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Newport's Queer History: The Naval Campaign Against the Gays

Updated: Mar 12

50 Washington Square is an iconic location in Newport, Rhode Island. It’s the crossroads between the Broadway District and Downtown’s Thames Street. It’s also a gorgeous example of Beaux Arts architectural style, originally built as the Army/Navy YMCA in 1911. It was retired as a YMCA in 1973 and today it’s used for affordable and transitional housing. But in 1918 as World War 1 was coming to an end, this building was a bustling hub for young naval men stationed here in Newport. 


It’s also infamous because it’s a key site in the Newport Navy gay sex scandal and entrapment campaign.



A historic image from a 1918 postcard showing the Army Navy YMCA in Newport, Rhode Island with sailors standing out front during the day
The Beaux Arts style YMCA shown here on a postcard from 1918.

As the Great War in Europe ended, fear mongering men turned on a new enemy at home - immigrants, homosexuals and anyone they thought would disrupt their straight, white good ol' boy society. 


Newport at that time was an important Naval Training Station--the first stop for many new recruits to the Navy. Our city by the sea had tens of thousands of young men here with not a whole lot to do now that they weren’t being sent across the Atlantic to war. Reports began to circulate that vices of all kind were rampant in Newport.





Eager to stamp out this bad PR, particularly of a Queer flavor, the Navy–including a 37-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt who was assistant secretary of the Navy before he ever got polio and later became president–authorized a spy campaign where they would recruit good looking young men in the Navy to go have sex with other young men–and civilians too–and then write up reports with all the juicy details for the official record. 


The YMCA was where a lot of those escapades happened, including in the rooms on the upper floors that could be rented for the night. 


It all eventually blew up in the face of the government when a muckraking newspaperman from the Providence Journal, John Rathom, spun it up into a national scandal on the front page of papers from coast to coast. The actions of the Navy severely disrupted the lives of dozens of young men who were jailed on a prison brig in the harbor for many months and many of them sent to a Naval Prison in New Hampshire where they spent years of their lives.


Civilians were arrested and caught up in it all, too, most famously an Episcopal Reverend named Samuel Kent. 


The scandal did not look good for the leadership of the Navy. Even the United States Senate ran an investigation about it all, and the results were damning for leaders like FDR. Just days after Republican Senators released their report in the summer of 1921–excoriating FDR in the process–he fell stricken with polio at his vacation home in Campobello, Nova Scotia. Did the stress of the situation have something to do with it? This writer thinks perhaps so. 



Making it more contextually interesting, this investigation and subsequent scandal all took place in a pivotal and tumultuous few years of change in the US that included the Great Influenza epidemic (aka, the Spanish Flu) from 1918-1920 and the enactment of Prohibition (via the 18th amendment) and passage of federal women’s voting rights (via the 19th amendment) in 1920. 


All of the nitty gritty details of the court proceedings–including he salacious reports of partying, sex, and drugs–are documented in this 1985 book Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy by Lawrence R. Murphy. Years later, Professor Sherry Zane from UConn built on this work and spent her own time in the archives researching and published an essay on it (downloadable from MIT website here). And a Providence-pair more recently developed a project looking at different aspects of the events, including how drag performance is tied into it all (see their Scandalous Conduct site here).


The author of this blog post and Newport Out team member – Sean O’Connor – has developed a screenplay based on these events. For more information, reach out to Sean at info@newportout.com


POST SCRIPT: Unfortunately this kind of oppression and subjugation of queerness didn't subside after this shameful incident. If anything, it got worse in the U.S. throughout the 20th century (i.e., the Lavender Scare of the 1950's or Stonewall Riots of the late 1960's, to name a few) and still continues today with things like anti-trans bills across state legislatures. So keep up the good fight, queer warriors. Being LGBTQ+ is beautiful and let's always remember that.



ABOVE: Franklin D Roosevelt--shortly before his bout with polio--is seen at the family vacation home in Nova Scotia with his mother, his wife Eleanor and children. Eleanor was famously a powerful advocate for women's rights and also had a number of important lesbian relationships in her life. It seems rather ironic that her husband would be caught up in this Naval affair persecuting young gay men. Although the US Senate investigations looked quite bad for him, he denied having any direct hand in the way the entrapment operation was run. A thirst for power may have contributed to any culpability on his part, as at this time he was trying to pivot away from his Naval leadership to nationally elected political office. He was on the Democractic ticket as VP in the 1920 election, but lost to Republic Warren Harding and his VP Calvin Coolidge.


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