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Significance of The Newport Sex Scandal, 1919

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“Homosexuality is incompatible with military service” reads the first sentence of the Department of Defence Directive (1332.14)[1]. Exploring this statement through events such as the Newport Sex Scandal of 1919, we can determine whether this idea was plausible or simply a stigmatised generalisation on sexuality. This scandal follows the specific persecution of homosexuals in the Navy, in particular focusing on the Newport naval base. Many found themselves caught up in the controversy, including none other than president-to-be Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What effects did this have on FDR’s future political career and his reputation as a whole? But also, how did the scandal help to concrete or redefine opinions on homosexuality and a homosexuals place in the navy?

In 1919, at the naval base located at Newport, “a sailor with an ear for gossip and a hatred for homosexuals”[2] would spark a scandal surrounding the ill-moral persecution of ‘gays’. Under direct order – and arguably behaving in an agentic rather than autonomous state – naval soldiers would entrap local homosexuals, both within the neighbouring communities and the navy quarters itself. The aim was to engage in sexual gratification, namely by “accepting oral sex to completion”[3], in order to collect evidence against these men and provide a solid ground for the claim that homosexuality was spreading contagiously in Newport. After just three weeks of following out these orders “seventeen sailors were charged with sodomy and scandalous behaviour”[4]. However, the results of this ‘private’ and seemingly illegitimate investigation were not expected. Instead of shedding light on the supposed dangers homosexuality placed on the military and local community, the investigation found itself scandalised. The public alongside the media hit back at the investigation, claiming it was morally wrong to force naval soldiers to carry out such acts in this play of entrapment. Though, it seems that the penalties for this soured investigation were of no real weight with many of the players left to fade out of the scandal keeping their reputations intact.

One of the main key players, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came under attack as a result of his involvement with the scandal, yet still he went on to become President of the United States. Just what role he played in the scandal is debated. As a result of “Navy Secretary Josephus Daniel’s absence”[5], Assistant Secretary of the Navy FDR was left to act in Daniel’s place. As a result many believe that it was with FDR’s backing and approval that the investigation made its way to the civilian population, at which point it moved from a “military matter to a public relations disaster”[6]. Seen as vital to the proceedings of the investigation FDR had “authorised an independent effort to expose and expel the homosexual”[7]. The word ‘expel’ highlighting that this was an attempt to rid the navy of a group of people seen by officials as alien and unsuited to the military forces. Additionally, it is claimed that FDR had agreed that the investigation needed to take place with the “aim of prosecuting those individuals responsible for the spread of degeneracy”[8]. Again, the word ‘degeneracy’ showing the threat homosexuals are perceived to hold in society, with degeneracy referring to the regression to a lower form of being. FDR continued to assert throughout the investigation that “he had not known of the tactics used in Newport”[9] claiming that the methods that were used in the investigation “were nothing he had time or inclination to oversee”[10]. However, despite FDR’s inclination to avoid involvement both the public and Congressional Investigation Committee failed to believe him. John Loughery claims that ‘few people believed [FDR] when the entrapment scandal broke’[11]. The report into the scandal claimed that FDR “must have realized that … [navy] men had allowed lewd and immoral acts to be performed upon them”[12].

However, the scandal was not kept quiet by the Committee. Instead it had “blazed in headlines across America”[13] bringing FDR and other “prominent civilians, such as the Reverend Samuel Neal Kent”[14] to the public’s attention. Though the details of the scandal were often to crude and lurid to print – for example the New York Times stated “details unprintable”[15] regarding one case study – the media fire surrounding the scandal still blazed on a national scale. The Providence Journal was a prime text that helped to feed the fire with publisher John Rathom doing his best to “inflame public opinion”[16] in a paper that was already hugely “antagonistic to Secretary Daniels and the Wilson administration”.[17] Rathom would continue to attack FDR during his early political career. Yet, despite the width of coverage and the depth of criticism of the scandal and those involved, it seems that FDR got off with nothing more severe than a slap of the wrist. The Congressional Investigation Committee resulted in Daniels and FDR being rebuked, ‘sharply’ criticised for their behaviour. This was neither here nor there for FDR who had left his naval post in “July 1920 […] accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for vice-president”[18]. Despite FDR’s physical removal from the navy, the scandal was still criticised with the New York Times headline of July 1921 (a year after FDR left his post) reading ‘Charges of Immorally Employing Men’[19]. Note that the sympathy here is for the soldiers who had to suffer the ‘immoral acts’ as opposed to the treatment and entrapment of homosexuals.

This lack of sympathy for the homosexual could be a result of many factors. At the time of the Newport sex scandal any physical relationship or act between men was considered a crime with the “perpetrators considered criminal perverts”[20]. Despite there not being any specific legislation or regulations in place at the time, this did not “prevent the U.S military from policing sexual conduct”[21]. In fact, perhaps the Newport Sex Scandal of 1919 holds significance due to it being one of the first “systematic attempts to purge”[22] homosexuals in the military. However, the term ‘homosexual’ was not in general use during this time, the term itself had only come into being in the late nineteenth century amongst the psychiatric profession. More colloquial terms were used away from the professionalism of the psychiatric institutions. Instead, during the scandal we see words like “cocksuckers and rectum receivers”[23] displaying both the lack of use of the term homosexual, and also the hatred felt for this group of people.

The sense of hatred towards homosexuals can be seen in terms of everyday life and also in the wider context of the war. “Homosexuals had always served in the armed forces”[24] but the problem came when their sexuality was brought to light. Newport had a “notorious homosexual population”[25] in 1919, with these overtly flamboyant resident sailors calling themselves “the Ladies of Newport”[26]. Often wearing ladies clothing and calling themselves by women’s names, these men and their alter-ego’s seemed threatening with locals feeling “in danger of being morally corrupted”[27]. In a wider context, homosexuals seemed to pose a threat not just to locals but to the community at large. It seemed that a “non-procreative population was in the very process of appearing during the war: [as] homosexuals were entering the public discourse”[28]. Both locally and nationally homosexuality was become a symbol for degeneracy in several spheres. Homosexuality found itself to be central in a Venn diagram consisting of society, psychiatry, the military and even the law in terms of its relationship with degeneracy. Therefore - due to their status - homosexuals involved in the scandal suffered a much heavier fate then their entrappers. The majority of homosexuals that were caught as a result of the scandal were imprisoned, however it appears that all those entrapped were released and “allowed to resume their civilian lives”[29] by the 1920’s. Yet their punishment did not stop there, the entrapped found themselves casted out of their society and were left to find their way to a new life bound to the stigmatised label of ‘homosexual’. It is clear the “the source of outrage against the operation was that good sailors were being force to commit immoral acts […] and were made ‘perverts by official order’”[30], the fate of the homosexual posed no real concern.

The scandal poses a wider significance due its association with World War I, or as it was then known ‘The Great War’. It is almost inevitable to look at The Newport Sex Scandal in isolation while it sits so close to the end of the War, in fact it was only a few months after signing the armistice that FDR found himself in an embarrassing position over Newport. There seemed to be a “desire in the years immediately after World War I to excise from American society elements seen as unhealthy or impure”[31] such as the influence of homosexuals in both the navy and society. The Newport Sex Scandal reflects this desire in its illegitimate proceedings and moral negligence, this idea of ‘whatever it takes’. For many U.S citizens and exemplaries, World War I had “promised to do more […] their hope was that national virility would be reaffirmed and domestic uncertainties put to rest”[32]. Yet, it seemed that the war didn’t offer these condolences to the American nation. Instead it heightened the distinction between groups of society and pressed for harsher procedures and legislation against those that were deemed outsiders. Of course, this segregation and categorisation was emphasised further still by the growing influence of the psychiatric profession at the time which had seen itself move from the arts to the sciences at the beginning of the twentieth century.

However, this act of persecution against specific groups in society was not native to Newport. The Newport Scandal was joined by an increase in other radical groups and ideas of the time. It appeared that the post-war era saw “heightened anti-Catholicism, the revitalization of the Ku Klux Klan, and, not coincidentally, increased lynching and demands to limit immigration”[33]. More specifically, an earlier scandal in 1912 at Portland had seen prominent citizens arrested due to involvement “in a sex ring at the local YMCA”[34]. The American nation was following ideas of natural selection and degeneracy into a world of stigmatisation, seclusion and discrimination. The Newport Sex Scandal of 1919 was just one small scale aspect of this new world, and the almost dismissal (with regards to lack of punishment) of the authorities involvement shows just how easy it was to get away with such persecutions.

The Newport Sex Scandal of 1919 seemed to only hold short-term significance for FDR himself, with the report only being made public after the 1920 election in which he found himself elected vice-president. During this campaign Rathom (publisher of the Providence Journal) continued to “accuse Roosevelt of mishandling allegations of sex crimes in the navy”[35]. The scandal did not seem to damage FDR’s reputation extensively, though at the time he “came to be held responsible for the very thing he had sought to prevent: the homosexualisation of the U.S Navy”[36]. While the scandal continued to unfold during FDR’s early political career he won in the long run, capturing the Presidency thirteen years later in 1932. Throughout his time as President of the U.S he held “relatively stable approval ratings”[37] hovering around the 50-60% mark and winning four elections in succession for his party. He would find himself “remembered among the most influential Americans”[38]. But, FDR’s success came partly as a result of the manipulation of the military system by which the officers were protected and their reputations kept in-tact. It can be argued that “never was adequate punishment meted out to those who perpetrated the campaign”[39] as all those who held authority in the scandal - including FDR – had their involvement played down.

Perhaps, then, the long-term significance of this scandal can be found in its place in the history of homosexuality. As a result of the reports surrounding the investigation into the Newport Sex Scandal, “many learned for the first time of a homosexual community in America”[40]. It seemed that the scandal was one of the first to unfold the real extent and reach of the homosexual community. It seemed that “almost nothing was known about gay life in America before Newport”[41]. At the beginning of the century it seemed that the assumptions made about gay life in America had been “governed by the concept of the ‘closet’ and related notions of invisibility”[42]. But how were these assumptions changed by the Newport Scandal?

As a result of events such as The Newport Scandal in context with the War, homosexuality came to be seen as a “model for decitizenship”[43]. The Newport Sex Scandal of 1919 was – as Lawrence Murphy claims - “the most extensive systematic persecution of gays in American History”[44]. However this persecution of gays had been occurring since the Revolutionary War with homosexuality being “grounds for exclusion and discharge from the U.S Military”[45] right up until the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policies were introduced. But, what makes the Newport Scandal so important is the publicity it held on a national scale. The richness of the scandals documentation has also proven significant in the “understanding and development of sexual identity, the course of homophobia and the urgent mainstream wish to ignore gay presence in American society”[46]. The scandal also holds significance in its contribution to legislation surrounding the homosexual. While it wasn’t until World War II that specific legislation was introduced, after this we see the emergence of lesbian and gay movements in which “military policy became the subject of both protest and legal change”[47].

However, despite its contribution to the development of the homosexual “the Newport Scandal, [remains] largely forgotten”[48]. Minus the occasional play such as David Foleys 2012 production ‘A Hole in the Fence’[49], which is surprisingly a comedy based on the Newport Sex Scandal, it seemed that the media coverage and interest faded rather quickly. By the time FDR reached his presidency in 1932 it seemed that the “Newport men and their sexually active entrappers, including Roosevelt’s part in the affair were ancient history.”[50] FDR walked out of the scandal seemingly un-tarnished and would go on to become more popular than ever before in the public eye.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Gallup Poll, ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt Approval Ratings’, [accessed 7 December 2013] http://www.gallup.com/poll/8608/reflections-presidential-job-approval-reelection-odds.aspx

David Foley Plays, ‘A Hole in the Fence, [accessed 10 December 2014 ] http://davidfoleyplays.com/fence

Books

John Brennan, Ghosts of Newport: Spirits, Scoundrels, Legends and Lore, (Charleston: The History Press, 2007).

Andy Hughes, A History of Political Scandals: Sex, Sleaze and Spin, (Britain: Pen & Sword Books LTD, 2013).

Amy Lind and Stephanie Brzuzy, BattleGround: Women, Gender and Sexuality, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008).

John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History, (New York: Henry Holt and Company Inc., 1998).

Lawrence R. Murphy, Perverts by official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy, (New York: Haworth Press, 1988).

Articles

Tarak Barkawi, Christopher Dandeker, Melissa Wells-Pentry and Elizabeth Kier, ‘Rights and Fights: Sexual Orientation and Military Effectiveness’, International Security, Vol.24 (The MIT Press, 1999).

Jane Gardner, “Our Native Clay”: Racial and Sexual Identity and the Making of Americans in the Bridge, American Quarterly VOl.44, (U.S, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

Lawrence R. Murphy, ‘Cleaning up Newport: The U.S Navy’s persecution of Homosexuals After World War I ‘, (Journal of American Culture, Vol.7, Issue 3, 1984).

Websites

Mark Arsenault, The Providence Journal, ‘1919 Newport Sting Targeted Gay Sailors, Ended in Scandal’, January 2008, [accessed 7 December 2014]. http://web.archive.org/web/20080122100424/http://www.projo.com/news/content/gay_history_newport_sidebar_01-20-08_HH7RMQV_v42.1676c8f.html

[1] Amy Lind and Stephanie Brzuzy, BattleGround: Women, Gender and Sexuality, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008), p. 301.

[2] Mark Arsenault, The Providence Journal, ‘1919 Newport Sting Targeted Gay Sailors, Ended in Scandal’, January 2008, [accessed 7 December 2014]. http://web.archive.org/web/20080122100424/http://www.projo.com/news/content/gay_history_newport_sidebar_01-20-08_HH7RMQV_v42.1676c8f.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] Andy Hughes, A History of Political Scandals: Sex, Sleaze and Spin, (Britain: Pen & Sword Books LTD, 2013), p.71.

[5] John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History, (New York: Henry Holt and Company Inc., 1998), p. 7.

[6] Mark Arsenault, The Providence Journal, ‘1919 Newport Sting Targeted Gay Sailors, Ended in Scandal’.

[7] Jane Gardner, “Our Native Clay”: Racial and Sexual Identity and the Making of Americans in the Bridge, American Quarterly VOl.44, (U.S, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 32.

[8] John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History, p. 7.

[9] Mark Arsenault, The Providence Journal, ‘1919 Newport Sting Targeted Gay Sailors, Ended in Scandal’.

[10] John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History, p. 7.

[11] Ibid, p. 7.

[12] Mark Arsenault, The Providence Journal, The Providence Journal , ‘1919 Newport Sting Targeted Gay Sailors, Ended in Scandal’.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Amy Lind and Stephanie Brzuzy, BattleGround: Women, Gender and Sexuality, p. 300.

[15] John Brennan, Ghosts of Newport: Spirits, Scoundrels, Legends and Lore, (Charleston: The History Press, 2007), p. 106.

[16] John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History, p. 11.

[17] Ibid, p. 11.

[18] Andy Hughes, A History of Political Scandals: Sex, Sleaze and Spin, p. 71.

[19] Ibid, p. 71.

[20] Mark Arsenault, The Providence Journal, ‘1919 Newport Sting Targeted Gay Sailors, Ended in Scandal’.

[21] Amy Lind and Stephanie Brzuzy, BattleGround: Women, Gender and Sexuality, p. 300.

[22] Ibid, p. 300.

[23] Lawrence R. Murphy, Perverts by official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy, (New York: Haworth Press, 1988), p. 25.

[24] Tarak Barkawi, Christopher Dandeker, Melissa Wells-Pentry and Elizabeth Kier, ‘Rights and Fights: Sexual Orientation and Military Effectiveness’, International Security, Vol.24 (The MIT Press, 1999), p. 181.

[25] John Brennan, Ghosts of Newport: Spirits, Scoundrels, Legends and Lore, p. 106.

[26] John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History, p. 5.

[27] Amy Lind and Stephanie Brzuzy, BattleGround: Women, Gender and Sexuality, p. 300.

[28] Jane Gardner, “Our Native Clay”: Racial and Sexual Identity and the Making of Americans in the Bridge, p.31.

[29] John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History, p. 13.

[30] Jane Gardner, “Our Native Clay”: Racial and Sexual Identity and the Making of Americans in the Bridge, p.32.

[31] Lawrence R. Murphy, ‘Cleaning up Newport: The U.S Navy’s persecution of Homosexuals After World War I ‘, (Journal of American Culture, Vol.7, Issue 3, 1984) p.57.

[32] John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History, p. 4.

[33] Lawrence R. Murphy, ‘Cleaning up Newport: The U.S Navy’s persecution of Homosexuals After World War I, p.57.

[34] John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History, p. 5.

[35] Mark Arsenault, The Providence Journal, ‘1919 Newport Sting Targeted Gay Sailors, Ended in Scandal’.

[36] Jane Gardner, “Our Native Clay”: Racial and Sexual Identity and the Making of Americans in the Bridge, p.33.

[37] Gallup Poll, ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt Approval Ratings’, [accessed 7 December 2013] http://www.gallup.com/poll/8608/reflections-presidential-job-approval-reelection-odds.aspx

[38] Mark Arsenault, The Providence Journal, ‘1919 Newport Sting Targeted Gay Sailors, Ended in Scandal’.

[39] Lawrence R. Murphy, Perverts by official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy, p. 2.

[40] Jane Gardner, “Our Native Clay”: Racial and Sexual Identity and the Making of Americans in the Bridge, p.33.

[41] Lawrence R. Murphy, Perverts by official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy, p. 284.

[42] John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History, p.14.

[43] Jane Gardner, “Our Native Clay”: Racial and Sexual Identity and the Making of Americans in the Bridge, p. 32.

[44] Jane Gardner, “Our Native Clay”: Racial and Sexual Identity and the Making of Americans in the Bridge, p. 32.

[45] Amy Lind and Stephanie Brzuzy, BattleGround: Women, Gender and Sexuality, p.299.

[46] John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History, p.3.

[47] Amy Lind and Stephanie Brzuzy, BattleGround: Women, Gender and Sexuality, p.299.

[48] Mark Arsenault, The Providence Journal, ‘1919 Newport Sting Targeted Gay Sailors, Ended in Scandal’.

[49] David Foley Plays, ‘A Hole in the Fence, [accessed 10 December 2014 ] http://davidfoleyplays.com/fence

[50] John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History, p. 12.


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