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Lavender Scares

Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington

by James Kirchick

2022 (Henry Holt and Company)


Generally, when Americans learn about Joseph McCarthy in school, it´s often framed as a dark period of United States History: how galvanizing figures like this Senator and others used the broad and vague "threat of Communism" to abuse their power, and to ruin the lives of American citizens who were suspected of being working covertly with Soviet operatives after World War II. During this period of paranoia, hearings by HCUA (the House Committee on Un-American Activities) wanted to root out "sympathizers" domestically who were advocating for these corrosive ideals from mother Russia, particularly those working in Hollywood and other parts of the American entertainment industry. Even if one has not read or seen Arthur Miller´s 1953 play The Crucible, this epoch of governmental "witch hunts" by elected officials abusing their power and ruining the lives of ordinary American citizens has been dubbed the "Red Scare."


But after reading Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, the sweeping new book by journalist and historian James Kirchick, this period would be more accurately described as the "Lavender Scare." While it is true that some people´s careers were impacted due to their suspected political ideologies, far more lives were ruined because they were suspected to be something considered the number one national security threat to the United States: homosexuality. Fearing that Soviet agents could blackmail gay Americans who worked in government--an easy fix, if one were to just accept the fact that one´s sexual identity has no bearing on how well or poorly they are able to do their job--beginning during the Cold War, legislators and politicians weaponized one´s sexual identity, using it to smear political rivals, destroy careers, pass laws preventing anyone who was gay from working for the US federal government, and driving closeted homosexuals to suicide. In most cases, the need for any "proof" of one being gay was irrelevant; just the suspicion of one being queer, or "being one of them", grew into a spectre that haunted North America for decades. "Evidence" that was used to terminate someone´s livelihoods included such horrible crimes as wearing pants that were considered too tight, frequently going to the theater or museums, and not being married.


Sadly, many of those shooting these poison arrows were also gay themselves. While McCarthy and his protegé, Roy Cohn, were enjoying their own same-sex intrigues, they seemed to get off working tirelessly to criminalize anyone engaged in homosexual acts. Kirchick structures Secret City by administration, beginning with FDR, and the presidencies of Nixon and Reagan were both not only exceptionally anti-gay (especially the latter, during the AIDS epidemic), but also populated with the most gay people working within each of those administrations. It´s a sobering reminder of how intoxicating power and greed can be to anyone, gay or straight, as well as the nuances contained within each individual´s stories and why they do what they do. There are no monoliths here; as Kirchick book articulates again and again, throughout American history, not all gay people have been consistently heroic, nor have all heterosexual people been evil homophobes.


One important section of this thoroughly-researched text is the inclusion of Frank Kameny, a qualified astronomer who wanted to work on the new space program at the beginning of the 1960s but who was fired from his job when it was discovered that he was gay. Partly inspired by the Civil Rights movement, as well as believing (correctly) that such a termination of his job based on his sexual identity is illegal and unconstitutional, Kameny began filing multiple lawsuits protesting his case at the city, state, and federal level, as well as co-founding the DC chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1961. Being reminded of and contextualizing this and other key moments of gay history feels more vital today than ever, especially here in New York where (sometimes) it feels like the fight for gay rights in America began with the throwing of bricks during the 1969 Stonewall riots.


In his 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote that "the past is never dead. It´s not even past." This idea resonates throughout the reading of "the gay century" contained within the chapters of Secret City, and their lingering ties to our turbulent and terrifying politics today. Former President Donald Trump´s learned how to use of the media to his advantage, as well as how to twist up the American legal system to avoid accountability, through his mentor, Roy Cohn. Some GOP candidates this fall have been invoking the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, Cohn´s mentor, not with disdain, but with nostalgia. Contained within the recent Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade this year--as if that decision to impact the lives of nearly 40 million women of child-bearing age was not bad enough--is an opinion by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, affirming that same-sex marriage was next. Reading Kirchick´s book is a powerful chronicle of how many people sacrificed their lives and livelihoods to demand queer people enjoy the same rights as anyone else. At the same time, for all of the progress that´s been accomplished within the previous century, Secret City is a sober reminder of how these rights are not "fixed", that they are in fact under attack, and that the homosexuals remain the bogeyman for so many of us in America today.



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