The Power (And Powerlessness) Of Gays
A brilliant new history tells the real story of the 20th Century gay rights movement.
Odessa Madre grew up in a section of Washington DC called Cowtown, because farm animals would occasionally wander its streets. Born in 1907 in abject poverty, she nonetheless lived and thrived in a deeply segregated city as a dark-skinned African-American woman. “There was only three Blacks at Dunbar (High School) back then — I mean Black like me,” she later recalled. “I had good diction, I knew the gestures, but they still made fun of me.” Dess, as many called her, was also a lesbian, and not too shy about it. “I just couldn’t keep no watchamacallit — a man. I guess I was just born to give orders not take them. What kind of man wants a woman like that?”
She went on to become one of the wealthiest African Americans in an overwhelmingly black city — hauling in over $100,000 a year at her peak — by becoming “the female Al Capone.” She ran brothels, pimped women, owned speakeasies, as well as owning a legit and legendary institution on 14th Street, Club Madre. Jamie Kirchick conjures up a scene from the 1940s:
The crowd roared its approval whenever Madre, covered in mink furs and diamonds and trailed by a multiracial retinue of women for sale, entered the premises and sauntered over to the central table, denoted as hers by an ever-present vase holding a dozen long-stemmed roses.
Among the performers at the club: Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Madre kept all her illicit businesses alive by the old-fashioned method of bribing the fathomlessly corrupt DC police — “You know I practically ran that damn police department,” she later quipped — and became a renowned mediator of mob disputes across the country.
She also reflects a pattern that occurs throughout Kirchick’s new book, “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington.” She is within a core group of lesbians and gay men somehow living their best lives in the mid-20th Century, simultaneously at the center and the periphery of power. They were capable, whip-smart and hard-working, resilient beyond measure, yet never free from the threat of being taken down by the criminal law, exposure, blackmail, violence, public shaming and utter ostracism. Madre was convicted in 1949 on various drug offenses, spent over 13 years in prison on one charge or other, and died in 1990, without a penny to her name. Her corpse stayed in the morgue for a week until someone claimed it.
The same terrible story could be told of countless others. They were powerful until they were powerless. They lived on probation their entire lives.
One of several wonderful things about Kirchick’s book is that it doesn’t condescend to these people, but seeks to understand them on their own terms. It shows the tenacity, nerve, and brilliance of a woman like Madre — as well as her immiseration. It brings to crackling life the many gay men and lesbians who were under persecution so brutal and terrifying it is hard for anyone today to appreciate — and yet they lived, worked, loved and often succeeded. Some details (from the magazine, Washington Confidential) leap out:
Today one can only marvel at the courage demonstrated by the “1700 Negro men, all dressed as women, who held a party on a Potomac River cruise incongruously named the Robert E Lee until it was rudely interrupted ben one hundred police officers.”
It’s a rare book about gay people that isn’t burdened by the constrictive dogma of “queer theory” and “intersectionality,” free of the nonsense that the gay rights movement began in 1969. The book treats gay people as complex human beings, not socially constructed victims; and it is unafraid to note how gay men were for long by far the principal targets of American persecution.
Which is to say: in highly readable, evocative, sometimes hilarious prose, Jamie lets a thousand Smithers bloom.
Every Smithers type was closeted not always by shame but because the alternative was often … jail. For the vast majority of the 20th Century in America, it’s vital to remember, being gay was not just stigmatized; it was illegal. Hundreds of thousands of gay men were arrested, convicted or jailed for loving or fucking someone of the same sex. In New York City alone, 50,000 gay men were arrested between 1923 and 1967.
In 1948 in my home city of Washington, Congress even passed a law defining gay men as “sexual psychopaths,” who could be committed to mental health institutions. (In my own adult lifetime, I had to declare I was not a homosexual to be let into the country at all.) And the criminalizing of gayness — like the prohibition of drugs — did not, of course, reduce the number of homosexuals. It merely forced them underground, creating a “secret city” within the city. The illegality of gay sex also ensured that blackmail was ubiquitous — which became the argument behind the idea that gay men were inherently a security risk, which led to a wholesale purge of gay people from the federal government from the 1950s through the early 1960s.
In the Eisenhower administration, gay men in DC lived in a police state. The police department kept a list of all known gay men who worked for the feds in any capacity. Every homosexual entrapped or arrested was pressured to name others. This was a version of the Eastern bloc’s Stasi — directed overwhelmingly at patriots, serving their country. Between 7,000 and 10,000 gay men were purged from service in the 1950s alone — roughly the same as the number of alleged Communists. One State Department employee, after a grueling interrogation of his private life, was told at the end: “You’re finished.” The man immediately got up from his chair, walked out onto the street and shot himself in the head on the corner of 21st Street and Virginia Ave.
Threats came from every direction. A classic tale: Congressman Peter Frelinghuysen was one day greeted by plainclothes cops in his office who said they had found his wallet in the possession of a male prostitute, and they would keep this secret if he agreed to pay the cops some money. “$2,000?,” the wealthy Frelinghuysen asked. Nah: $50,000 in cash — now. He duly traveled to his bank in New York City and handed over the cash. But the cops were not real cops: they were crooks. And it was not the last time Frelinghuysen had to cough up. The idea of going to the actual cops was unthinkable — and these scams were a constant danger. Extortion rings were present in every major American city. Thousands fell victim.
And yet so many presidents in this culture were privately tolerant of their own gays, even if they dropped them instantly if their secret became public. This was partly because these staffers often became indispensable to their bosses. So many were classic gay-male perfectionists, trying to prove themselves more capable than any heterosexual, willing to work 18-hour days, travel at a moment’s notice, obsess about details, and simply get things done. They’re still at the heart of Capitol Hill — but now relieved of the terror their predecessors lived under. But there was often a well of affection and admiration for them as well.
A classic Smithers type was Bob Waldron, a gay man who became almost a replacement son to Lyndon Johnson. Waldron was his body man, dining with the Johnson family regularly, able to talk to LBJ candidly in ways others didn’t dare. A super-fast stenographer, he became inseparable from LBJ, on the stage with the family at the 1964 DNC convention, and once literally ordered by Johnson to hide in a closet to take notes in a meeting he had with Bobby Kennedy. He was Lady Bird’s dance partner at balls and soirees, and also operated as a walker for LBJ’s alleged mistress. From the tiny Texas town of Arp, he traveled, via LBJ, to the very center of global power.
But as soon as Waldron was nominated for a formal position on the White House staff in late 1963, an exhaustive background check found that half of the hundred or so sources on Waldron, while universally praising his work ethic, patriotism and character, “commented on his effeminate characteristics and many suspected homosexual tendencies.” He committed one single mistake: making a fumbled pass at a good friend and colleague and confessing to him after he was rejected that he had “an affliction that he’d to live with.” That “good friend” duly reported the incident and Waldron’s career was over. After being at LBJ’s right hand, he was barred from the White House grounds. Once a socialite invited to every party, he was invited to none.
The letter he wrote to the friend who betrayed him is one of the most beautiful expressions of forgiveness and pain I’ve ever read — and it’s reproduced in full in “Secret City.” But Waldron endured. He went on to be a highly successful interior designer and slowly rebuilt his social standing. He died of AIDS in 1996, alongside so many others, and Lady Bird Johnson, who is a real heroine in this book, dedicated a memorial in his honor in his hospice’s garden.
LBJ’s relationship with Waldron was mirrored by FDR’s with Sumner Welles, Jack Kennedy’s with Lem Billings, and Dwight Eisenhower’s with Arthur Vandenberg. And what the book helps reveal is just how powerful so many gay men were in Washington. (It was, in fact, a gay man who helped craft the wording of the Eisenhower purge; and it was a gay man who wrote Nixon’s speeches and came up with the “silent majority” formula.) Some more names: the brilliant and twisted Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s indispensable aide; Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington (whom Bobby Kennedy ridiculed as “that old Black fairy’); Whittaker Chambers, whose role in exposing the Communist traitor, Alger Hiss, was critical; Joe Alsop, the extremely influential columnist who lobbied for the Vietnam War, blackmailed by the Soviets. These men were at the very center of American politics and history in their day. They made a real difference — for good and ill.
But none of them fought back (though several, especially Waldron and FDR’s super-gay aide, Carmel Offie, never suppressed what one might call their style). One man did. That was Frank Kameny, a Harvard Astronomy PhD, who went to work for the government as the Space Race began to heat up. Another background check revealed a previous arrest for soliciting an undercover cop, and Kameny lost his job. His dismissal also ruled out any other employment in his field of expertise, and he struggled in poverty for a while.
I knew Frank a little. He was an extremely sharp character, with a loud piercing voice, and seemed to me to be neuro-divergent, often failing to judge social interactions, but for perhaps that very reason, incapable of being subjected to gross injustice and walking quietly away. “I simply felt something had to be done,” he said. He wrote letters to everyone in power, including presidents, to no avail. He petitioned the Supreme Court for relief, writing his own 60-page brief. And then he began to organize, starting the Mattachine Society in Washington, helping launch The Gay Blade, the first gay newspaper in DC, and was soon organizing a march outside the White House demanding equal rights for homosexuals.
Impeccably dressed men in suits and ties and women in 1950s dresses with simple well-designed placards marched back and forth politely. (Frank had to be dissuaded from demanding the lesbians wear high heels.) Mocked at the time, the news of this demo spread. For the first time for many, there were open homosexuals in public, unashamed. Hard to imagine the impact today: but it was the start of a new consciousness, and Frank’s courage was infectious. His message was simple in some ways — he pioneered the slogan “Gay Is Good” — and conservative in others:
I will not be deprived of my proper rights, freedoms and liberties, as I see them, or of a career, a profession, and livelihood, or of my right to live my life as I choose to live it, so long as I do not interfere with the rights of others to do likewise.
Notice that last part: a reminder of a liberal movement that once defended pluralism, toleration and live-and-let-live, and that now seeks to control the lives of any dissenter, ban books, police speech, and punish those who disagree with its increasingly deranged theories. Today’s “LGBTQIA+” cancel-culture bullies more accurately resemble the persecutors of gays in the past than their victims.
Kameny was also the first openly gay man to run for Congress (the DC delegate). Here was his vision of the future:
We hope that this candidacy will, in due course, relegate our private lives to matters solely of our own concern, that we too will be able to serve society fully as citizens, not as homosexuals, and that our city will be the better for it.
You can see why his extraordinary legacy has been erased or minimized by the “queer” left for decades. His common sense, “respectability politics,” and personal courage are minimized by critical queer theorists because of his race, sex and liberalism. Even now, you can read in The New Yorker a book review that can relate this astonishing story and still believe that one “sometimes feels, perhaps inevitably, that queer history is elsewhere.” Maybe “queer” history is. But 20th Century gay history is absolutely here, in some ways for the first time.
Or rather: history is here, with gay people finally included, not as some separate category, but as citizens, human beings, central to the American story. That was Larry Kramer’s view of how this work should be done — even as his gift to Yale was turned into queer theory claptrap. I’m also reminded of an early Obama primary event when the future president spoke about the anniversary of the March on Selma. A crowd member remarked: “That was a great celebration of African-American history.” To which Obama replied: “No, no, no, no, no. That was not a great celebration of African American history. That was a celebration of American history.” So is this book.
The gay men and women in “Secret City” were Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, just as their persecutors were. They came from every part of the country, of every class and race — because gay people have always been randomly distributed across the America, blue and red. So many of these people were crushed by exposure, shame, ostracism. But many somehow found the internal resources to stay sane, to love the men and women they loved, and though victims, never succumb to victimhood. Let’s remember the simple words penned by Kameny in 1959:
I am not a belligerent person, nor do I seek wars, but having been forced into a battle, I am determined that this thing will be fought thru to a successful conclusion.
And be proud that it was.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: a discussion with Bob Wright on the latest developments out of Ukraine; a batch of reader emails taking me to task, as is tradition; seven notable quotes for the week; 17 new links to our favorite Substack reads this week; a vid of trippy visuals to escape into; a backyard summer view from Michigan juxtaposed with a snowy view from Alaska; and, as always, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge from a mystery island. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
From a “long-time Dishcast listener, first-time subscriber, and drunk lapsed Catholic”:
I’ve been an atheist for as long as I knew what religion was. But man, your clarity as a rational Catholic has inspired me to seek solace in Christ in a way I’ve never considered before. Thank you for your ongoing conversations — I find the immeasurably valuable. Cheers!
New On The Dishcast: Robert Wright
Bob is a journalist, public intellectual, and the author of many books, including The Moral Animal, Nonzero, The Evolution of God, and Why Buddhism Is True. He’s written for countless magazines, including The New Republic, where he co-wrote the TRB column with Mickey Kaus. He and Mickey also co-founded Bloggingheads TV, and the two regularly converse on The Wright Show and The Parrot Room. He also has his own Substack, the Nonzero Newsletter.
Bob is quite simply brilliant, and his books have been very influential in the development of my own thinking. Empirical but spiritual, he’s one of a kind. For two clips of our convo — on what could possibly stop Putin now, and on the danger of humiliating a country — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.
New transcript just dropped: my convo with Jonathan Haidt over the damage wrought by social media over the past decade. A primer:
Another listener looks back to one of the most popular episodes this year, with Kathleen Stock:
I loved this conversation so much and sent it around to my family. You and Kathleen straightened out a very confusing topic and I want to thank you so much for it. Her idea of “immersion” regarding many trans people also reminds me of MAGA delusions about Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential election. People who are immersed in this fantasy also become furious if the fantasy is challenged. There is something deeply attached with personal identity that both gender queer-theorists and Trump supporters that cannot admit to an outer reality.
Indeed. Mt own view is that we have to help bring both camps back to some kind of objective reality. Which will not be easy.
Here’s a clip from my convo with Kathleen:
Dissents Of The Week
A reader feels I’ve contradicted myself:
I’m pretty much an institutionalist and try to convince my leftist friends that we can only deal within the system we have, even if it’s pretty unfair and actually anti-democratic. Still, in your recent Roe piece that was supposed to be a defense of democracy, you waved away criticisms of the flaws in our current system that actually make it less democratic. Imagine my surprise when I read this from your most recent post:
“And then the sheer helplessness in the face of the broader question: the fact that a critical minority of Americans adamantly refuse almost any limits on access to any kind of weapon, and are able — thanks to the Senate’s demographic imbalance — to block any meaningful attempts to set saner limits …”
Sounds like a familiar argument!
Read my response to that dissent, along with two others, here. As always, keep the helpful criticism coming: email@example.com.
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as the Dem strategy for the fall, China, and the Depp-Heard trial. Below is one example, followed by a few new Substacks:
Paul Matzko is alarmed by the Republican turn against corporate rights and free speech.
You can also browse all the Substack writers we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. Here’s a preview of the latest creations from the contest sleuth known as “A. Dishhead”:
Long live Dishheads! And God Save The Queen. See you next Friday.