony when the Office of Personnel Management, which was the successor organization to the Civil Service Commission, apologized to Frank Kameny. The CSE, as it was then, had been the arm of the bureaucracy that was responsible for purging gay people across the civil service. And in 1957, it had terminated Frank’s federal employment with the Army Map Service, which was more or less the predecessor of today’s Geospatial Intelligence Agency. Can you tell me something about Frank Kameny and how you came to be at that ceremony?
James Kirchick: Yeah. So Frank Kameny was fired in 1957, and he becomes the first gay person to challenge his firing by the federal government. And he’s not successful. He tries to appeal it up to the Supreme Court, but they won’t hear the case. Interestingly, he tried to get the ACLU to take his case, and even the ACLU would not take his case. This goes back to the point we were talking about earlier about how it was worse to be a homosexual than a communist. The ACLU would take the cases of communists or people accused of communism. They didn’t take the case of a homosexual, which basically meant that they were okay with the government’s policy of eliminating homosexuals. So Frank really becomes the first gay activist in the United States. He starts the Mattachine Society…
Geoff Kabaservice: In the Hay-Adams Hotel.
James Kirchick: In the Hay-Adams Hotel, room 120 of the Hay-Adams Hotel. 1961 is when they have their first meeting, which I think is important to note: it’s eight years before Stonewall. And he is organizing the first picket outside the White House for gay rights in 1965. And thereafter followed pickets outside the State Department, the Defense Department, the Civil Service Commission.
The organization did not last very long; it sort of petered out. But it’s very important. He played an extremely important role. And it was extremely moving to see this ceremony, where the First Lady, Michelle Obama, was there. The head of OPM at the time happened to be a gay man, so there’s a very kind of poignant aspect to this. And that was something… One of the other sort of epiphanic moments about maybe why I would want to write a book like this was seeing that ceremony, seeing the federal government apologize to this man, Frank, who at the time was in his late seventies or early eighties.
He was just an incredible figure, an incredibly stubborn figure. And I think… To think about what it was like in 1957 — when you have the entirety of the American society, establishment, the medical profession, the media, organized religion, all aspects of the government… For a man to say, “I’m not the sick one, you are sick. The society is sick.” And to see that vindicated is just an incredible story.
And it’s hard to think, frankly, of another issue on which there has been a more dramatic transformation — not only in public opinion, but in society — than on our attitude towards homosexuality. It’s really hard for me to think of something, beyond maybe scientific understandings of how the universe works. In terms of what the laymen, here on earth, it’s hard to think of anything about which we’ve had a more sweeping positive change than our attitude about this very natural aspect of human existence.
Geoff Kabaservice: It is astonishing to see how polling data shows the public’s opinion changing both on gay marriage and then also on opinion of homosexuals. It’s interesting… Andrew Sullivan interviewed you when you were in Provincetown on your book tour, where I see ran into John Waters, by the way.
James Kirchick: Yes, a couple weeks later, yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: Lucky you. But Andrew also knew Frank Kameny and said maybe it was the fact that he seemed to have been on the spectrum that led him simply not to put up with this injustice and to ruin himself in the course of setting right this wrong.
James Kirchick: Yeah. Actually, I got to know Frank a bit before he died in 2011. I was on an email listserve with him and I met him a couple times and I interviewed him for the book. And he was incredibly stubborn. I’m not a doctor, I can’t place people on the autism spectrum. But he did maybe lack a sort of social intelligence or social awareness that may have been quite useful in this case. Because someone with a normal social intelligence — or maybe someone who didn’t have Asperger’s, if that’s what Andrew was implying with Frank — they would’ve cowed to peer pressure. They would’ve responded to the societal rejection and societal pressure by not being so persistent. But because Frank was his very unique self… And I remember when people would complain about things that they read in the newspaper or that a politician was doing, Frank would always tell them, “Why are you telling me? Go write the newspaper or go write a letter or go protest the politician that’s doing this. Complaining about it isn’t going to solve you anything.”
He had that attitude. And Frank was a militant atheist. He was a militant zero-population-growth guy. He was very kind of ruthlessly pragmatic. He was a Ph.D. astronomer from Harvard. So he had this very kind of ruthlessly pragmatic attitude. And I’m not sure if I would’ve agreed with him on the zero population growth thing. But when it came to something like homosexuality, it was actually a very useful perspective to have. Because he would just say simply, “Okay, you have a moral problem with this. That’s your problem. It’s not mine. How can you show that homosexuality is in any way harming society? It in no way affected my ability to be an astronomer, to serve my country. I fought in World War II. I was dodging bullets from the Germans.”
And he coined this expression “Gay is Good,” which I think was actually very important. Because you had a lot of gay people at this time who are deeply ashamed. You’re growing up in a society that says they don’t want you and that you’re less than scum. To have someone come out and say actually being gay is a positive thing, it’s a good thing — I think it was revolutionary. And I think Frank is an extremely important person in American history who has not really gotten his due.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think he was actually also instrumental in getting homosexuality removed from the…
James Kirchick: Yes, the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders, which had been on the books since 1952 in their DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Yes, he played a crucial role in getting that lifted in 1973.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was familiar with Kameny in grad school just for his role as founder of the Mattachine Society. But I hadn’t really appreciated his importance, I think, until 2012 when I reviewed Robert O. Self’s book All in the Family for The New Republic. And Self devoted a lot of space to Kameny and his bravery. And I actually, I think in my review, compared his example to that of dissidents in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War, whose great insight along Vaclav Havel’s line was to act as if they lived under a regime that respected human rights. And I see that comparison occurred to you as well in this book.
James Kirchick: Yes. I actually say that being a gay man — and I say gay man because lesbian sexuality was not so heavily policed in the sense that lesbians were not cruising for sex in public parks and bathrooms and public places, whereas if you were a gay man in the 1940s or ’50s, that was really the only option you had, because it was such an underground secret world, right — that if you were a gay man living in America in this period of time, it was like being a dissident in a communist police state.
And this would actually apply to lesbians, too. Because look, their organizations were banned. Your magazines and literature was deemed obscene and prohibited from being sent in the U.S. mail, right? Your bars are being raided. Your phones are being tapped. In fact, that first meeting that we talked about of the Mattachine Society, in the Hay-Adams Hotel, it was being surveilled from within by an undercover Metropolitan Police Department officer, who also happened to be the officer that was used in many of these entrapment situations — which was kind of a stupid move on the part of the police to have the same guy who was entrapping a lot of gay men in restrooms, to send him undercover into a meeting of gay activists. He was soon recognized. But the FBI was also surveilling that meeting as well. So yes, to be a gay person in America — and in particular in Washington, right, in the seat of government — it was like being a dissident in a communist police state.
Geoff Kabaservice: There’s a lot of sadness in this book, Jamie. The wasted potential of people like Frank Kameny, who was prevented from contributing to his country as he wished to do. The careers cut short, the lives destroyed. Even, in many cases that you mentioned, people driven to suicide by their tormentors. I can’t also help but feel that, in a weird way, heterosexual men were a victim of their fear of homosexuality during this period as well. Such a narrow and constricting view of what it was to be a straight man meant that you couldn’t even take an interest in antiques or the arts or dressing well without being suspected of homosexual tendencies.
James Kirchick: Absolutely. And by the way, there were straight people who were victims of the Lavender Scare. I mean, there was one prominent case I refer to, a diplomat named Charles Bohlen, who was the top Soviet expert in the State Department. He was FDR’s translator at either the Yalta Conference or the Potsdam Conference. I think the Potsdam Conference; no, Yalta. And he was Dwight Eisenhower’s selection to be ambassador to the Soviet Union after George Kennan was declared persona non grata. And because of his presence at Yalta, which was the great curse word of the early American conservative movement, when Eastern Europe was surrendered to Joe Stalin, the McCarthy forces on Capitol Hill decided to oppose him.
This becomes a very early fight between the McCarthyite wing of the Republican Party and the moderate wing as represented by President Eisenhower. And one of the accusations that the McCarthy forces used to try to torpedo Bohlen’s nomination is that he’s a homosexual. And they start collecting all these sorts of testimony from people in the State Department, noting that he has a strange walk, or he talks with a certain lisp, or he moves his tongue over his lips in a particular way — all this kind of ridiculous innuendo. And it turns out Bohlen was the furthest thing from a homosexual. Before getting married, he allegedly had a quite vigorous heterosexual life. And he ended up sailing through and being confirmed and going on to be ambassador to the Soviet Union. In fact, he was the ambassador to the Soviet Union when Joe Alsop got in trouble. So when Joe Alsop needed help getting out of Moscow, he went to his old friend Charles Bohlen, who could probably sympathize with Joe Alsop despite being a straight man — because he had been subjected to a similar type of, you could say maybe, homophobic Lavender Scare attack.
But yeah, that’s one prominent example. But there were presumably many heterosexual men, or heterosexuals period, who lost their jobs merely because they were suspected of being gay. Because during the Lavender Scare, the bar for being dismissed was not very high. They didn’t need actual evidence of, say, sexual intercourse. It could be the mere allegation, suspicion. There was no real rule of law when it came to this. And again, we know this because Frank Kameny was the first person to challenge it. People didn’t want to challenge this, because if you challenged it, then it could risk becoming public, right? And so if this accusation came up, it was best to just leave town — skip town and do something else with your life.
Geoff Kabaservice: And your book also reveals a certain moral callousness that crosses party lines and ideological dispositions as well. Because you have, certainly, the example of someone like Lyndon Johnson turning his back on someone who’d been almost like a son to him, Bob Waldron, when the revelation comes out that he is homosexual. But you also have some of the people who I profiled admiringly in my book on moderate and liberal Republicans, who were willing to play the gay card, as it were, in their attempts to take down Ronald Reagan, in those absurd episodes where it was thought that Reagan was surrounded and perhaps even controlled by a homosexual mafia.
James Kirchick: Yeah. That was one of the wildest stories I came up with in this book. Because Reagan had, as governor, he had been rocked by a gay scandal. It was alleged that a number of his aides were part of a homosexual ring. This is in 1967. And so that sort of suspicion that Reagan was surrounded by gay people never really went away. And it also stemmed from the fact that he was a Hollywood actor. And they did — he and Nancy did have gay friends, Nancy in particular.
So this is sort of hovering around Reagan. And then in the summer of 1980, just three weeks before he’s nominated, a series of strange events occurs, which leads Pete McCloskey, who was probably the most liberal Republican in Congress… He had run against Richard Nixon. He was a former Marine. He ran against Richard Nixon on an anti-Vietnam war platform as a Republican, within the Republican primary in 1972. He gets wind of a series of new accusations involving other gay men who are allegedly surrounding presidential candidate Ronald Reagan at this point. He meets with a group of fellow liberal-to-moderate Republicans, including Dick Cheney, and they put together a dossier which McCloskey delivers very Deep-Throat style to Ben Bradley sometime after midnight. And this dossier concerns all these sorts of convoluted accusations alleging that Ronald Reagan is being controlled by a right-wing, anti-communist, homosexual cabal.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s a great passage you have at the beginning of chapter 33, where Congressman Bob Livingston, drunk and hiding in the congressional gym beneath the Rayburn House Office Building, was “petrified that a team of highly trained right-wing homosexual assassins working on behalf of Ronald Reagan was about to kill him.”
James Kirchick: Yeah. He had been out to dinner earlier that night with a kind of lobbyist for right-wing Central American interests: governments, paramilitaries, whatnot. This man made a drunken pass at him, and Livingston was terrified and drove himself to the Capitol and spent the night sleeping in the House gym.
All of this I found in Ben Bradley’s papers because the Post investigated these accusations. Again, it sounds wild today, and if you read these chapters in the book, it does come across as a kind of a cockamamie theory. But it does go to show the seriousness with which this issue was considered, and the real terror that it did strike into political people, that Ben Bradley, the very esteemed editor of the Washington Post, assigned some of his best reporters including Bob Woodward to investigate this story. And they did, over the course of a week or ten days, hunting down these leads, interviewing the characters involved.
They did discover that there were a number of gay men around Ronald Reagan, including one whom I out in the book, a man named Peter Hannaford, who was a very senior advisor to Reagan. Him and Michael Deaver were really the two top advisors to Reagan in the period between his running for president in 1976 and again in 1980. The Post did discover that there were a number of gay men working for Reagan, but there was no evidence that there was any sort of nefarious conspiracy. And the other, I think, determining factor in them not deciding to pursue this story was that none of the men involved appeared to be going into the administration or having a job that would’ve required a security clearance.
So that was their justification for not writing about it at the time. I think it was the right decision journalistically for them to take. I decided 42 years later — Hannaford is dead and the other men who are named in this story are not with us anymore, so there’s no really ethical or moral concern with outing at this point — I thought it was worth telling and important to tell, just to give an example of what the atmosphere was like in Washington at that time. That one or two stray comments, or someone making a pass at someone else, that this could all one-thing-lead-to-another into this belief that there is a conspiracy controlling the Republican nominee for president that the Washington Post would take it so seriously as to investigate it. I think that that’s something that belongs on the historical record. And so that’s why I tell that story in the book.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree, Jamie. There’s so much more I could ask you about this book, it is really so rich and extensive. But let me ask you as a final question: Your book is in some ways a tale of increasing social tolerance followed by backlashes. And it ends, in a sense, on a high note. After the tragedies of the AIDS pandemic, there comes eventually greater acceptance and the Obergefell decision legalizing gay marriage. And in an odd way, gay men may play less of a role in Washington than they used to, because now that they can live openly as they choose, they no longer are the “best little boys in the world” who devote all of their spare time into covering up their social lives or their interests, and devoting themselves to the job and the interests of the people they serve.
But it also feels like maybe we’re in a moment where this latest round of advance in tolerance is going to be met with its own backlash. And you’re seeing in, for example, the person of Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, who’s often thought of as a challenger or successor to Trump, a willingness to use accusations of homosexuality to accuse people who disagree with him as being “groomers” and pedophiles, in a way that Donald Trump did not. And of course, the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the Dobbs decision also perhaps is opening the way to overthrow the right to privacy that undergirded the right to gay marriage in those Supreme Court decisions. So I wonder how you’re feeling at this moment in terms of optimism or pessimism about what the future holds for the future of gay men and women, in Washington specifically and in politics generally.
James Kirchick: I think we are going through a backlash right now and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that such a high number or high proportion of younger Americans, particularly Gen Z, are identifying as LGBTQ+. Right? Basically anything but straight. I frankly think that a lot of that is performative. I don’t think that something happened in American society that Gen Z should be twice the percentage of LGBTQ+ identifying. Gen Z is literally twice the percentage as Millennials, my generation. I think a lot of this is just kind of people claiming an identity because it makes them feel special or distinguishes them. So my reaction is kind of to roll my eyes at it.
But there are other people, I think, who are alarmed by this, and it is leading to a backlash. I think most of the backlash, frankly, is in response to the T and the Q as opposed to the L, G, and the B. And so I’m not that concerned as far as gays and lesbians go. I mean, it is impacting us, obviously. This rhetoric about grooming children is extremely problematic, because particularly as a gay man, for so long gay men have been accused of being pedophiles. That’s very disturbing. That’s very worrisome.
In terms of actual the legal codification of gay rights, I’m actually not that concerned by the Dobbs decision. If you read it, the justices are explicit in the ruling opinion that the justification for overturning Roe does not apply to Obergefell or Lawrence v. Texas, which was the case that overturned the sodomy laws. It’s only Justice Thomas in his concurring opinion that raises this specter.
I also think if you look at the public opinion polls, I think these are very important in how the justices determine decisions that they’re going to make. I mean, public opinion on abortion has really not shifted at all, or very little. The fundamentals have not shifted since Roe v. Wade. Whereas, as we’ve discussed already, the public opinion on homosexuality — not just gay marriage, but homosexuality — has been the most profound, most dramatic change in really any issue that the polling firms have worked on.
And there also isn’t a political movement to overturn gay marriage. I mean, the conservative movement has been determined and invested enormous resources and had a very clear, determined strategy over the past 50 years to overturn Roe v. Wade. There is nothing like that now to reverse gay marriage. And if you look at the younger generations of people, across the board… Evangelicals, conservatives — they’re not as pro-gay rights as their liberal peers, but they’re still pro-gay marriage and they’re still generally pro-gay rights.
Again, look, never say never, right? I mean, 1920s Berlin was a pretty great place to be gay and things got pretty bad there pretty fast. So again, I’m not one of these sorts of sky-is-falling types, “Trump is Hitler.” I’m not trying to say that. While there are certainly unforeseen possibilities or possibilities that I cannot foresee that would lead to very harsh backlash against gay rights, I’m reasonably confident in saying that I don’t think that gay people are going to lose their legal equality in this country anytime soon.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let’s hope for the best. Jamie Kirchick, thank you so much for talking to me today, and congratulations again on Secret City.
James Kirchick: Thank you, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to The Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. If you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, DC.