Much like most countries which actively banned homosexuality in the military until fairly recently, the United States had a history of discharging anyone convicted of such "unbecoming conduct" going all the way back to the American Revolution. Up until fairly recently in fact, this often meant vigilantly investigating any rumours that surfaced and maintaining a policy of active harassment of known or suspected homosexuals that persisted well beyond the era of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".
And so it was in 1919 when rumours began to spread about the sexual conduct of Navy personnel at the base located in Newport, Rhode Island. Though nobody batted an eye at servicemen visiting the various brothels in town, the possibility of homosexual behaviour among servicemen was taken much more seriously. After an enlisted man, Ervin Arnold, who had been a policeman in civilian life, heard from another enlisted man about what was occurring in the Newport area, he decided to do his own informal investigating. On discovering that the local YMCA and several "art clubs" were thinly disguised meeting-places were men could engage in sex, cross-dressing, and other "effeminate behaviour," Arnold reported what he found to his superiors and a formal court of inquiry was held on March 19, 1919.
While World War I had already ended by this time, hints that this immoral activity had been going on even during wartime generated considerable outrage in the upper echelons. After the court called on the Navy to devote "any expense and time necessary.. to conduct a most thorough and searching investigation" to identify these mysterious malefactors, an investigation was ordered which was personally approved by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt. Due to political wrangling over jurisdiction, the Navy decided to make the investigation an internal one and Ervin Arnold was placed in charge.
From the very beginning though, there were questions about exactly how this investigation could be carried out. Since any servicemen wanting to avoid being dishonourably discharged would have the good sense to be discreet about their conduct, Arnold and the other Navy investigators tasked with the challenge came up with a disturbingly simple idea: why not conduct a "sting operation" using good-looking young men to infiltrate the homosexual underground and get the evidence they needed by having sex?
In an unbelievable plan approved by Arnold's superiors, the Navy then recruited a few good men for the job. It was Arnold himself who outlined just what would be needed for the mission: young men between the ages of 19 to 24 who would be appropriate for "this class of work, with reference to perverts." Not only would these undercover investigators be expected to worm their way into hidden places where gay sex might occur, they also had to collect the needed evidence for a successful conviction. This meant actually having sex and then testifying about it afterward at the court martial.
And it worked, sort of. Within weeks, over fifteen enlisted men were caught based on the lurid testimony provided by the zealous investigators. The men in question were offered leniency if they named any of their sex partners, something many of them did. As a result of the investigation, seventeen enlisted men were convicted of sodomy and "scandalous conduct" with most being sent to prison afterward.
Unfortunately, the sheer scope of the investigation meant that civilians, including some of Newport's most prominent citizens, were implicated as well. Since homosexual conduct was illegal at the time, the Navy obviously didn't see a problem in that (just their own little contribution to "public order"). Still, when one well-known clergyman was publicly identified, the full details of the investigation made headlines. During the trial of the clergyman in question, Dr. Samuel Neal Kent, the nature of the evidence presented (which most newspapers covering the trial described as "unprintable"), and the methods that the Navy used to collect that evidence certainly raised eyebrows.
Though the federal trial was especially bitter, the judge presiding over the case essentially threw out all of the testimony of those investigators who admitted personally taking part in the sexual activities they were supposed to be stopping. In summing up his instructions to the jury, the judge expressed his outrage over the very nature of the sting operation that the Navy investigators used. As he pointed out, no government could order men to engage in homosexual conduct against their will. And if they were willing participants on the other hand, how were they any less guilty than the men they were testifying against? This argument apparently won over the jury and Samuel Kent was acquitted on all charges.
Almost immediately after the acquittal, a committee of fourteen Newport clergymen wrote a strongly-worded letter to President Woodrow Wilson protesting the sting operation that the Navy had carried out. In their letter, the committee members cited the judge's own arguments in the Kent case and called for an investigation into the sting operation, the investigators involved, and those that had approved it. And so, after the Providence Journal published the letter on January 12, 1920, the Newport Sex Scandal was born.
While supposedly focusing on the sting operation itself and the "immoral" conduct of the investigators, the scandal became a political football aimed at embarrassing both Daniels and Roosevelt and demanding a full investigation into how they were managing Naval affairs. The Providence Journal's publisher, John R. Rathom was especially brutal in his condemnation of Naval affairs and got into a heated exchange with Franklin Roosevelt as a result. Though Josephus Daniels appointed a special board to investigate the accusations made by the clergymen, proceedings would drag on for months afterward. In the meantime, Franklin Roosevelt resigned his position with the Navy to stand as the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate but the bad publicity generated by the sex scandal may well have played a role in the landslide Republican victory that same year.
It wasn't until July, 1921 that the subcommittee investigating the scandal issued a scathing report denouncing both Daniels and Roosevelt for allowing the investigation in the first place. Carefully worded to avoid mentioning the "unprintable" nature of the evidence collected by the investigators, the report concluded that "conduct of a character at which seasoned veterans of the service would have shuddered was practically forced upon boys" and that Daniels and Roosevelt were guilty of "lacking moral perspective." Though Franklin Roosevelt ignored the report by suggesting that the Republican members of the subcommittee were trying to embarrass him, there is no telling how badly his political future might have been damaged by the scandal. Ironically, the public sympathy generated by the near-fatal paralyzing illness he developed that same year meant that his role in the scandal would be quickly forgotten.
While the Newport scandal helped ensure that Naval investigators would be more careful about how they gathered evidence, the ban on homosexual conduct would remain. Certainly the men who had been convicted during the original investigation had their lives thoroughly ruined as a result. Even civilians such as Samuel Neal Kent had to endure public humiliation by being implicated, something that was all too common with later investigations as well. Still, while the Newport Naval base continues to be a major part of life in Newport, Rhode Island, the scandal that there is a certain irony that the town, along with neighbouring Providence, are now tourist magnets for GLBT visitors across North America.
Such is progress.