Trampled on Memory Lane: The Gay History of Washington, D.C.

Written by | The Lens

In the current social climate, scare tactics are our preferred vernacular.

Do you support food stamps for starving children? Well then, you’re a socialist.

Want sensible gun control laws? That’s Satanism.

Do you enjoy breathing oxygen? Suck it up, you dirty, hippie, tree-hugging, mother earthing fascist!

As you can see, name-calling is confounding and unproductive, but it has a long record of destroying lives and shaping our government, as unfortunate as that may be. And one of the brightest red flags in history is the label communist. During the Cold War, the mere hint of Bolshevik leanings could ruin careers and tear apart communities. There was nothing worse than being called a communist, right?

Not so fast. Have you met the gays?

A new book by James Kirchick details the ways in which homosexuality was often considered worse than the Soviet stench. Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington scours the underbelly of our nation’s capital and exposes the fear, loathing and lust of a political system bent on devouring itself.

“There was a moral panic,” Kirchick tells Time magazine.

“There were communists in the U.S. government, just not in the numbers that Joe McCarthy was claiming. With homosexuals, there really was a witch hunt. There was no example of a gay person who was a traitor or who turned over information because they were blackmailed for being gay.”

But rumors became tumors, metastasizing in the deepest fibers of our leadership.

“There were untold hundreds or maybe thousands of gay people who lost their jobs, who just sort of melted away back into obscurity.”

When pressed to quantify the damage wrought on our country, Kirchick admits, “There isn’t a true figure… The estimates vary from 5,000 to 15,000 people. It’s impossible to know because a lot of them quit before they could be found out, pressured to quit, or never applied. A lot of records have been destroyed.”

Piecing together a narrative from the shreds of antiquity, the author strives to understand – without apologizing for – the complex chaos of historical figures like Roy Cohn.

“The people who behaved badly under this specter of homosexuality, the real villain is the closet. If there’s a villain in this book, it is the societal fear that our country had of gay people.”

Orientation was a boogeyman that couldn’t be discussed among “decent” Washingtonians.

“We talked a lot about communism. You couldn’t talk about homosexuality.”

Hmm, don’t say gay. Why does that phrase ring eerily familiar in our modern ears? History is repeating itself with a vengeance. Let’s vote against the next Lavender Scare before it consumes us all.

Photo: Instagram @lovingbynealandhugh

Last modified: May 30, 2022