The Good Fight
James Kirchick on America’s Enormous Progress on Gay Rights

James Kirchick on America’s Enormous Progress on Gay Rights

Yascha Mounk and James Kirchick discuss how the fear of homosexuality shaped Cold War politics and foreign policy.

James Kirchick is a writer and a columnist at Tablet. His most recent book is Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and James Kirchick discuss how the Cold War shaped attitudes toward homosexuality; the (dis)similarities between homophobia and anti-Semitism; and what we can learn from the hard-won progress on gay rights about how to make progress in other areas.

The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: Let's start with your book, Secret City. It's a really beautiful testament to how much our social world has changed, and in some ways how quickly it has changed. Tell us about the early history of America's capital and homosexuality.

James Kirchick: I start the book in the years leading up to World War II. The war is a tremendously important moment in the history of homosexuality in the United States, but also in the world, because it's when homosexuality is transformed into a national security threat. Up to that point, it had been condemned in the Judeo-Christian and other religious traditions. It was a medical condition; gay people were often pathologized and sent to mental institutions and lobotomized and castrated and subjected to all sorts of torture. It was illegal across much of the Western world. What happens with World War II is that this concept of “national security” really takes shape in the United States. And the fear is that gay people, because they have this deep, dark, terrible secret, will be more susceptible to blackmail, and giving away confidential information to a foreign power, because they want to protect this deep, dark secret.

Even the more liberal-minded people of the time would have justified this policy of excluding gay people from having security clearances or working in the government. The government could have just as easily said, “Yes, we know that there is this terrible environment out there. But if you're a gay State Department official and you are being blackmailed because of your homosexuality, come to us and reveal your homosexuality, we will not fire you.” But more importantly, there was never, actually, in the United States, a recorded instance of a gay person being blackmailed into giving away confidential information. In fact, there was a Defense Department study in the early 1990s, when the “gays in the military” debate was gearing up again. They studied over one hundred cases of Americans convicted for espionage. Six of them were gay, but not a single one of them had anything to do with blackmails because of money or ideology. And in fact, the origins of this myth are traced back to pre-World War I, in the Austro–Hungarian empire, where the head of counterintelligence was a man named Colonel Alfred Redl, who was selling secrets to the Russians. He's discovered in 1913, just before the outbreak of war, and he's later blamed by the Austro–Hungarian regime as basically being the man who led the country into war. 

It turns out that he was gay, but we wouldn't know this until many years later, after the archives were opened. He was not blackmailed into his treason. He was extremely greedy. He had multiple houses and cars and a huge wine cellar. But this story caught on. The story of Alfred Redl became this almost mythological parable in the minds of Western intelligence officials. Decades later, Allen Dulles, the first civilian head of the CIA, is writing books about the Redl story. When the issue of gays in the federal government in the United States first becomes a kind of hysterical cause around the early years of the McCarthy period, the head of the CIA is testifying (this is in 1950) about the presence of homosexuals in the intelligence services. The only example he can come up with is the story of Colonel Redl.

Mounk: As you were saying, being gay was incredibly hard in Washington or anywhere else before World War II. These fears about national security ramped up during World War II, I suppose, and then during the Cold War. How does that transform life in Washington, D.C.?

Kirchick: Being a gay person, and particularly a gay man in Washington in this period of the early Cold War, was like being a dissident in an Eastern Bloc country. Your bars are being raided, and you're being arrested. Maybe your name is in the newspaper the next day. Your mail is being confiscated. The first real gay rights Supreme Court case was in 1957, and involved a magazine called ONE, which was a magazine for “homophiles.” That was one of the preferred terms for homosexuals. It was not at all pornographic. It was just sort of a literary intellectual magazine. It was impounded by the Postal Service, and its editors were charged with obscenity. 

In the early 1960s, the first gay rights organization in the United States is founded in the Hay-Adams Hotel. That meeting was surveilled by the local police and the FBI. Being a gay person, you're constantly surveilled. Your life was under a microscope. There's a real sense of tension, and I say that, actually, being a gay person was worse in American politics than being a communist. Because the communist could become an ex-communist. He could rat out his former comrades. He could denounce the party, and in fact, some of the leading and most important figures in the early American conservative movement were ex-communists. A gay person could not do that. Once you were outed, or even accused of this, it would never go away. There's one figure who I write about extensively in the book who embodies both of these—Whittaker Chambers, who's at the center of the first major spy drama of the Cold War, involving a man named Alger Hiss, a former State Department official.

Mounk: Lots of listeners will know this story, but many others won’t. Can you tell us about that?

Kirchick: Alger Hiss was referred to as the “cheese” of the Eastern establishment—educated at Harvard, he clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes at the Supreme Court. He served in the State Department in high ranking positions. He was the Secretary General at the first meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco and then after leaving the State Department, he became the head of the Carnegie Endowment. A perfect, spotless resume. Whittaker Chambers, a conservative writer, is this sort of dumpy, fat guy with bad teeth who worked for Time. In August 1948, in the first live televised congressional hearing in the United States, before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had just been founded—founded, actually, during World War II as an antifascist organization—he accuses Hiss of being a communist. This becomes a major scandal, and it's really an indictment of the American elite because they had all defended this and promoted him. 

But there's this underlying tension, a sort of unspoken element to this whole drama—a homoerotic element. Because no one can really understand the nature of the relationship between these two men. It's actually true that Chambers had led a secret life as a homosexual while he was also a member of the Communist Party. And it's never publicly alleged, but it's hinted, inferred—and Hiss’s team basically go around spreading this story—that the reason why Whittaker Chambers is making these accusations against Alger Hiss is that he's a spurned homosexual; that Hiss rejected his advances and that he’s concocting these baroque stories about the two of them being members of a secret communist cell—it's all lies. It's true that Chambers was—whether he was gay or not, that's up for debate. But he lived a gay life. And he was sleeping around with men in the 1930s. He admitted this to the FBI secretly, because he wanted to tell them everything in advance of the big trial for perjury that Hiss would undergo. Chambers could come out, so to speak, as a former communist. He could say, in 1948, “I had been a member of his communist cell. I was a traitor to my country. But now I'm a conservative and I'm embracing motherhood and apple pie.”

Mounk: In the way that conversion stories often do, that probably even gave him additional standing: “I have credibility telling you how evil they are, because I was one of them, and now I’m a decent person.”

Kirchick: Absolutely. Chambers’s memoir, Witness, by the way, is one of the most important and actually one of the great autobiographies of the 20th century. It's funny, I came across passages in that book where he's describing meeting his contacts in the communist underground. He’s describing going up to a newsstand and taking a particular magazine off the newsstand, maybe turning a page, looking at the man next to him. He's sort of sending signals by the particular magazine he chooses. And then they would go off and exchange secret documents. You can read these furtive encounters with another comrade in the communist underground, and it reads, word for word, like a description of cruising for gay sex in the 1940s or 50s, or even later. It's all coded behavior. 

I hate this term as a verb, but I sort of “queered” his memoir—I read his memoir looking for these hints. Most writers, when they write about the Hiss–Chambers case, they're not. I think it's actually central to the story of the Hiss–Chambers confrontation and really the early years of the Cold War. What I tried to do with everything in this book is really look at how homosexuality—or, more accurately, the fear of homosexuality—influenced everything, from the formation of the CIA, its rivalry with the FBI and the early years of the Cold War. There's a whole homoerotic tinge to McCarthyism. Camelot, Jack and Jackie Kennedy, and their gay friends; Nixon's paranoia and how it's really inflected by homophobia; the aura of homosexuality that sort of surrounds the Reagans. The book goes all the way to Bill Clinton, and I end with him in 1995, because that's the year that gay people were finally permitted to have security clearances. Until 1995, you could be denied security clearance because of homosexuality.

Mounk: Talk us through some of that story. You were starting to hint at the first gay rights organizations and so on that were beginning to be founded. What happens after this most intense, early Cold War moment of repression. What does it look like?

Kirchick: There's an important moment in 1957. There's a 32 year-old, Harvard-trained PhD astronomer whose name is Frank Kameny, and he's working for the Army Map Service, which is the predecessor to the Geospatial Intelligence Agency—basically, the military arm of the space program. It’s December 1957, two months after Sputnik was launched, two months into the space race. He's working at an Observatory in Hawaii and he’s summoned all the way back to Washington by the Civil Service Commission, which is today the Office of Personnel Management. They basically manage all the federal employees. He’s summoned back to Washington, and he's told on the spot, “We have evidence that you're gay.” It's an arrest record for solicitation. They fire him right there. And what Frank does is sort of revolutionary. He becomes the first gay person fired by the federal government to decide that he's actually going to challenge this. You have to understand that in the years leading up to this, thousands of people had been fired from the federal government, and none of them wanted to challenge it, because in order to challenge it, you had to go public. 

What he did was revolutionary, because he's basically the first person to say, “I'm not sick, and we're not sick as homosexuals. It's the society that is sick.” Back to my point about why homosexuality was worse than being a communist, this is two months into the space race. What's the federal government doing? They're expending their resources to fire a Harvard-trained PhD astronomer working for the Army Map Service. This just tells you how obsessed they were with this issue, that they'd rather fire a homosexual than use his talents in the fight against communism. And there were thousands of other highly-trained, well-educated, patriotic men and women who were fired. This is what's known as the “Lavender Scare.” It's worse than the Red Scare, because the Red Scare was actually predicated upon something legitimate, which was the fear of communism. It was exaggerated, but we were right to oppose communism. It was an evil ideology, and there were a number of high-ranking communists in the federal government, Alger Hiss being one of them—certainly not the hundreds that Joe McCarthy was alleging, and he ruined many innocent people's lives. But there was some legitimate basis to being worried about communism. With homosexuality, it was completely without foundation, whatsoever. And just as many lives were ruined by this irrational fear. 

Anyway, Kameny goes off and he challenges his firing. He fails. He tries to go up to the Supreme Court—not even the ACLU will take his case, by the way. The ACLU took plenty of people who were accused of communism. They defended those people. That's actually what the ACLU was founded to do, during the first Red Scare. They wouldn't take the case of a homosexual in 1957. That's how lonely the homosexual was in the United States at this time. And then in 1961, he founded an organization called the Mattachine Society of Washington, which had chapters in Los Angeles and New York. It was really the first gay civil rights organization, and they're petitioning the Civil Service Commission. They are protesting outside the White House in 1965. This is four years before the Stonewall uprising in New York City, which we are sort of led to believe was the birthplace of the gay rights movement. I actually argue it began earlier, in Washington D.C.

Mounk: You alluded to the ban on security clearances for homosexuals being lifted in 1995. But it's kind of a mixed moment. You still have "Don't ask, don't tell” in the military. The Defense of Marriage Act is passed. At the same time, you see some forms of liberalization and, of course, a growing cultural acceptance. 

What allowed Washington, D.C. and the country to make that progress by the 1990s, and why was the progress then so fast after the ‘90s? Why is it that things look so much better on many of these fronts today than they did in the mid-1990s?

Kirchick: I think it just comes down to biology: the fact that gay people are randomly distributed across the population. They are every color, religion, race, class, and political outlook. National polling companies like Pew or Gallup are asking Americans, “Do you know a gay person?” They start polling on that question in the early 1970s, and it's 2% or less. Now, obviously, those people did know gay people. They were just in the closet. Now, the latest polling shows that 94% of Americans know a gay person. Over time, you have all these gay people coming out of the closet in growing numbers. It soon becomes a fact that every American knows somebody who's gay. Maybe it's just the mailman or a teacher, or an acquaintance. Maybe it's a child. Which is not to say that all these gay people had it easy. Certainly, many of them didn't. But over time, the sheer fact that gay people are, let's say, 2 to 5% of the population—they're not going away, and attempts to convert them into heterosexuals fails—over time it becomes obvious to people that gay people are really no different from straight people. It's an aspect of human existence, really no different than being left handed. It's a morally-neutral trait. I don't think it's wrong to say that gay people were maybe the most despised minority in the United States. Their very existence was criminalized. To go from that to where we are today, I think it's safe to say it's the most dramatic and rapid social transformation in American history. 

I think it had a lot to do with persuasion—which is the title of, I believe, the auspices under which we are having this conversation. Gay people successfully persuaded the country that their cause was just, and that these things that you were led to believe about gay people—that they were pedophiles, that they were diseased, that they were sick, that they were traitors, that they were sinners—were wrong. That took many forms. It took Ellen coming out on national television. It took openly gay politicians in the late 1970s and ‘80s. It took the average gay person coming out to their coworkers and friends. It took Will & Grace. Joe Biden credited Will & Grace with being the most important cultural artifact in terms of promoting tolerance and understanding about gay people. It took all these things. Was there an element of boycotts, browbeating, canceling? Sure, there was. There's a side to the gay movement that would like to stress that—using political force to smite one's political enemies. I don't know how useful that was, frankly. I don't know if boycotting Chick-fil-A, which was a big cause a couple of years ago because the owner of Chick-fil-A, who is a religious Christian, opposed gay marriage in his personal capacity—I'm not really sure that boycotting Chick-fil-A was as influential as the corpus of Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch and other important gay and lesbian writers.

Read: “The Respect for Marriage Act Is Historic” by Jonathan Rauch

Mounk: There are a few other liberalizations of opinion that are similar, but perhaps not quite as extreme. One of the really striking ones to me is that in America in the 1960s, only about 1-in-20 Americans believed that interracial marriage is acceptable. Now, only about 1-in-20 people believe that it's morally unacceptable. That feels very significant as well. 

I agree with you about this sort of snowball effect; that if you're in an equilibrium in which nobody can come out, because the penalties for coming out are so extreme, then it's very easy for people to have terrible opinions of homosexuals. They don't know them. 

Kirchick: Exactly. This goes back to the secrecy issue. When homosexuals were secret, you could say anything about them and get away with it. During World War II, it was widely believed within the upper reaches of the US government that the Nazis were a gay cabal; that gay men were more inclined to be Nazis. And there is a kernel of truth in this, only in the sense that one of the leading Nazis in the early years, Ernst Röhm, the head of the SA, was a relatively open gay man, boasted about it, and Hitler tolerated him. Of course, he was the first to go in the Night of the Long Knives. But the presence of this one prominent homosexual then leads to this myth. And I come across documents where they're speculating at length about the supposed homosexuality of Hitler, that maybe the stab-in-the-back myth is actually the sign of a latent fear of being sodomized. I mean, really crazy stuff. Then just a couple of years later, during the Cold War, we have this conflation of homosexuality and communism. There's no logic to this. 

And then, in 1967, the only man who's ever prosecuted for the assassination of John F. Kennedy is a gay businessman in New Orleans. The reckless prosecutor who brings these charges basically alleges that there was this right-wing homosexual cabal that assassinated JFK as revenge for the failure of the Bay of Pigs. This actually becomes the basis of the movie JFK by Oliver Stone—a great movie in terms of its cinematic qualities, but also probably the most homophobic movie that Hollywood ever produced. 

When homosexuality was secret, you could say anything about gay people, and homosexuality lends itself very easily to conspiracy theory. It's very similar to anti-Semitism, actually, in that manner: gays are believed to be a part of a sort of secret international fraternity. They're more loyal to what's called the “Homintern,” the homosexual international. It's a play on the Comintern, obviously. But gays are believed to be more loyal to this than they are to their nations, which is very similar to anti-Semitism, the “rootless cosmopolitans”—the same exact accusations are leveled against against gay people. Once gay people start coming out, then this homophobia becomes kind of plainly absurd and ridiculous. When you read my book, I think it'll surprise a lot of people the things that were believed about gay people. Because, thankfully, we don't believe those things anymore.

Mounk: One of the things that I find, especially in talking to my students, but also in the general discourse, is that people have forgotten just how bad things were. I have students who tell me we’re going backwards on gay rights, and this is one of the worst moments in American history of being a gay person. 

Whatever you may think about some of the developments in the last years and whatever legitimate concerns minority groups always have about how they might be victimized in the future, it is just nuts to compare what it is like as a gay person today in the United States to what it would have been like in 1950.

Kirchick: Absolutely. While writing this book, I felt an enormous sense of gratitude to be a gay person born at the time I was born. I'm 38 years old. I think it's safe to say that being gay has never really hindered me in any professional endeavor that I've chosen. That was not true for so many people just a little bit earlier than me, right? If I'd been born in 1973, instead of 1983, or certainly 1953 or 1943, my life would have been very different. I would not have been able to do the things that I've been able to do. And that makes me very happy. It makes me very, very grateful to the gay people who came before, who really suffered and went through a lot to create a better country, not just for gay people, but for straight people, too. I think straight people have less hang ups about their own sexual orientations and gender presentation, in particular, because of what gay people did. For instance, I think straight men can show more affection for one another now, without being paranoid about having their manhood called into question. I think we've come to a more enlightened attitude towards both sexual orientation and also gender presentation. That's largely to the credit, I think, of earlier generations of gay men and women.

Mounk: I think you are, as this conversation has made clear, a philosophical liberal. 

Broadening the subject a little bit, how do you think about threats to liberalism in the United States today?

Kirchick: Look, there is no greater tool that gay people had in this country than the First Amendment, in all its forms. Freedom of expression, and the freedom to assemble—that's what gay people were denied in the personal, individual sense that they couldn’t come out of the closet. But also, they couldn't even write arguments in their favor until that was overturned (I mentioned the Supreme Court case). Assembling in a bar was illegal. You couldn't serve alcohol to homosexuals in most American cities. That's why Stonewall erupted into a riot, because the police were raiding the bar. Gay people have had no better ally in their cause than free expression and the First Amendment. It pains me now when I look at the polls from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, and you see that self-identifying LGBTQ young people are actually more supportive of shouting down, disinviting certain speakers, than their non-LGBTQ peers. That really pains me.

If you read the history of gay people in this country, it is a story of transparency and expression winning out over secrecy and shame and being quiet and silenced. I think a lot of people don't have principles. They want power. And once they get power, then they want to exercise that power. The left, in general, was the party of free speech, because it used to be the left that was screwed for expressing their free speech in this country, in most cases. You go back to the founding of the ACLU. It was founded to protect anarchists and anti-war activists. And then you go through the Civil Rights movement, the gay movement, the women's movement, radicals on campus—all sorts of left wing and progressive causes being shut down. But now that those people run these institutions, particularly academia, where they have the most concentrated control, a lot of them are not sticking true to their principles, because they now have the power. To make your adherence to principles solely conditional on whether or not you have power is very dangerous.

Mounk: Let me push you on to how secure those rights are. Because they feel very secure to me right now. But the weird thing about history is that it seems that there's always stability in the short and mid-term, while over the long term, you have these vast changes. Nobody in the 1950s could have imagined that we would be as tolerant towards homosexuality as we are today. But if you asked me what things will look like in a hundred or two hundred years, I don't know. There's a lot of evidence from other societies today and from the history of humanity, that human societies often do have very, very repressive norms about homosexuality. 

I'm asking this to you, in part since you're gay, but also because we're both Jewish. I can't imagine, ten or twenty years from now, the United States being a place of intense anti-Semitism such that Jews are imperiled. But given the long history of persecution against the Jews over thousands of years, I can easily imagine it being the case in a hundred to two hundred years. 

Kirchick: I'm actually less optimistic about the future of the Jews in this country than I am of gays, probably because anti-Semitism has been so enduring, and just never seems to go away. It actually seems to be getting worse, and has been getting worse over the past 20 years, I think, since 9/11. It's growing on the left, whereas the story of gays in this country is the complete opposite.

Just look at Kanye. He's mentally not all there, but he’s a hugely influential figure. He was condemned for it by prominent people. But certainly the tenor of our politics—having elected officials in the Democratic Party now making openly anti-Semitic statements is not something that happened with such frequency ten to fifteen years ago. A lot has changed since 9/11—9/11 combined with the Intifada. And then you have the whole Trump phenomenon. I don't think Trump is an anti-Semite. But a lot of the right-wing anti-Semites seem to like him. He opened up a can of worms. We're becoming a society more prone to conspiracy theories, on right and left, which is never good for the Jews. You look at the situation on college campuses, where the anti-Zionism is—I mean, I'm one of those who believes that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. But even if you're not, it's hard to deny that a lot of these campus activists’ anti-Zionist agitation is anti-Semitic. At Berkeley Law School a group of organizations just decided to announce that they will not invite any Zionist speakers. That's the word they used, “Zionist.” There was a Jewish comedian in the Midwest, and a woman just started shouting “Free Palestine” at him. These are anecdotes. But the data shows it, too. You look at the FBI hate crimes database, and hate crimes against Jews are skyrocketing. In New York City, the attacks on Jews are skyrocketing, and people don't seem to care. The amount of attention we devote to this type of hatred is so infinitesimally small compared to that which we devote to other types.

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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.

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