Washington's Hundred-Year War on Gays: A rich, harrowing chronicle of the federal government's oppression of homosexuals in the 20th century firmly refuses to draw any connection to today's struggles.

AuthorWolfe, Rob
PositionSecret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington

Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington

by James Kirchick Henry Holt and Co., 826 pp.

Terry Dolan had two funerals. The first, a grand affair at a Catholic monastery that drew hundreds of his right-wing friends, was an elaborate lie of omission. It was true, as mourners like Pat Buchanan acknowledged, that Dolan had fought ferociously for conservative causes throughout the 1980s, raising millions through his pioneering "super PAC" to shrink government, crush unions, and back Republican candidates. Studiously ignored by his family and political friends, however, was an aspect of Dolan commemorated days later at an unauthorized memorial service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew on Rhode Island Avenue. The 50 gay men and women in attendance remembered him as one of their own, a resident of the closeted "secret city" within Washington, D.C., struck down by the same virus that had felled Rock Hudson and uncountable others.

Like so many gay Washingtonians, Dolan led a double life, one that persisted even in death. After the funerals, his brother Tony, a White House speechwriter, took over the task of guarding his secret. As The Washington Post prepared to report on Terry's hidden sexuality and death in 1986, Tony pulled every string to stop it. Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Post, had a gay brother--one whom he accepted--and he believed the public should know that such a prominent conservative activist, an ally of the "Moral Majority," had died of AIDS, the disease that President Ronald Reagan refused to name. When Tony's efforts to kill the story failed, he published a 29-page essay excoriating the Post for being "disrespectful of the public's right to know; incapable of self-examination or introspection; self-righteous; arrogant and heartless in the relentless pursuit of those on its own enemy's [sic] list." He claimed that his brother had experienced a "religious conversion" before death and had renounced homosexuality. Head-spinningly, Tony charged the Post with succumbing to "homosexual intrigue" in service of "a special interest who wanted to claim my brother as well as other prominent people as one of their own."

Why were the Dolans so desperate to contain Terry's secret, even as gays and lesbians were coming out of the closet, either encouraged by the gay liberation movement or forced out by AIDS? Their Catholic faith had something to do with it, as did their conservative allegiances. But that wasn't the whole answer. As James Kirchick describes in devastating detail in Secret City, the "American Century" was one of terrible oppression in the nation's capital, where gays and lesbians were hunted by the FBI and treated as security threats equal to, if not greater than, America's fascist and Communist enemies abroad. J. Edgar Hoover's investigations into the State Department, the CIA, and the White House ended thousands of careers, marriages, and lives. The witch hunt continued over generations, producing a grim lineage of ruined names--Walsh, Welles, Offie, Kameny, Chambers, Hiss--that the Dolans had no wish to join. In his diatribe against the Post, Tony Dolan cited one of those names--Whittaker Chambers, an ex-socialist and reformed" homosexual who famously accused the diplomat Alger Hiss of participating in a Communist cell--as he attacked the paper for failing to mention his brother's deathbed sexual conversion. "You cannot write a story about Augustine of Hippo and not note that he became a Christian," Dolan wrote, just as "you cannot write an account of Whittaker Chambers and leave out the part about his crusade for Western values and freedom."

Though gay men and women have shaped Washington since its founding--among them Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the military engineer who planned the city--Kirchick focuses his account on 70 or so years of the 20th century. From the 1930s through the 1990s, America fought World War II and the Cold War. These crises pulled the country together against external enemies but sparked paranoia about "threats" from within. During these decades, homosexuality became an identity, defined first by the forces seeking to root it out and then reclaimed by those who bravely fought for their right to exist. Kirchick, an experienced journalist, draws together news clippings, correspondence, and archival materials to chronicle the "secret city": the network of bars, bookstores, and cruising grounds where gay people, many of them powerful government figures, lived parallel lives.

A gay man himself, and an outspoken conservative, Kirchick pulls no punches in describing the contemptible behavior of right-wing (and some leftist) troglodytes who hounded homosexuals in the tabloids and Congress. He paints a particularly unflattering portrait of the Reagans, conservative icons who surrounded themselves with gays and lesbians in private but abandoned them publicly during the AIDS crisis. But Secret City, though engrossing, novelistic, and deeply sympathetic to minorities persecuted in the last century, does not carry its thesis forward to show how the same illiberal forces became incorporated into the present-day Republican Party, which, with its bathroom bans and "Don't Say Gay" laws, has embraced intolerance as a platform. Instead, Kirchick's book is concerned with battles of the past; he...

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