An instant New York Times bestseller, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington is a groundbreaking chronicle of American politics. Utilizing thousands of pages of declassified documents, over one hundred interviews, and material unearthed from presidential archives across the country, Secret City illuminates how cultural and political anxiety over gay people shaped the administrations of each successive twentieth century president—from Roosevelt to Clinton.

Author James Kirchick begins with the tragic story of brilliant FDR advisor Sumner Welles, who found himself at the center of what Secretary of State Cordell Hull called “the greatest national scandal since the existence of the United States.” From there, Secret City reveals how homophobia impacted everything from the rivalry between the CIA and the FBI to the ascent of Joseph McCarthy, the struggle for Black civil rights, and the rise of the conservative movement. Among other revelations, Kirchick tells of the World War II–era gay spymaster who pioneered seduction as a tool of American espionage, the devoted aide whom Lyndon Johnson treated as a son yet abandoned once his sexual orientation was discovered, and how allegations of a “homosexual ring” controlling Ronald Reagan nearly derailed his 1980 election victory.

A riveting and sprawling history, Secret City takes readers inside the atmosphere of political Washington, where for decades the secret “too loathsome to mention” held enormous, terrifying power—and the mere suggestion that a person might be gay could destroy reputations, end careers, and ruin lives.

As George Stephanopoulos has said about Secret City: “Not since Robert Caro’s Years of Lyndon Johnson have I been so riveted by a work of history. Secret City is not gay history. It is American history.”

And according to the author of Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas Dale Carpenter, Secret City is a “mesmerizing and moving account of gay proximity to power, and the shocking resistance to it, in America’s capital city long before the modern gay-rights movement began.”

James Kirchick is a columnist for Tablet magazine, a writer at large for Air Mail, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age, Kirchick’s journalism has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and the New York Review of Books; he has also contributed essays to the collections Fight for Liberty: Defending Democracy in the Age of Trump and New Threats to Freedom. He is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association Journalist of the Year Award.


Bill Goldstein reviews books and interviews authors for NBC’s Weekend Today in New York. He was the founding editor of the New York Times books website and was programming curator at Roosevelt House from 2010-2019. He is the author of The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the Year that Changed Literature. He is writing the authorized biography of Larry Kramer, to be published by Crown, and worked on the book as a 2019-2020 fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library.

This event is made possible by the generous support of the New York City Council and the CUNY LGBTQ Consortium.

James Kirchick — Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington | Posted on October 26th, 2022 | Book Discussions, LGBTQ Center Program