LGBTQ+ Influence On American Politics: Book Talk on James Kirchick’s Secret City
Issue 6, Volume 113
Students gathered in Lecture Hall A on November 8 to listen to American author James Kirchick discuss his book, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, on invitation from history teacher David Hanna. The talk was organized with assistance from the Alumni Association and the Stuyvesant Book Club and was moderated by presidents of Stuyvesant’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and Spectrum.
Secret City explores the history of homosexuality in the American government and the effect of government policy on closeted individuals. “[Kirchick’s book] was mostly centered around the Cold War era and mainly highlighted the effects that the Cold War and mass paranoia had on gay people in the government. Even if [politicians] weren’t necessarily homosexual, they would still be stigmatized just from being accused of being gay,” junior Violeta Zani, who attended the event, said.
Kirchick was inspired to write his book because of a college biography project on Larry Kramer, an AIDS activist from the 1980s, and his interest in American history. “Living in Washington and being very interested in American history, 20th-century history, and the history of the Cold War, [...] I began to realize that homosexuality played a very important role in American national politics. [...] Every president has had to deal with it in some way, whether there was a scandal, a gay scandal, or they had a gay friend, or there was some kind of policy related to it,” Kirchick said. “It just seemed like a really big topic that no one had really treated in the form of a large narrative history book.”
To plan the event, Hanna first reached out to Kirchick after attending an event at which Kirchick spoke. “I was at a book fair, [...] and was doing a presentation on my book. Hanna was in the audience. He approached me afterward and asked me to come to [Stuyvesant],” Kirchick said. “I come up to New York pretty frequently; I was giving a talk the next day at Hunter College, so I just figured, why not come up a day earlier?” Kirchick was familiar with Stuyvesant due to a close friendship with alumnus Elina Tetelbaum (‘03), president of the Alumni Association. Kirchick was not paid an honorarium to speak but was compensated for his train ticket from DC.
Hanna reached out to school counselor and Spectrum faculty advisor Angel Colon through Assistant Principal for Social Studies and Research Jennifer Suri in order to find moderators. “It was a way to engage directly with the students. [The moderators] coming at it, being in Spectrum, [with] their understanding about how people are seen in society, and how to understand the way history has, in many ways, marginalized people, and how they’re trying to empower people.” Hanna said. “I think having them speak was important because it made it more relevant to our community.” Seniors and Spectrum presidents Ruby Friedman and Michelle Zhang served as moderators for this event. They introduced Kirchick, ushered in students, and led the Q&A at the end of the talk.
The event was met with an unprecedented turnout. About 130 attendees filled up the lecture hall, leaving students to sit in the aisles between seats. “A lot of students were sitting on the floor. [...] Teachers posted [about] the [event] without letting any of us know so a lot of extra students came. I felt bad saying no,” junior and Book Club Internal Outreach Director Faiza Mia, who helped plan the RSVP and set up the lecture hall, said. “Eventually Mr. Hanna stopped people from coming in.”
One likely contributor to the turnout was the extra credit offered by Hanna and history teachers Robert Sandler, Ellen Siegel, and Lisa Greenwald. However, organizers hoped that students came for more than just extra credit. “I really hope that people actually listened to James Kirchick’s ideas because I think his book was really good. He had really astute ideas and he’s been writing it for 10 years,” Mia said.
In concordance with Mia’s hopes, many students attended the event because of a genuine interest in the topic. “Sandler did offer us an extra credit opportunity. However, I thought this would be a very interesting opportunity for me to take up because I love history, I love learning about the American government, and knowing this is a hidden history,” Zani said. “You don’t see our textbooks talking about this. We [don’t] really see it in the media [either].”
Similarly, the fascination that students developed toward this silenced topic was highlighted by the reactions and takeaways that they outlined in their extra credit responses. “I had students write responses for extra credit and many of them were fascinated by the Lavender Scare, where gay men were targeted by the federal government during the Red Scare in the 1950s,” Sandler said.
While Kirchick has done many speaker events before, he hopes to expand his talks to more high schools to educate the young on queer history. “I’ve talked to a lot of audiences but they’re almost all adults. [...] Your school was the first high school that I spoke to, which I was very eager to do because I think that this sort of history people in high school should be learning,” Kirchick said.
In accordance with Kirchick, Sandler also pointed out the importance of teenagers learning about the queer side of American history, especially since it tends to be an often ignored aspect of history. “Many of my students seemed to be unaware about [the] Lawrence v. Texas (2003) case in which the Court ruled that criminal punishment for consensual, adult non-procreative sexual activity was unconstitutional. They also were surprised by the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy on gays in the military that was repealed in 2011,” Sandler said, “I forget sometimes how quickly the political culture of America has changed with Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) and Pete Buttigieg winning the Iowa presidential [caucus]. So [the event] was a good review of the past 20 year struggle for LGBT rights.”
Through his book, Kirchick wants people to learn about the dark side of American history in its handling of queer people, while also recognizing the immense progress that American society has made. “[Homosexuality] is something that the leaders of our country were very obsessed with, they were extremely afraid of it, and went to great lengths to root it out, to eliminate it from American politics,” Kirchick said, “Fortunately, our government does not treat gay people as it used to, and I think that [the] story of how it happened, how gay people went from being the most despised group of people in this country to now serving in the president’s cabinet, in the military, openly in all aspects of our life and our culture, [is] really an endorsement to the American democratic system.”
Ultimately, many attendees found the event impactful as it turned important attention to queer history, especially to those that are not members of the LGBTQ+ community. “Gay history is commonly overlooked because it’s a type of history that America tries to hide. This event is trying to [...] say [LGBTQ+] history coincides with American history and it’s important that you tell it as American history,” Friedman said. “I think this talk is just another example of us making sure we have our place in the community and everyone else knows that we belong and this is our history.”