U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against “Sexual Perverts” Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

High-ranking U.S. Navy officials tasked young enlisted men, mostly teenagers, as undercover decoys and solicitors of gay sex to “trap” unsuspecting men seeking sex with other men.

Summary of Event

To American elites in 1919, a most disturbing scandal was the U.S. Navy’s undercover operations to “trap” gay men soliciting sex with other men, in and around a Navy training station and at a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) site in Newport, Rhode Island. Newport, Rhode Island, and U.S. Navy sting operation [kw]U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against ”Sexual Perverts" (Mar. 15, 1919-1921) [kw]Navy Launches Sting Operation Against “Sexual Perverts,” U.S. (Mar. 15, 1919-1921) [kw]Sting Operation Against “Sexual Perverts,” U.S. Navy Launches (Mar. 15, 1919-1921) [kw]"Sexual Perverts," U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against (Mar. 15, 1919-1921)[Sexual Perverts] [kw]Perverts," U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against “Sexual (Mar. 15, 1919-1921) "Sexual perverts," and U.S. Navy[Sexual perverts and] Military, U.S.[Military US];antigay witch-hunts by[antigay witchhunts] Police abuse and harassment;U.S. Navy[US Navy] Navy, U.S.[Navy US];antigay witch-hunts by[antigay witchhunts] [c]Military;Mar. 15, 1919-1921: U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against “Sexual Perverts”[0240] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 15, 1919-1921: U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against “Sexual Perverts”[0240] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 15, 1919-1921: U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against “Sexual Perverts”[0240] Daniels, Josephus Roosevelt, Franklin D. Kent, Samuel Neal Campbell, Edward H. Hudson, Erastus Mead Arnold, Ervin Leigh, Richard Perry, James DeWolf Palmer, A. Mitchell

In late nineteenth century America, conventional wisdom associated homosexuality with either alien, decadent aristocrats or desperately poor and single immigrants from Europe. Red-light districts were designed to contain this foreign “vice,” among other activities, such as prostitution and narcotics, from contaminating surrounding families and neighborhoods. Progressives such as Woodrow Wilson, Josephus Daniels, and Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to cleanse their cities of corruption once and for all; now in power, they embarked upon quixotic crusades to make bourgeois domesticity and thus “real men” safe from ubiquitous temptation.

Progressives discovered more than they bargained for, however. While being the best customers of what red-light districts had to offer, middle-class, native-born Anglo-Saxon men were thought to be largely immune from “unnatural” same-gender desires and relationships. Yet a number of exposés beginning with a raid on the YMCA in Portland, Oregon, in 1912, and culminating in the Newport sting seven years later, unmasked seemingly straight men as homosexual far outside the notorious saloon or seedy theater.

Cleared by the same attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, who was the architect of the first Red Scare, the Newport sting against “queers” began as an attack on heterosexual prostitution. In 1917, Daniels, as Navy secretary, was concerned about the corrosive effects of Newport brothels upon the training and readiness of naval personnel. He urged and got local authorities to scare away prostitutes from the base, deploying military police officers in front of identified houses of ill repute to keep uniformed sailors from going inside.

Two years later, after conditions had failed to improve on the heterosexual front, Secretary Daniels was even more incensed about new and frequent reports about homosexual activity among the sailors and townspeople. Daniels was unable to handle this “problem” himself because he had to attend a postwar Allied Powers naval conference in Europe, but he charged Captain Edward H. Campbell, the Newport Naval Training Station’s commandant, with establishing a court of inquiry to “disinfect” his base specifically against homosexuality. The earlier concern with heterosexual prostitution had been eclipsed by this new need to protect new recruits from succumbing to intricate and long-established networks of gay men meeting in the gyms, parks, beaches, and wharves of this famous resort and port.

On March 15, 1919, following Daniels’s directive, Captain Campbell established a four-man panel chaired by Lieutenant Erastus Mead Hudson of the Medical Corps. Even before the panel had been named, however, Campbell had Hudson conduct a preliminary investigation in which Hudson contacted Ervin Arnold, a machinist’s mate and former private detective. It was Arnold who persuaded Hudson and then the panel that the best way to fight secretive homosexuals would be to draft a group of equally cagey, attractive, young recruits to be approached by the shadowy “perpetrators.” By late March, Arnold had thirteen newly enlisted sailors lined up to do his dirty work, which he oversaw from a room provided to him by the American Red Cross.

The decoys got right to business, ensnaring at least eighteen comrades in April. Even though some of the decoys actually went so far as to accept fellatio willingly from their victims, they were praised by Hudson’s court for being serviced. The disgraced perpetrators were shown no mercy, however. Nearly all were court-martialed or dishonorably discharged, facing the full weight of naval justice.

Yet policing the ranks did nothing to stem the endless tide of civilians who tempted “innocent” servicemen into homosexuality. Eager to please his absent boss and political patron, assistant secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt had Hudson and Arnold widen their witch hunt to include civilians engaging in furtive sex with sailors stationed in Newport. By June, Hudson was working out of Roosevelt’s office and was funded by the assistant secretary’s own discretionary funds. Nevertheless, worried about the legality of their methods of entrapment, Hudson insisted upon clearance from Palmer and the U.S. Justice Department and upon advice from a local attorney. Hudson got what he wanted to hear. Now underwritten by Roosevelt’s office, the decoys grew in number to forty-one by July, nearly a quarter of who were just teenagers.

After a second wave of undercover operations that arrested sixteen civilians, Hudson and Roosevelt ran into political and legal difficulties themselves. Disciplining common sailors was one thing, but exposing privileged members of Newport society as homosexual was another. Among those arrested was Samuel Neal Kent, the Episcopal chaplain of the Naval Hospital in Newport. Kent had been one of those impeccable, upper-class gentlemen whom Progressives felt would never stoop to this level of depravity. He was acquitted in a local trial on August 23, but he immediately suffered a nervous breakdown and never recovered fully. Nevertheless, Kent’s well-connected friends then campaigned to expose the entrapment and to show the chaplain as the inherently innocent victim of foul play. They complained to Richard Leigh, the acting chief of the Bureau of Navigation, who went on to urge further investigation of Hudson’s methods and eventually sent the Episcopal bishop of Rhode Island, James DeWolf Perry, to pressure Secretary Daniels.

This counterattack, in turn, led Daniels and Roosevelt to praise Hudson and his henchmen unconditionally. Palmer’s Justice Department then completely absolved Daniels and Roosevelt; to make matters worse, in a parting shot, Kent was rearrested on the same “crime,” this time for breaking a wartime federal statute regarding lewdness near a military base. Joined by local newspapers, Kent’s allies rallied, winning a pyrrhic victory by getting the Senate Naval Affairs Committee to denounce the questionable tactics pursued by Hudson, Roosevelt, and Daniels. A decade before the New Deal, Roosevelt was shown to be a traitor to his class, but the elite Episcopalian horror at the scandal failed to hurt him within his own Democratic Party, which, in the 1920’s, was the haven of social conservatives.

Significance

The 1919 naval sting operation was a harbinger of abuses of power in the name of exposing homosexuality among soldiers, sailors, marines, and civilians in the twentieth century. Roosevelt’s ease in dispelling legal concerns about entrapment led to a cottage industry of vice cops deployed to catch and detain men seeking sex with other men.

Roosevelt would later regret his role in the making of the national security state. In the decade after his death during the second red scare, a security state would come to see homosexuality not just as an impediment to military effectiveness but as treason itself. ”Sexual perverts," and U.S. Navy[Sexual perverts and] Military, U.S.[Military US];antigay witch-hunts by[antigay witchhunts] Police abuse and harassment;U.S. Navy[US Navy] Navy, U.S.[Navy US];antigay witch-hunts by[antigay witchhunts]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chauncey, George, Jr. “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era.” In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, edited by Martin B. Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1989.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gustav-Wrathall, John Donald. Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, Lawrence R. “Cleaning Up Newport: The U.S. Navy’s Prosecution of Homosexuals After World War I.” Journal of American Culture 7 (Fall, 1984): 57-64.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shilts, Randy. Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military. 1994. New ed. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Geoffrey C. A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

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