Beginning with the tragic story of Sumner Welles, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s brilliant diplomatic advisor and the man at the center of “the greatest national scandal since the existence of the United States,” James Kirchick illuminates how homosexuality shaped each successive presidential administration through the end of the twentieth century.
... a sprawling and enthralling history of how the gay subculture in Washington, D.C., long in shadow, emerged into the klieg lights. But it’s also a whodunit to rival anything by Agatha Christie ... These must have been harrowing existences, but their retelling makes for very good and suspenseful, if occasionally ponderous, reading ... Sifting methodically through F.B.I. files, correspondence, interview transcripts and press clippings — you can almost hear the old microfiche sheets ticking by — Kirchick holds the most dedicated persecutors, some of whom were themselves in the closet, to scathing account ... There’s vital material in each section, and even the trivia seems resonant ... 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, one of those with a rolling ladder to bring down some of the faded midcentury best-sellers resurfaced in these pages...It’s also a Baedeker of important places (map included) ... This is overwhelmingly a gallery of the white male gaytriarchy, with lesbians and people of color mostly on the sidelines. And Kirchick seems to run out of gas toward the end, as the gay situation improves. Though he addressed the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act in a triumphalist essay for The Atlantic in 2019 that drew ire from some on the left, there’s only the briefest mention of it here; nothing about the presidential candidacy and subsequent cabinet appointment of Pete Buttigieg; little about the rise of the L.G.B.T.Q. rainbow. But as an epic of a dark age, complex and shaded, Secret City is rewarding in the extreme.
... engrossing, important ... an 800-page tour de force, certainly the most comprehensive history of gay Washington ever written. It’s also more than that. Tracing the strand of how the capital’s big shots treated gays across the decades, Kirchick provides a compelling account of how the bloodless, brutal Washington power game has always worked.
It is, broadly, a familiar story of the closet. But by focusing on gay men and lesbians who worked in and around the federal government, partook of Washington high society, and largely remained closeted, Kirchick offers a very different take on American LGBTQ history. Whereas many books emphasize the work of pathbreaking activists who came out of the closet and took aim at society’s homophobic norms, Secret City emphasizes those who worked inside the system—many of them Republicans who were forced to balance their hidden sexuality and their public conservatism. It is thus a history of slow assimilation, a fundamentally conservative account that endeavors to write gay men and lesbians into a triumphant story of American democracy ... really a history of the gay American conservative—a history of how gay men kept turning up in national politics and the federal government where they were least expected ... The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, which had such success pressuring the federal government to take the epidemic seriously, is mentioned nowhere...Assimilation rather than revolution is the telos toward which Secret City strives ... emphasizes not how persecution of and discrimination against gay and lesbian people have undermined American claims to equality and justice but rather how the country’s eventual embrace of LGBTQ rights is proof of the success of American liberalism...What Kirchick—along with other gay conservative writers, such as Andrew Sullivan—seems to suggest is that because it’s now possible for some queer people to assimilate successfully, it’s time for the movement to, well, move on ... highlights the extent to which gay conservatives have always occupied positions of influence, even if in decades past they were far more circumspect about their sexuality. But the experiences of these elites, who are able to navigate the halls of power—some more successfully than others—are perhaps not the best indicator of the state of gay rights or of the health of our democracy more generally. After all, the Republican Party in which Thiel and Grenell have found a home is one that not only calls for the abolition of hard-won LGBTQ rights but also increasingly questions the value of democracy itself.