The ‘Secret City’: How homophobia shaped national politics during the Cold War

In his new book, “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington,” journalist and historian James Kirchick documents how homosexuality was viewed as a threat to national security.

By Sean SaldanaAugust 16, 2022 5:03 pm, ,

For nearly all of American history, homosexuality has been so taboo, it couldn’t even be spoken of. And in his new book, “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington,” journalist and historian James Kirchick notes that during the Cold War, views on homosexuality changed: It went from something ignored and stigmatized to viewed as a threat to national security.

In “Secret City,” Kirchick documents homophobia influenced presidencies in the 20th century – and how as many as 10,000 people were removed from the civil service either because they were gay or suspected of being gay.

Kirchick joined the Texas Standard to talk about how the moral panic around the gay community took hold, how it impacted Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, and why in spite of everything, he’s optimistic about the future of gay rights. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Courtesy Macmillan Publishers

Texas Standard: A lot of people don’t understand some of the Cold War connections that made being gay a matter of national security once upon a time. Could you say more about the origins of that? 

James Kirchick: Absolutely. I think World War II is very instrumental in this, because that’s really when the notion of national security becomes very paramount in Washington. And because homosexuality was considered such a terrible secret, right – it was condemned by all the major religions; it was against the law in every state in the country; it was considered a mental disorder by the medical establishment – the belief was that gay people would be would be more liable to blackmail if they were serving in government jobs, because they would do anything to protect the secret.

And so there becomes this real sort of paranoia around the issue of homosexuality. It becomes seen as a threat to national security, and it becomes even more pronounced at the outset of the Cold War, when Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, he begins to conflate the threat posed by communism with the threat posed by homosexuality. And there even becomes this term, the Homintern, which is a play on the Comintern, the Communist International, the homosexual international. And this belief that, you know, homosexuals are like communists and that they’re both secretive, they live in the shadows. They can disguise themselves from public view, and they’re both subversives. Right? So political subversives would necessarily be sexual subversives and vice-versa.

There were high-profile cases that would become sensations in the newspapers briefly during this period and and much later, of course. But by your estimations, how many people lost their jobs in the civil service because they were gay or thought to be gay?

Yeah, absolutely. In the 1950s, which was really when it picked up, the federal government’s policy against gay people was enshrined in an executive order by President Eisenhower shortly after he took office in 1953. And it prohibited gay people from having any job in the federal government, and it further prohibited any gay person from holding a security clearance. And it’s really unknown how many gay people lost their jobs because of this. But there have been these estimates of about 7,000 to 10,000 in the 1950s alone.

And the lavender scare went on in some sense until 1975, which was when the Civil Service Commission lifted the ban on gay people receiving jobs in the federal government. But it actually went on even further, if you consider the fact that gay people were banned from holding a security clearance until 1995; it was not until the Clinton administration that that prohibition was lifted.

We should talk about the impact of this phenomenon in D.C. in particular, which I think is really central to what you’re describing here – how this changed or altered the dynamics and in some ways the presidency of LBJ.

Well, there’s one rather well-known case of a man named Walter Jenkins, who was a very close adviser and aide who’d been working for LBJ since he was a congressman in the late 1930s. He was a father of six children, a churchgoing Catholic, very close to LBJ and Lady Bird, really his most trusted aide. A month before the 1964 election, he’s arrested in the YMCA bathroom around the corner from the White House for having sex with another man. And this becomes a front page news story and quite a big scandal. It ends up not having any impact on the election.

But one of the, I would say, major finds in my book is a story that’s never been told before. It’s about another aide to LBJ, a man named Robert Waldron, who had been working for Johnson since he was Senate majority leader in 1957, and then he worked for Johnson as vice president. And he was preparing to move into the White House to work for Johnson as president just a couple of weeks after the Kennedy assassination when a civil service commission investigation into Waldron discovered that he was gay as well. And this ended his career. This was in late 1963, so this precedes the Jenkins scandal by a year.

But then when the Jenkins scandal erupted, LBJ ordered an FBI investigation into it, very publicly. He was very concerned that the Waldron story would get out and that this would not be just the story of, you know, one aide working for LBJ who was gay, but that there were perhaps two. He thought that maybe people would excuse him for having one gay aide; if there were two, then that might look like a conspiracy, and that might look like a real serious problem. And so he was very adamant that the FBI keep this a secret, that word of Waldron not get out into public. And Waldron was fired. I mean, he had to leave the White House, and he actually had to leave politics altogether.

Let’s fast-forward and talk about how the politics surrounding homosexuality continues to reverberate. Or does it? I mean, I was thinking of Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, who came out to say Texas should repeal its now-defunct sodomy law. And he has said in the past he still thinks Obergefell, the gay marriage ruling, was was wrongly decided. As a gay man and as a historian yourself, do these sorts of developments mean anything in terms of how sentiment around homosexuality has changed over the years? 

Well, I mean, this book starts in the 1930s, and the status of the homosexual in America in the 1930s could not be more different from what it is today. I mean, you’re talking about a group of people who are really the most despised population in the country. I mean, there’s no such thing really as an openly gay person. There’s no openly gay public figures. It is such a terrible, terrible thing. Even the word “homosexual” you will rarely find used in the media or in public. It’s just something that isn’t even spoken of.

And I think we’ve made such amazing progress over the past century. I really think we’re past the point where that can happen. I mean, if you just look at the public opinion polls now, even for the first time, a majority of Republicans now express support for gay marriage; that was found last year. Over 70% of Americans now support gay marriage. And if you look at the younger generations who are going to be the future of this country, the numbers are even higher. So, you know, barring any sort of, you know, dramatic, unforeseen sort of cultural reaction against homosexuality – it’s hard to imagine that happening, but you know, we shouldn’t get complacent, and one should never say never – I actually do think that gay equality is here to stay.

What do you draw from in terms of a lesson from history here? Is there a lesson, as you see it? 

Well, there’s many lessons. I mean, I think one is just the importance of free expression. I mean, you know, if you look at gay people, you know, 80, 90 years ago, they did not speak, literally. They were in many ways prohibited from speaking. It was considered obscene for gay writers or magazine publishers just to distribute their materials through the U.S. mail. And all of the progress that has been won for gay and lesbian people in this country comes as a result of free expression, open debate and the ability to express one’s point of view – these rights that we have in our First Amendment. And so I think it’s very important that we recognize and protect those rights.

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