The Newport Sex Scandal, 1919-21

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THE STORY of persecution is as old as civilization itself. In colonial times, Quakers, Catholics, and witches were attacked and executed for beliefs contrary to Protestantism. Native Americans were pushed westward as America rapidly expanded during the 1800’s; African Americans were bought and sold throughout the history of the slave trade; and Jews were massacred in the Holocaust. Still today men and women with contrary beliefs, varying religious precepts and unpopular social activities are rooted out or isolated by their detractors. In Newport, Rhode Island, lies the history of the widespread persecution of gay men because of their personal sexual preference.

The history of the entrapment and persecution of homosexuals in Newport by the United States government warrants a discussion about the larger forgotten history of what is known as the Newport Sex Scandal. Not only is this history important because of the injustices that were done, but also because these actions were the work of prominent leaders, among them Franklin D. Roosevelt. Fearing that sailors were being “corrupted” by local gay men, the Navy developed a program using sailors to entrap these men in sexual liaisons, whereupon they would be tried in a civil court of law.

Victims of the government’s campaign against moral vice were humiliated by the largely circumstantial evidence that was educed against a number of suspects in courts of law. Those who were caught by the scandal gained notoriety, while many others watched their reputations plummet. According to Lawrence R. Murphy in Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy (1988), the duties of each man involved in the operation to uncover vices in Newport included gathering evidence about drug and alcohol abuse, obtaining information pertaining to “cocksuckers and rectum receivers and the ring leaders of this gang, arranging from time to time meetings whereas to catch them in the act,” and searching for women who were pursuing the same risky business.

In the documents distributed by the lead investigators, Dr. Erastus M. Hudson and Ervin Arnold, a fourteen-year Navy veteran, was a paragraph giving advice that stated:

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Benjamin Brenkert is a senior at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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