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‘Secret City’ reveals long hidden stories of gay purges in federal gov’t

Gay journalist uncovers reports of closeted officials serving under 10 presidents



(Book cover via Amazon)

A new book released this week called “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington” is drawing the attention of LGBTQ rights activists and longtime Washington insiders alike for its never-before-told stories about dozens of closeted mostly gay men and at least one lesbian who worked for 10 U.S. presidents beginning with Franklin Roosevelt through George H.W. Bush.

The book ends with the role LGBTQ people played under the 11th president it covers — Bill Clinton — by pointing out that Clinton was the first president to appoint openly gay or lesbian people to high-level administration positions.

The book’s author, gay journalist James Kirchick, says he chose to end the book with his coverage of Clinton because Clinton, for the most part, ended the restrictions against gays and lesbians serving in sensitive civilian government jobs by lifting the longstanding ban on approving government security clearances for gays.

In an interview with the Blade, Kirchick said he began his research for the book over a decade ago in his role as a Washington reporter with a longstanding interest in the Cold War and the U.S. government’s struggle to address the perceived threat of communism promoted by the then Soviet Union at the conclusion of World War II.

He said that prior to that time homosexuality was perceived as a “sin, a very bad sin,” but not a threat to the safety and security of the country. But that changed at the start of World War II when the country developed what Kirchick calls a bureaucracy for managing military and governmental secrets needed to protect the country from outside threats.

“From the Second World War until the end of the Cold War that followed, the specter of homosexuality haunted Washington,” Kirchick writes in the introduction to his book. “Nothing posed a more potent threat to a political career or exerted a more fearsome grip on the nation’s collective psyche, than the love expressed between people of the same sex,” he writes.

Kirchick notes the development widely observed by historians and LGBTQ activists that homosexuals in important government positions were perceived to be a threat to national security because societal bias and official government restrictions forced them to hide their sexual orientation and made them susceptible to blackmail by foreign government agents seeking to uncover U.S. military secrets.

In his 2006 book, “The Lavender Scare,” gay historian David K. Johnson reports how large numbers of gays were denied security clearances and forced out of their jobs because of fears of security breaches that Johnson said were never shown to have happened.

Kirchick, who said he was inspired by Johnson’s book, expands on “Lavender Scare’s” reporting by providing detailed stories of dozens of individual gay people or people incorrectly thought to be homosexual who became ensnared in investigations into their alleged sexual orientation while working for at least 10 U.S. presidents.

The presidents the book covers include Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

A statement announcing the release of the book says Kirchick obtained thousands of pages of declassified documents, interviewed more than 100 people, and viewed documents from presidential libraries and archives across the country to obtain the information he needed for “Secret City.” 

Among those forced out of their job was Sumner Wells, a high-level State Department official and diplomatic adviser under Franklin Roosevelt. In “Secret City,” Kirchick tells how despite Wells’ reputation as an invaluable adviser to Roosevelt, the president made it clear Wells could not remain in the administration after word got out that he had solicited one or more young men for sex who worked as porters on passenger trains that Wells had taken to travel to different parts of the country.

Not all of the book’s stories involve government officials. In one story Kirchick tells about Oliver Sipple, a former U.S. Marine who saved the life of President Gerald Ford by deflecting the gun of a woman who attempted to shoot Ford as he emerged from an event in San Francisco. The widely publicized incident prompted some gay activists to publicly disclose that Sipple was gay and should be hailed as a hero.

The book reports that Sipple was not out publicly and became emotionally distraught after being outed. His parents reacted in a hostile way after learning from press reports that their son was a homosexual and told him he was no longer welcome to visit his parents, according to the book.

A far more positive story emerged during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. The book reports on a development reported by the Washington Blade and other media outlets at the time it became known in 1979 when Jamie Shoemaker, a gay man who worked as a linguist with the U.S. National Security Agency, or NSA, had his security clearance revoked and was told he would be fired after officials at the highly secretive agency discovered he was gay.

Shoemaker contested the effort to dismiss him and retained D.C. gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, who was a recognized expert in helping gays contest efforts to revoke government security clearances, to represent him. In a development that surprised many political observers, former Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, who Carter had appointed as director of the NSA, determined that Shoemaker was not a threat to the agency’s secrets and could retain his security clearance and his job.

Inman made that determination after Kameny and Shoemaker made it clear that Shoemaker was an out gay man who had no problem disclosing his sexual orientation at work if doing so did not jeopardize his job. Shoemaker became the first known gay person to be allowed to retain a high-level security clearance at a U.S. government intelligence agency such as the NSA and possibly at any government agency or department.

Shoemaker, who has since retired, told the Blade that in recent years, an LGBTQ employee group at the NSA has invited him to return to the agency’s headquarters as a guest speaker for the group’s LGBTQ Pride event with the full approval of NSA officials. The welcoming of Shoemaker at the NSA in recent years is viewed by activists as a development illustrating the dramatic changes that have taken place in support of LGBTQ workers at security agencies like the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI.

But Kirchick includes in his book a slightly less positive story about one of Carter’s White House aides, Midge Costanza, who Kirchick says was known by political insiders to be a lesbian who never publicly acknowledged her sexual orientation. Costanza became widely known and praised by LGBTQ activists when she invited LGBTQ leaders from across the country to the White Houses to provide her and the Carter administration with a briefing on LGBTQ issues. The meeting became the first known time that gay and lesbian rights advocates had been invited to the White House for an official meeting.

Carter himself was out of town at the time of the meeting for a pre scheduled visit to the presidential retreat at Camp David, White House officials said at the time.

Kirchick reports that in the following year or two, during Carter’s first and only term in office as president, higher up White House officials who Kirchick says were known as the “Georgia Mafia” because of their association with Carter at the time he was Georgia governor, disparaged Costanza over claims that she was pushing positions too far to the left. Among other things, the White House officials moved Costanza’s office from a prestigious location near the Oval Office to an out of the way basement space. Costanza a short time later resigned and returned to Rochester, New York, where she began her political career.

Despite what Kirchick said was a setback of sorts for the LGBTQ cause by the outcome of Costanza’s tenure at the White House, he writes in his book that the situation soon improved for gay people working in the federal government in Washington.

“The story of the secret city is also the story of a nation overcoming one of its deepest fears,” Kirchick writes in the concluding chapter of “Secret City.” 

“Only when gay people started living their lives openly did the hysteria start to become plain for what its was,” he writes. “Across the broad sweep of American history, no minority group has witnessed a more rapid transformation in its status, in the eyes of their fellow citizens, than gay people in the second half of the twentieth century,” Kirchick concludes. 

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Tragedy and comedy intertwined in witty ‘Quietly Hostile’

Irby’s fourth essay collection addresses pandemic, TV writing career, more



(Book cover image courtesy of Vintage)

‘Quietly Hostile: Essays’
By Samantha Irby
c.2023, Vintage
$17/304 pages

You know from the get-go that “Quietly Hostile,” essayist, television writer and humorist Samantha Irby’s fourth essay collection, is filled to the brim with the author’s mordant wit, cynicism and empathy. Who else but Irby, 43, who has struggled with depression, would write: “This book is dedicated to Zoloft”?

There are zillions of essay collections. But few are as memorable, poignant, funny (sometimes grossly, in a good way) and heart-filled (a term Irby might hate) as “Quietly Hostile”

This long-awaited collection is filled with what Irby would call “good shit”: from hilarious descriptions of her bad dog in doggie day care to bits about, literally, shit, (that will gross you out, but reduce your shame about pooping).

Irby, who is Black and bisexual, grew up in poverty in Evanston, Ill. Her parents died when she was 18 (her mother from multiple sclerosis; her father, who gambled, likely, suffered from post traumatic stress disorder).

At the age of nine, Irby’s mother’s MS went out of remission. While still a child, she was called upon to care for her Mom.

“When I was an actual kid growing up on welfare with a sick mom and expired Tuna Helper from the dollar store, the future and its infinite possibilities stretched before me like a sumptuous buffet I couldn’t afford to go to,” Irby writes.

There is a backdrop of pain, sadness and, sometimes, anger to much of Irby’s humor. But  self-pity and rage don’t consume the book.

Irby, the author of “Meaty,” “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life” and “Wow, No Thank You,” knows that the cliche is true: tragedy and comedy often are often intertwined. 

It’s fun to learn in “Quietly Hostile” that Irby, who was a writer for the popular TV shows “Shrill” and “Tuca & Bertie,” is as much a fan as the rest of us of the TV shows she loves.

In 1998, Irby couldn’t afford cable or HBO. She had to wait to watch the “City” until it came out on VHS. “The show reflected nothing of my life,” she writes, “but provided something of a road map for my future…” she writes.

In a future, she wouldn’t have dreamed of then, she grew up to become a writer on “And Just Like That,” the “Sex and the City” reboot. (She’s a writer on season two of “And Just Like That” which premieres on June 22 on Max.)

Irby was stunned when Michael Patrick King of “And Just Like That” asked her to write for the show. “I was like … Are you allowed to work on a show like this if you only wear nine-dollar T-shirts,” she writes, “and have no idea how many Brooklyns there are.”

 “During my interview,” Irby jokes, “I said, ‘Can I give Carrie diarrhea?’ and I was hired immediately.”

Even ardent “Sex and the City” aficionados may find too much of SATC in “Quietly Hostile.”

No worries: Irby who speaks of herself as being “fat” and “sick” (she has arthritis and Crohn’s disease), riffs on many things in “Quietly Hostile.” Irby turns her sharp wit on everything from what it’s like to run for a public toilet when you have diarrhea to why she’s a David Matthew’s fan girl to her love for (approaching addiction to) Diet Coke to the “last normal day” before the pandemic to the “food fights” that are a part of the most loving marriages.

Grab a Diet Coke (or libation of your choice), tell your bad dog to quit barking and enjoy “Quietly Hostile.”

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‘Harley Quinn: Ravenous’ a dark Gotham novel with a feminist warrior

New book awash in crazy action, humor, and superheroes



(Book cover image courtesy Random House)

‘Harley Quinn: Ravenous’ 
By Rachael Allen
c.2023, Random House 
$19.99/349 pages

Forget about it.

Put it out of your mind; don’t worry about it. It’s likely nothing, so let it rest. Let it go and don’t be afraid because, as in the new book “Harley Quinn: Ravenous” by Rachael Allen, fear is how they make you scream.

Being a first-year intern at Gotham University was going to be the best.

Having completed the university’s gap-year program last year, Harleen Quinzel was practically bouncing. She’d decided on research, possibly psychology, as a career and first year program included mentorship and a chance to study some of Gotham’s worst, most notorious criminal minds. The Joker, Two-Face, King Shark, Mr. Freeze, she could be assigned to any one of them at Arkham Asylum.

First year was also going to be a bit of a relief.

Sure, she’d still have to put up with classmates like the jerk who kept asking if she was “straight now” (nope, still bi, today, tomorrow, last week) and she’d have to try to fit in, which was hard to do after what happened at the end of last year. Then, some of Harleen’s friends were attacked with a fear spray that made them scream and scream, and her best friend died from it. There was gossip but Harleen had her research to enjoy, she loved her mentor, and she was fascinated by Talia al Ghul, who’d tried to assassinate Gotham’s mayor. Talia was a great study-subject – even though Harleen wasn’t technically supposed to ever speak to her.

Until Talia said that she knew who made the fear spray. She needed information for information, tit for tat, and she hinted that she knew the truth about Straw Man, who was rumored to haunt Arkham and who had a hand in the fear spray, so…

So then Harleen woke up in the hospital, the victim of a bad accident and amnesia. But was it an accident? Were this guy, Win, and the adorable Ivy trustworthy? And the escape of Gotham City’s worst, most violent criminals — was Harleen at fault?

Let’s say a movie theater mushed its film to a pulp and made a novel from the leftover cells. Or they used the mush to paint a Ben-Dot artwork panel, but in words. That’s kinda how you could think of this book. As a part of the “DC Icons” franchise, “Harley Quinn: Ravenous” almost screams graphic novel or comic book.

So what’s the problem?

Nothing, as long as you know that before you pick it up because that’s the sort of feel you’ll get in what only looks like a regular novel. Nothing, if you relish a story that starts with action and peppers it with chaos before dropping readers into a land of dark monsters and crime. Nothing at all, if you’ve read author Rachael Allen’s novel-before-this-one – otherwise, you’ll be awash in humor, feminism, superheroes, and scrambling to find your footing. Be warned.

Overall, if you love a funny, crazy-paced dark-Gotham novel with a feminist warrior, you’ll devour “Harley Quinn: Ravenous.” As for a bookmark…? Nah, forget about it.

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When artists we love behave badly

New book ‘Monsters’ explores this common fan dilemma



('Monsters' book cover image courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf)

‘Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma’
By Claire Dederer
c.2023, Alfred A. Knopf
$28/288 pages

Recently, I listened to an audio version of “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. I cheered when Rowling said Dumbledore is gay.

Yet, I wondered, should I read the Potter books (no matter how much I love them) when Rowling has made hurtful remarks about trans people? 

That is the question many fans ask today: What do we do when artists make art we love, but behave badly? 

“Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma,” by memoirist and critic Claire Dederer delves into this  vexing question.

This perplexing query has no “right” answer that works for everyone. Yet, if you enjoy art, you’re likely to keep wrestling with it. 

A book delving into this conundrum could be as outdated as the last news cycle. The  cancel culture debate has engulfed social media for eons.

Yet, Dederer’s meditation on the relationship between art and its fans is provocative and entertaining. Reading “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma” is like downing two, three, maybe four espressos after a couple of cups of strong coffee.

One minute, you may feel that Dederer has it exactly right. The next moment, you might wonder what planet she’s on.

I applauded Dederer when she wrote, “There is not some correct answer…The way you consume art doesn’t make you a bad person, or a good one.” 

But I wanted to throw the book across the room as I read that Dederer preferred Monty Python over queer comedian, writer, and actor Hannah Gadsby. “Listen, I’d rather watch the Pythons than Gadsby any day of the week,” Dederer writes.

To be fair, Dederer opines about Monty Python to make a point about the “monster” of exclusion. “None of these guys has the bandwidth,” she writes about Monty Python, “to even entertain the idea that a woman’s or person of color’s point of view might be just as ‘normal’ as theirs, just as central.”

Dederer, the author of two critically acclaimed memoirs “Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning” and “Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses,” struggles, as a fan and critic, with many types of monsters.

Dederer, who started out as a movie critic, began grappling with monsters in 2014. Then, “I found myself locked in a lonely–okay, imaginary–battle with an appalling genius,” she writes.

The “appalling genius” was filmmaker Roman Polanski, who, Dederer reports, raped a 13-year-old. Despite her knowledge of Polanski’s crime, “I was still able to consume his work,” Dederer writes, “[though] he was the object of boycotts and lawsuits and outrage.”

Her gallery of monsters contains the usual hetero male suspects from Bill Cosby to Woody Allen. Dederer deplores Allen’s behavior, but considers “Annie Hall” to be the greatest 20th century film comedy. She finds “Manhattan” unwatchable because Allen’s character dates a high school girl, but considers “Annie Hall” to be better than “Bringing Up Baby.” (Mea culpa: I love “Annie Hall.” But, better than “Baby?)

For Dederer, monsters aren’t only male or hetero. She wonders, for instance, if the brilliant poet Sylvia Plath, was a monster because she abandoned her children for her art.

Dederer muses about the actor Kevin Spacey (who will be on trial in June for alleged sexual assault in the United Kingdom), Michael Jackson, and J. K. Rowling.

“One of the great problems faced by audiences is named the Past,” Dederer writes, “The past is a vast terrible place where they didn’t know better.”

‘But, Dederer reminds us: sometimes they did.Queer writer Virginia Woolf (author of the luminous “Mrs. Dalloway” and the gender-bending “Orlando”) is a god to many queers. Yet, Dederer reports, Woolf, though married to Leonard Woolf, who was Jewish, made flippant anti-Semitic remarks in her diaries. You could say Woolf was just “joking” as people in her time did. Yet, Dederer reminds us, gay author E.M. Forster wrote in a 1939 essay, “…antisemitism is now the most shocking of all things.”

I wish Dederer, who writes of racism and sexism in art, had written about the homophobia in art (in the past and present). I’d have loved it if she’d mused on the brilliant queer, anti-Semitic, racist writer Patricia Highsmith who gave us the “Talented Mr. Ripley.”

I’d liked to have seen some mention of Islamophobia, ableism and racism against Asian-Americans and indigenous people in art in “Monsters.”

Despite these quibbles, “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma” is a fascinating book. There’s no calculator (as Dederer wishes there was) to tell us whether we should go with the art we love or renounce the work of the artist whose behavior we deplore. But, Dederer turns this dilemma into an exhilarating adventure.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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