Reviews

Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington by James Kirchick

e_flah's review against another edition

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informative reflective

4.0

Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington is a detailed yet personal look at what life was like for queer people in Washington D.C. over the 20th century. This is the kind of book I know will stick with me.

dorissander's review

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informative slow-paced

4.0

syfylauren's review

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informative slow-paced

4.0

allisonwonderlandreads's review against another edition

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challenging dark informative reflective slow-paced

2.0

Secret City is an ambitious project of history. It brings gay people into the spotlight for their contributions to U.S. politics in the 20th century. The book covers insiders and outsiders in Washington, D.C., those both in and out of the closet, and those who led double lives out of necessity. While there's an inherently social component to focusing on a particular, marginalized segment of the population, I would caution potential readers that this isn't a social history. The author was in part inspired by biographical writing, and that's clear in his writing style. Particular impactful lives are shared of the (mostly) men who both thrived and suffered by turns because of their gay identities. Sometimes, this ties into broader political trends, attitudes, and movements, but that isn't the driving force of the book. It's organized into sections based on the sitting President rather than themes or ideas and reads like an entry-level history textbook instead of a theory-based argument about the past. The author's main thesis seems to be that the U.S. government has missed out on a lot of would-be talented operators who were shut out due to being gay or lesbian. It's a reasonable statement, but it doesn't go very deep or offer a broad level of analysis.

The book covers many topics that haven't received their due in general history education due to 1) social aversion to acknowledging discrimination in its various forms and 2) the widespread erasure of gay people and their experiences. One such important topic is the lavender scare, which went hand-in-hand with its more famous brother, the red scare. Gay people were seen as supposedly more susceptible to blackmail and therefore undeserving of a security clearance. The author notes the irony that if the government didn't first make it a problem for employment, it would lack oomph as a source of blackmail for enemies. Also, whereas people could prove they weren't communists and regain lost positions, the smear campaign against believed gay men was the kiss of death for a career even if there was no evidence provided to support it. Stereotypes and guilt by association were considered reasonable ways to identify and fire gay men. Closeting became more intense, and some committed suicide once outed and fired in one fell swoop. There were long-lasting consequences to the lavender scare, even after the fear of communism was no longer as rabid. Security checks continued to include questions about being gay because the underlying, unsubstantiated assumption about the potential for blackmail remained. The State Department, which purged huge numbers of gay men (who once thrived in an environment where being unmarried and mobile were considered a plus) retained a reputation as being an especially gay branch of government.

One thing the book makes clear is that homophobia has been a feature of our government across the political spectrum. Both parties were comfortable with insinuations and smear campaigns about supposed "sexual deviancy," claims that tanked careers whether they were true or not. Gossip magazines outed and doxed gay men while newspapers wrestled with whether to name AIDs victims because of the repercussions for victims' families. Both action and inaction emphasized the assumed shame and secrecy of being gay. Politics also largely didn't factor into relationships within the gay community. There was an aspect of mutually assured destruction since pointing the finger at someone else would call into question the accuser and how they know. The author notes that this assumed safety within the community has more recently broken down for those who publicly work against the community while privately-- secretly-- participating in it.

Kirchick also investigates the ways that gay men have found success working for the government or in the social milieu of Washington. While opportunities for serving as elected officials and for working in jobs with a security clearance were at times too risky to pursue, there were ways to reach influential positions. Gay men often served as walkers and later as popular hosts on the social circuit. Walkers were men who were trusted to take men's wives to parties when they were too busy working to attend a function. Men who were single and dressed and danced well were ideal candidates. In government jobs, gay men learned to be loyal as a means of protection. If a boss came to rely on them, a rare commodity in politics, that was a currency that might (but didn't always) keep them safe from being outed or axed.

I have more to say on this in a minute, but I initially appreciated that the author is upfront about the narrow range of identity his book tends to focus on as a feature of who was allowed to work in politics. While largely about white cis men, there are a few moments discussed in the book that stand out for venturing outside that norm. When the Mattachine Society was incorporated in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, lesbians were present in fewer numbers and subject to gendered discrimination from the men. They were expected to fulfill gender norms in how they dressed at protests and given less room to speak at meetings. The book also features the political attacks on Bayard Rustin, the Black, gay man who organized the 1964 March on Washington. White congressmen tried to discredit the civil rights movement as well as the religious leaders within it who feared his open homosexuality. Rustin had been forced to resign from positions two times previously when his identity seemed a risk to the broader cause. In this, the NAACP ultimately stood behind him in an unprecedented move when faced with an outside threat from the government.

In my opinion, the brief inclusion of other identities and intersectionalities in the book doesn't do a book on political history justice. The author seems inconsistently interested in the experiences of some parts of the queer community like women, people of color, and trans people (who really aren't featured at all). There's a difference between having to define the borders of your project out of necessity (i.e. this is about white gay men because of who could participate in government at the time) and ignoring the import of the borders you choose. First of all, I think these borders aren't as real as the author suggests given that he includes people who worked as activists and community leaders outside the government, which cuts a wider swathe. Second, if your book is going to be limited, you should reflect on why you're leaving some people out and how you could be reinforcing structures of power with that decision.

What had once been a "pebble in my shoe" level of discomfort for hundreds of pages became "a boulder blocking my path" level of unignorable irritant in the final chapter. Wrapping things up in the 90s, the ending was a bit too positive for my tastes. He muses on the march toward progress for gay rights and its rapid trajectory, which relies on a certain inaccurate and troubling view of history that I disagree with, smoothing away human chaos, backtracking, and harm by relying on a one-dimensional, mechanistic view of things. To make things worse, we currently inhabit a time of walking back queer rights in the U.S. and an increasing danger to queer people, especially but not limited to trans folx, a group that doesn't even get a crumb of acknowledgment in this history. This flies in the face of his view and tone of where gay rights stand at the end of the book.

The kind of sketchy vibe that amplified right at the end led me to seek out the author's published articles and formerly-known-as-twitter. And it turns out he's one of those people who feels expanding terminology to include more types of queer people is a disservice to gays and lesbians. He also likens demands for the powerful (i.e. politicians and media) to include trans people and listen to their often unheard perspectives as a form of authoritarianism, so it seems he's confused about who holds authoritarian power and how that all works. In general, he seems threatened by trans rights as a perceived challenge to his own need for white, cisgender gay man rights. And if that's not what's fucked up in our community.

Here's the thing. I learned a lot from this book-- important stories and themes from our government's past that more people should know. For that, I value the experience. Do I trust the author and would I pick up something else by him? Probably not. His rarefied Ivy League education seems to have granted him an expansive vocabulary and a lot to say but not an ear to listen to parts of what should be his community about their experiences and histories. Pick this up for a greater understanding of the historical roles of white, gay men in the U.S. government, not to get a broader social picture or to see other members of the queer community included.

zac_housedownbooks's review against another edition

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challenging dark emotional hopeful informative inspiring reflective sad tense medium-paced

4.75

marcybooks's review against another edition

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challenging informative slow-paced

3.0

emco_0's review against another edition

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challenging emotional informative slow-paced

4.0

faerietrails's review

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This book is insanely well-researched (~1/4 of the book is just references) and is written in a way that mirrors interpersonal gay drama. It's great. Also very much that scene from Season 3, Episode 3 of Parks & Recreation where they're in public forum like "You go back to Russia!" "YOU go back to Russia!"

But I just can't do it. This is the second time I've DNFed and I have finally admitted to myself that I hate reading political history. If you DO like reading political or queer history, give this a try!

sarful's review

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4.0

Such a deep and thorough look into how queer people have played a role in shaping our nation, largely keeping their sexuality a secret. So much of it is so heartbreaking.

Well worth reading for anyone who is interested in US politics from a different perspective.

I will say that the book does downplay the fight other minorities had in equal protection. And it focuses on white cis gay men more than any others within the lbgbtq umbrella. But that’s pretty much my only quibble. It did focus a lot on gay accusations more than I would have liked to read, mainly because I really just wanted those queer political people and not the accused, persay. If that makes sense. Which is why it’s a 4 and not a 5.

kalyfornian's review

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informative

3.75