Washington’s Secret Gay History


Washington DC is a lot gayer than most people imagine. It’s a magnet to young professional queers with their sights set on high-powered careers. Dykes and fags – many of them out – are commonplace on the staff of Congress members and White House officials. We are also well represented among the multitude of journalists and lobbyists that work in the city.

Just think about it: all those long hours Washington insiders devote to political meetings, campaigns, negotiations and manoeuvring. People without family commitments are best placed to get ahead. It’s ideal for homos, which is why there is such a big gay presence in the city. It may be politics by day, but at night it’s party-time.

Going out bar-hopping and clubbing, I found myself chatting up three big wheeler-dealers in succession: a top Democrat administrator, a guy who worked in the Office of AIDS Policy, and a senior White House intern. And that was in just one night!

Washington DC is the capital of the most powerful nation in the world – and it shows. This is an ostentatiously imperial city, perhaps surpassing even the grandeur of Rome in the hey-day of its Empire. Laid out in long, wide triumphal boulevards, Washington exudes wealth and self-importance with huge, towering classical-style public buildings and monuments.

Depending on your taste and perspective, the city is either elegantly grand or gargantuan in a way that is almost fascistic. My reaction? I was impressed – not intimidated.

The centre piece of the city – The National Mall – is truly breathtaking in its size and symbolic aura. The sheer opulence and colossal scale represent American wealth and empire on showy display.

It is, however, easy to forget that not far beyond the main axis of government buildings – less than ten blocks away – are some of the worst slums in the USA. A tale of two cities!

None of Washington’s great public monuments scream out an obvious queer heritage. But dig a little deeper into history, and a surprising number of the central characters and events in the nation’s capital have a queer connection.

Here are my top ten tips for places to visit in Washington DC. Some of them have a gay angle; others don’t. But they are all magnificent.


This is the home of the fag-loving, serial philandering US President. Well that is the story according to Bill’s enemies. It is, in fact, a rather modest and unimposing building by comparison to the other humungus-sized Washington landmarks. After being burnt down by the British in 1814, it was restored and painted white – hence its name.

One of its most notorious queer residents, from 1857-61, was America’s only bachelor President, James Buchanan. His best friend, and probable lover, Senator William Rufus De Vane King of Alabama, was known among Capitol Hill gossips as “Miss Nancy”. When he was posted to France as US ambassador, jokes circulated about the President’s “divorce”.

The White House was also home to Eleanor, the bisexual wife of President Roosevelt, who had a passionate affair with journalist Lorena Hickok. But you won’t read that in any of the guides to Washington!

In the book Seeds of Destruction: Joe Kennedy and His Sons (1995), it was revealed that President John Kennedy had a brief gay fling with a room-mate, Lem Billings, during his student days in Connecticut. Although Kennedy later became infamous for his voracious sexual appetite in the White House, all his subsequent affairs were apparently strictly heterosexual.


The stunning classical, prison-like architecture of this building evokes the horrors of the holocaust that are documented inside. No other museum in the world so dramatically captures the terror of Nazism, including the persecution of homosexuals.

You stare into the abyss of barbarism as you gaze upon the archive film, newspaper headlines, copies of Nazi declarations and instruments of torture.

Then there’s the shock of being confronted with great piles of shoes, human hair and glasses every item representing a life extinguished.

To see a genuine threadbare pink triangle badge was, for me, more moving than words can describe. I found myself thinking about the terrible suffering of the gay man who wore that small, tattered piece of fabric. It is hard to believe that something so insignificant and grubby could determine the fate of a human life. Heart breaking but unmissable!


This is the home of the US Congress – the Senate and House of Representatives. Construction began in 1793 and it was finally completed in 1867. The Capitol is so enormous that St Paul’s Cathedral would fit inside the dome with room to spare.

Nowadays, there are lots of openly lesbian and gay staff employed by Congressmen and women. But in the 1950s, homosexual employees trembled with fear as Senator McCarthy launched his witch-hunt against queers and communists. He was ably assisted by that vile, self-hating faggot, Roy Cohn.

Hundreds lost their jobs in Congress, the State Department and the military. Today, the atmosphere in Congress is much more accepting of lesbians and gays, despite the lingering presence of right-wing neanderthals like Republican, Jesse Helms. The best known out gay congressman is Barney Frank of Massachusetts (Democrat).


Situated at the lake edge, by the Potomac River, this Palladian-style domed rotunda, honours the third President of the US Republic, Thomas Jefferson, who ruled from 1801-09. The memorial was erected in 1943, the 200th anniversary of his birth. Inside is a 19-foot-high bronze statue of Jefferson, and on the walls are excerpts from some of his most famous writings, including the Declaration of Independence.

Widely regarded as an enlightened reformer, he urged the emancipation of slaves long before it was popular to do so. In 1777 he attempted – unsuccessfully – to liberalise Virginia’s anti-sodomy laws by reducing the penalty from death to castration!


Of all the many magnificent museums on The National Mall, this one – the history of flight – is the most outstanding. What I loved the most was the section on the exploration of space. Here you see the actual rockets, space capsules and lunar modules that conquered the heavens. My first impression was how tiny and fragile they looked. Parts of the moon-lander from the Apollo mission seemed to be covered in little more than tin foil, and the external wiring was taped on to the side with what looked like giant plasters. So amateurish! How could something that looked so unsophisticated go all the way to the moon and back?

When the space capsules were built in the 1960s, NASA covered the outside with asbestos tiles to stop them burning up as they hurtled back to Earth. In the museum, a close examination reveals that some of the tiles had burnt nearly all the way through as the capsule re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. If re-entry had lasted another couple of minutes, the astronauts would have been char-grilled like barbecued ribs. Small details like this remind us that even the most triumphant space exploration has often come close to disaster.


Erected in the early 1900s, this monument to the l6th President is awesome. There is no memorial to any person in Britain that comes near it in terms of sheer size and reverence. The 30 foot high, white marble statue of Abraham Lincoln sits in a simple, bare building, modelled on the style of a classical Greek temple. On the side wall is the carved text of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. One of the greatest speeches of all time, it proclaimed his democratic vision of “government of the people, by the people and for the people”.

A 1995 biography by Prof Scott Thompson claims that when Lincoln was a struggling young lawyer, he shared a room, and a bed, with the merchant, Joshua Speed. Although he later married, Lincoln continued to write “extraordinarily tender letters” to Speed for many years afterwards.

J EDGAR HOOVER FBI BUILDING The building, as such, is not particularly noteworthy. But it is worth a visit to recall the vicious persecution of lesbians and gays by Amerika’s national police force, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, led by the poisonous closet queer, J Edgar Hoover.

When the Gay Liberation Front was founded in New York in 1969, Hoover branded it an anti-American, subversive organisation. FBI agents infiltrated the GLF. Members were put under police surveillance. Their phones were tapped and their mail opened.

While bashing fags, and harassing the gay movement, Hoover led a secret double-life. In public, he projected a conservative, family-man image, denouncing sexual perversion as a threat to America. Privately, he dragged up in women’s clothes and had a long-running affair with his deputy Clyde Tolson. Hypocrite or what?


This is the nation’s great symbolic phallus. Over 500 feet high, it was built in 1888 to commemorate the first US President, George Washington. Located in the middle of The National Mall, half way between the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial, it can be seen for miles around. You can take a lift to the viewing windows at the top (or climb 898 stairs).

It is a grand memorial to a closeted history-maker. Washingtom led the American colonies to victory in their War of Independence against British subjection. What is less well known is that he surrounded himself with a coterie of young male revolutionaries, and showed a particular fondness for the youthful Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary to the Treasury.

The Washington Monument is the site of Martin Luther King’s celebrated 1963 Civil Rights Rally, when he made his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Few people realise that the Rally was largely organised by the gay black leader, Bayard Rustin, who was pressured to step out of the limelight after being arrested for homosexuality.

The other notable event that took place at the Washington Monument was the 1993 “March On Washington” for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights. Attended by nearly 750,000 people, it was the biggest political demonstration in American history.


There is nothing at all gay about this monument. More like tragic. The sombre V-shaped black granite wall, sunk into the ground near the Lincoln Memorial, is inscribed with the names of every American who died in the Vietnam War – more than 58,000.

It is moving beyond imagination, especially for my generation who lived through that era. I was a teenager growing up in Australia during the 1960s, and I remember the nightly news

bulletins about the US invasion and bombing of Vietnam, which was arguably the greatest genocide since Nazism. That’s why I refused to be drafted into the Australian army which was battling alongside the Americans in Vietnam.

An opponent of the war, I regard what the Americans and Australians did in Vietnam as a crime against humanity. Even so, I cried as I stood before that black granite wall, thinking of the many young men from my generation who died in that terrible, unjust war – their lives wasted in a cause without honour.


Situated in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, this small park honours the great revolutionary soldiers who defeated the British army of occupation in the battle for US independence.

One of those revered with a grand statue in the north-west corner of the square is General Baron von Steuben (1730-1794), who helped found the US Army and played a major role in the liberation of America from British rule.

Von Stueben had originally served on the military staff of the gay Prussian King, Frederick II, but left Europe for America amid allegations of homosexual scandal. When von Steuben took on the task of training the US rebels, he picked a handsome 17-year-old soldier as his secretary and personal assistant. The two were inseparable. In his later years, he developed a close attachment to two young captains who had served as his aides-de-camp. His will named them as his adopted children” and sole heirs.

Von Steuben’s statue is a paean to homo-eroticism and camp irony. At the base, are the figures of two naked men, one advising the other in the art of swordmanship. It is entitled “military instruction”.

I could not resist the temptation to play a few tricks, as I noticed hordes of German tourists arriving by the busload to admire their countryman who had made it big in America. Pretending to be an official Washington tour guide, I bid the next batch of German visitors welcome and gave them a history of von Steuben’s life and achievements. They were very proud and impressed, until I got to the punch-line about him being gay. It was delightful to see them squirm with sudden discomfort and embarrassment. Then I compounded their unease by pointing out the paradox that the US military today bans lesbians and gays, despite the fact that 200 years ago it was founded by a raving homosexual.

I played this trick on four busloads of Germans. I could have done it all day. It was great propaganda for the gay cause. But I suddenly remembered that I was in Washington to have a break from my seven days a week activism in London. So I wandered off to the Smithsonian Institute and got on with the rest of my holiday.

Thud, 12 February 1998

Copyright Peter Tatchell 1998. All rights reserved.