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New Book Secret City Delves Into the Gay Underground of D.C.

John Kennedy and Rock Hudson with Nancy Reagan

As I was coming of age as a young closeted gay man on Capitol Hill during the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was quickly apparent that coming out of the closet was a huge risk; as a result, most of us snuck around — for lack of a better term —with how we dated, hooked up, or cultivated gay friendships.

My first boyfriend worked for Mitch McConnell. We met on street corners and never went to bars or restaurants on the Hill; in fact, most of the time we just went to his place and hung out since he lived alone.

The same holds true for a marine I briefly dated who was on detail at the White House — it takes only the crème de la crème of the corps. He was compulsive about secrecy. We would go to cheap hotel rooms in the suburbs or to Baltimore to hang out. I was running on the National Mall one early morning when the White House marines ran by me, including him. I could see the shock on his face when he saw me.

And then I got proof of the gay underworld that included powerful political players. I’d had occasional hookups in Rehoboth Beach, Del. I vividly recall meeting a highly placed Democratic congressional aide, who was about 10 years older than I was.

We went back to the house he was staying in — closer to a mansion — and we got in the hot tub. An older man, the younger guy’s housemate, jumped in the hot tub with us. I was told he was a high-ranking Republican operative. He was an operator, all right. He had his hands all over me, and I was freaked out to say the least.

Then there was the specter of AIDS, which ran silent just like those of us who hid our sexuality. We had a member of the congressman’s committee staff, who was from our district. He was a bigger guy, and because he grew up in a steel and coal mining county, played the part of a gruff macho man.

I knew little about him. He kept to himself, and then he didn’t come to work for a while, When he returned, he was bone-thin, the coloration of his skin was not normal, and he had a slight cough. He died not too long afterwards. I believed it was from AIDS complications, but no one in our office dared to say what they thought.

Finally, there was Wisconsin Republican Congressman Steve Gunderson. I saw him occasionally in gay bars, but I’ll never forget the first time I saw him. I was stunned. He was a Republican! How could that be? I had the honor of speaking to him for a column on the 25th anniversary of when he came out, becoming the first Republican from Congress to do so.

So many secrets during that era — the latter part of the Reagan administration and through George H.W. Bush’s one term in office. I was far from being an influential gay man; however, a new, fascinating book confirmed the suspicions I had for years that indeed there was one big gay secret city in Washington, D.C., during that time.

Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington by James Kirchick provides an in-depth and exhaustively researched account of the underground world of primarily white gay men through presidential administrations from Franklin Roosevelt’s to Bill Clinton’s.

Kirchick focuses mainly on gay white men is because the country was run predominantly by white men during most of this era, he notes.

“I do talk about lesbians, but women had very little political power during the Cold War era,” Kirchick points out. “It was all about white men, and women didn’t have security clearances — therefore that didn’t put them on the FBI’s radar.”

Moreover, gay male sexuality was much more policed, particularly by the FBI, he explains. “Unlike gay men, women weren’t having sex in public places, and gay bars were far more likely to get raided than a lesbian bar,” he says. “There were so many more who identified as gay men than there were women who identified as lesbians. I do talk about President Carter adviser Midge Costanza, but it was only confirmed that she was a closet lesbian after she died. So many lesbians and gay men and their sexuality were only revealed after they died, mainly because they could be arrested and lose their jobs.”

John F. Kennedy with Lem Billings and JFK Jr. and Jackie Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy counted a number of gay men among his friends and
associates, foremost among them his boarding school chum Lem Billings (above, with John F.
Kennedy Jr. and Jackie Kennedy).

It’s hard to fathom the lengths gay men went to in order to protect their secret, and it’s hard to encapsulate Kirchick’s book since there are so many stories about influential gay men throughout 11 administrations. These tales of gay power include political intrigue, espionage, suspicion, flirting publicly with their sexuality, and their closeness to the presidents they served. Some of these men shrewdly operated by endearing themselves to the straight world, particularly the wives of political powerhouses. Some of them are riveting, and some of them are surprising, and some of them are cunning.

I asked Kirchick what was the biggest surprise that he uncovered. “Perhaps the single biggest surprise is the Reagan scandal in 1980 when he was running for president. There was a whole gay aura around Reagan as an actor in Hollywood,” he says. “In 1939, when Reagan was a costar in the film Dark Victory, he was asked to play the gay best friend of the lead character, and he was very uncomfortable about that.”

“Then there was the gay scandal in 1967, when Reagan was governor of California, that involved an alleged gay orgy of Reaganites at a house on Lake Tahoe, which is where all the gay rumors began about former Congressman Jack Kemp, who ran as the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 1996 with Sen. Bob Dole,” Kirchick notes.

The Reagans had many gay friends from Hollywood when they moved to D.C., yet at the same time they were “allergic to anything being too gay,” Kirchick notes. I think that dichotomy is clear if you look at Reagan’s edits to the first couple’s statement upon the death of Rock Hudson.” 

The book provides an image of Reagan’s statement about Hudson and how he watered down the relationship he and his wife had with Hudson. Reagan struck the word “profoundly” in front of “saddened,” making it much less personal. He also deleted the phrase “Our memories will also be of,” replacing it with “He will be remembered for his humanity, spirit.”  Reagan removed the word “our” as if he and Nancy had nothing to do with Hudson.

And Reagan removed a large chunk of the last sentence: “He was our friend, and we will miss him greatly.” As if that longtime friendship with the president and first lady was wiped away because Hudson had AIDS.

“There was such hypocrisy. Hudson had attended a White House event while he was sick, and he’s photographed hugging and kissing Nancy Reagan. The photo of that moment reveals a Kaposi sarcoma lesion on the back of Hudson’s neck,” Kirchick says.

Rock Hudson and Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan with Rock Hudson at a state dinner for the president of Mexico in May 1984. Hudson died from complications stemming from AIDS the following year.

 
That hypocrisy also existed for AIDS within the Republican Party, he adds. “It’s important to emphasize that homosexuality became a political issue in the 1980s with the rise of the Christian right, and the AIDS crisis really called out the duplicity. There was a genuine fear of coming out because you were presumed to have AIDS,” Kirchick says.

“There were conservative firebrands, like Terry Dolan, who died of AIDS but kept quiet about it,” he continues. “And then there’s someone like John Ford, who was the highest-ranking homosexual in the Reagan administration, as deputy assistant secretary for governmental and public affairs in the Agriculture Department. He came out of the closet and disclosed he had AIDS, and he resigned and became a critic of the Reagan administration’s lack of attention to AIDS. That took a lot of courage.”

I wondered who the most tolerant president was. “This is pre-Clinton, of course, but it was John F. Kennedy,” Kirchick says. “His lifelong best friend, Lem Billings, was gay. In fact, as a teen, Billings wrote Kennedy what amounts to a love letter. Kennedy rebuffed Billings, but saying, ‘I’m not that kind of boy.’ They remained close friends for the rest of their lives.”

“And Jackie had a number of gay friends, including Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and Joseph Alsop,” Kirchick adds. “And JFK was probably tolerant of homosexuality because he had a hidden, secret sex life as well, so he understood that men who had sexual secrets could be ruined.”

It probably comes as little surprise that Kirchick feels Richard Nixon was the most homophobic. “His personal attitudes about homosexuality were quite malicious and vivid on his secret tapes,” the author says. “He used words like ‘transvestite,’ ‘fag,’ and ‘cocksucker,’ and he was obsessed with finding gay men within the ranks of his administration.”

Finally, I asked Kirchick, of all the gay men in the Secret City, who was the most influential? “I would definitely say Sumner Welles, who rose to be Franklin Roosevelt’s undersecretary of State in 1937 after serving in a number of diplomatic roles,” he says. “Welles was for all intents and purposes FDR’s secretary of State because Cordell Hull, who was secretary of State, was not held in high regard, so Roosevelt really leaned on Welles. And when Hull hatched a plot to try and out Welles to Roosevelt, the president protected and defended Welles. He was perhaps one of Roosevelt’s key advisers during his presidency.”

Welles’s story is one of many in a book that reads sometimes like a political thriller, and it uncovers lots of detail of men who served mostly behind the scenes but wielded political power and who kept many secrets. And for me, it brought back memories of those days of hiding in the closet and rubbing elbows with some influential gay men.  Back then, it was somewhat reassuring — and somewhat exciting — to know that I wasn’t the only one keeping a secret.

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Equal Pride.

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