In July 1950, Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter came to offer testimony to a group of U.S. senators. Hillenkoetter, appointed director of the newly minted Central Intelligence Agency three years earlier, recounted for the assembled senators a cautionary tale from across the Atlantic: In the years before World War I, the Austro-Hungarian counterintelligence service discovered that one of its officers, Colonel Alfred Redl, had been passing privileged information to Russian agents. Redl was a gay man, and the rumor spread that the Russians had blackmailed him, threatening to expose his homosexuality if he did not cooperate.
Redl took his own life in 1913 after his perfidy came to light, but for Hillenkoetter the story hardly ended there. Decades later, he would tell worried lawmakers that Redl was an example of “what can be done to a country’s security by a homosexual strategically placed.” Thereafter, the Redl affair made it into subsequent reports about the danger that gay men—cliquish, conspiratorial, and susceptible to blackmail—posed to national security. Hillenkoetter’s testimony marked one of the early salvos of what came to be known as the “lavender scare,” a wide-reaching purge of gay men and lesbians from federal government employ. Across the Western world, the early Cold War was defined by a fear of gay men, in particular of gay conspiracies and gay espionage—aptly captured in the neologism “the Homintern.”
These fears, especially the fear that cabals of queer men were secretly running the government, form the leitmotif of James Kirchick’s Secret City, a new history of homosexuality in the federal government. Kirchick highlights how, from the New Deal all the way through the 1980s, gay men in government employ were perpetually forced to deal with accusations of dual loyalties and the fear that exposure might lead to termination or worse. The idea of a “secret city” is thus essential to Kirchick’s story: the notion that Washington, D.C., contained an “open city,” where the men and women who worked in government lived their public lives, as well as its mirror, a secret city where gay men and lesbians hid their true selves.
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.