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The Other Side of Silence
By John Loughery
Owl Books (NY) Copyright © 1999 John Loughery
All right reserved.
I. A NEW ORDER
SCANDAL IN NEWPORT
... thus the whirligig of war brings in its abrupt revenges.
The Well of Loneliness
In the spring and summer of 1919, only a few months after the Armistice was signed ending the war to end all wars, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, found himself grappling with the embarrassing issue of homosexual sex in the military.
The problem originated with an investigation into "immoral conditions" in Newport, Rhode Island, but it might just as easily have started in Norfolk or San Francisco or any number of other cities where a lively local homosexual population and a naval installation full of young, sexually eager sailors came together. Its importance to later generations seeking to understand the development of sexual identity, the course of homophobia, or the urgent mainstream wish to ignore a gay presence in American society lies in the richness of its documentation (by way of the court transcripts) and thefascinating questions it suggests about how early twentieth-century men looked on the matter of enjoying sexual release and passionate attachments with other men. That the issue was bound to be brought into focus in a highly public way, given the social upheavals that America's involvement in the First World War precipitated, or accelerated, seems in retrospect almost inevitable.
For many Americans, the United States entry into the Great War in 1917 had promised to do more than defeat "the Hun," aid our embattled allies, and avenge the Lusitania. Their hope was that national virility would be reaffirmed and domestic uncertainties put to rest. In some concrete ways, the traditionalists were right--labor agitation and Progressive-era reform died with mobilization--but in others, particularly those having to do with mores and strict gender roles, a "return to normalcy" after Versailles was more wishful thinking than reality. Even for the victors, a world war brings in its wake "abrupt revenges," as Radclyffe Hall noted, and the nature of the ensuing turmoil, psychological as much as political, cannot always be anticipated. Many of the doughboys who returned from Europe were not the same innocents they had been before their time in the trenches and the brothels. Nor were their wives, daughters, and girlfriends, whose new ideas about suffrage, smoking, work, courtship, and attire presented formidable challenges to the patriarchal order. Nor, for that matter, were those men whose sexual urges were directed primarily, or exclusively, toward other men unaffected by the war years.
The existence in America of a large underground--and sometimes not so underground--world of men who violated society's codes of dress, deportment, and sexual desire was something residents of working-class neighborhoods had long been familiar with, but even the more sheltered urban middle class had been awakening to this truth for more than three decades. Reverend Charles Parkhurst's nocturnal tours of Manhattan's brothels in the early 1890s had brought him into contact with male prostitutes who wore makeup and used women's names--a particularly distressing revelation for the famous vice crusader--and the noted German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld had been told upon visiting the United States in 1893 that, even if homosexual life in Boston and Philadelphia was not immediately apparent to him, its presence in those cities was nothing short of "colossal." A homosexual teacher in Denver, writing to Hirschfeld, seemed acquainted with the erotic possibilities of the Turkish bathhouses of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and "a small city in Ohio." The military base near Denver had been a source of good contacts as well, Hirschfeld's correspondent reported. A writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1895 was perceptive enough to see beyond the simple entertainment factor of Mardi Gras pageantry. "Carnival time suggests that all men and women are not what they seem," the reporter noted. "There are effeminate young men who like to parade in female attire."
These words allude to a subculture--frequently, but not entirely, defined by a male identification with traditionally female patterns of behavior--that many Americans preferred to know nothing about. But as the urban population grew, as the press became more vigorous and sensationalizing, and as the medical and legal authorities began to take notice, that blissful ignorance was coming to an end. In 1907 investigators in St. Louis had been shocked by the spectacle of a number of black men, many of them cooks, butlers, and chauffeurs from the better homes, carousing in drag with white men at a local dance hall, a discovery at least as unsettling for its violation of racial taboos as for what it suggested about erotic deviance in Missouri. (The names of the "negro perverts" were published in the newspaper, according to an area doctor, but "the names of the white degenerates consorting with them were not given.") A scandal in Portland, Oregon, in 1912 had led to the arrest of dozens of prominent citizens, including lawyers and Chamber of Commerce officials, who had been involved in a sex ring at the local YMCA. Vice commissions in the larger cities routinely noted the prevalence of male homosexuals, but smaller towns such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Boise, Idaho, had to attend to the "problem" in their midst during the war years. A roundup of gay men in San Francisco in 1918, following a raid on the Baker Street Club, led to more than thirty arrests, an investigation that was called off only when the names of several well-connected individuals were mentioned in court.
"The world of sexual inverts is, indeed, a large one in any American city," Havelock Ellis observed, quoting an informed correspondent in the 1915 edition of Sexual Inversion, "and it is a community distinctly organized--[with] words, customs, traditions of its own," a widespread society known to the police and tolerated by them "for a consideration." In Gay American History and Gay New York, historians Jonathan Ned Katz and George Chauncey have verified the extent of the dynamic public homosexual presence in Manhattan well before the twenties, but even in Louisville, Kentucky, or New Haven, Connecticut, a man "coming out" before World War I could find a place in a loosely defined and supportive (if less visible) subculture. The "Ladies of Newport," as the resident sailors called themselves, were not quite the anomaly they seemed to some people at the time.
FOR A TOWN best known as the elegant summertime retreat for America's wealthiest families, site of a naval training station that had accommodated two thousand sailors in 1917 and twelve times that number a year later, Newport had managed the trauma of mobilization as well as could be expected. Complaints about the ease with which sailors came by liquor, cocaine, and the services of "women of the night" disturbed the straitlaced head of the Navy department, Josephus Daniels, but after a series of crackdowns and brothel closings, Newport's mayor insisted that his city was "as clean as any ... in the United States." Yet, in the eyes of one new resident, Chief Machinist's Mate Ervin Arnold, recently transferred from San FranCisco, the mayor's claim was far from the case (or, taken in another way, just true enough to cause concern).
Arnold was being treated for severe rheumatism in the naval training station's hospital in February 1919 when he became aware of the widespread homosexual activity occurring off base, involving both sailors and local men of varying ages and professions. His suspicions were first aroused by an effeminate young sailor in the hospital; conversations with others subsequently confirmed that Samuel Rogers was indeed known about town as a "pogue," or punk, a man who enjoyed receptive anal sex. A second patient Arnold met that week, Thomas Brunelle, mentioned the names of others he knew with similar tastes and implied that Newport was a great place for contacts and parties along that line. Arnold found this information troubling and, once his medical treatment was completed, set about collecting what data he could on the perversions the civil and military authorities had overlooked.
What Arnold discovered during the ensuing days was the eclectic world of fairies and trade, of cross-dressers and party-givers, cocaine addicts and heavy drinkers, for whom mobilization had been a wildly social experience. Thomas Brunelle's "steady," Billy Hughes, was nicknamed "Salome" and had recently appeared in drag as the female lead in a musical at the naval station. Military men in drag for theatrical purposes raised few eyebrows at the time (or even later, during World War II), but Brunelle boasted that Hughes paid him regularly for sex. Arnold also met "Theda Bara," as hospital corpsman Fred Hoage was known, and "Ruth" (John Gianelloni), who were both praised for their oral skills, much like their friend Jay "Beckie" Goldstein, who had, everyone agreed, "a nice chin to rest a pair of balls on." Frank Dye was so good, Arnold was told, that he could draw your brains out through your penis. The Ladies of Newport were often joined in their partying at apartments at Whitfield Court and on Golden Hill Street by an assortment of civilians that included waiters, an area librarian, and a salesman from Providence. As "fairies," or flamboyant or more obvious homosexuals, especially when they were among their own, they were always happy to find interested "trade," or those masculine men who saw themselves (and were seen by the fairies) as free from the stigma of effeminacy or perversion. Trade did the fucking; trade never sucked. Trade wasn't queer. Determined by demeanor and the role assumed during sex, rather than the gender of one's partner, these sexual demarcations remained in play to one degree or another until the eve of Stonewall.
Exactly why the machinist's mate became preoccupied with the homosexual scene in Newport so soon after his arrival is impossible to say, but Ervin Arnold gives every appearance of having been a homophobe in the truest sense of the word. He manifested not only a distaste for the practices homosexual men engaged in, but an anxiety bordering on obsession. In his forties, and therefore considerably older than most of the men he was insinuating himself with, Arnold was a fourteen-year veteran of the Navy by the time of the Armistice and, before enlistment, had worked for nine years as a detective in Connecticut (home state of the famous vice crusader Anthony Comstock), where "running down perverts" seems to have been for him a particularly important part of his job. Indeed, some recent evidence suggests that there existed before the war a class of detectives who specialized in homosexual hunting and plied their trade around the country. Whatever his motives, Arnold decided to report his findings to his superiors once he had ascertained the gravity of the situation. The downtown Army & Navy YMCA, not surprisingly, had become one of the key centers of assignation, and an Episcopal military chaplain, Reverend Samuel Neal Kent, was said to be one of the most notorious of the older men ready to pay sailors for their private companionship. The parish house on Spring Street had allegedly seen its share of overnight guests. All this was past tolerating, in Arnold's estimation.
Lieutenant Erastus Hudson of the training station's welfare office agreed with Arnold, and the two of them took the matter to the station commander. Within a short time a four-man court of inquiry under Lieutenant Commander Murphy Foster was established to study immoral conditions in Newport, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt, acting as head of his department in Secretary Josephus Daniels's absence, agreed that "a most searching and rigid investigation" needed to be conducted with the aim of prosecuting those individuals responsible for the spread of degeneracy. Roosevelt later claimed that the methods used to accomplish this goal were nothing he had had the time or inclination to oversee, though few people believed him when the entrapment scandal broke. Arnold and Hudson, however, were confident that they knew what tactics were called for and in fact had implemented them several days before the assistant secretary was briefed.
The ex-detective from Connecticut who boasted that he could pick out the "cruising" fairies on Manhattan's Riverside Drive with 90 percent accuracy--not a challenging task, given the blatant style of the area--convinced his superiors that an undercover operation was the only way to secure evidence that would stand up in court. Accordingly, he quietly enlisted a staff of Navy investigators "in the capacity of detectives" who would circulate among the suspected population of perverts at the YMCA or elsewhere, strike up friendships, and take careful note of all that transpired. He wanted no one over thirty, he said, on the well-known assumption that homosexuals never bothered with men that old. His ideal volunteer was in his late teens or early twenties, handsome, none too intellectually inclined (to judge by their later testimony in court), and willing to put himself in awkward situations for the good of the service. He found an ample number to take on the assignment, more than a dozen at first, and sought assurances that his men, if forced to break the law--that is, go the limit to complete their mission--would not themselves be subject to prosecution.
The specific duties the recruits were charged with fell into three areas: to gather information about "cocaine joints" and the sale of liquor; to gather information "pertaining to cocksuckers and rectum receivers" and any network of "said fairies"; and to gather information about prostitutes in the area. In reality, once their project hit its stride, Arnold's band of investigators showed no interest to speak of in the "fallen women" of Newport and only minimal concern with the illegal drug traffic. What went on behind closed doors at the YMCA or in the romantic shadows of Cliff Walk was another matter. In their pursuit of the "cocksuckers" Arnold had charged them to find--and in the fairly staggering amount of oral sex they enjoyed in the line of duty--this group of young men was all but tireless. In fact, their assiduous performance was to become by the end of the summer a profound humiliation to the Department of the Navy and its leadership.
From the night of March 17 and into April when the arrests began and then on through the summer, the sailors loitered at the YMCA, made dates, attended parties, went strolling with new acquaintances after dark by the beach and in the cemetery, and dined at the Tokio Restaurant on Thames Street (where waiter Eddy Harrington was known to be partial to beefy seamen whose muscles he liked to squeeze while taking their orders). The files on the men who succumbed to the charms of Arnold's entrappers grew at a frantic pace, to Arnold's delight, typed up by his assistants in exacting and colloquial detail.
From the perspective of the 1990s, the unnerving aspect of the Newport undercover operation isn't the risks taken by the Salomes and the Theda Baras, who had no reason to assume that their "dates" weren't what they pretended to be, but the amount of consummated sex that seems to have taken place between these self-identified homosexual men and the partners who would have emphatically rejected such a label for themselves. Yet from the outset it was clear, or strongly implied, that the "operatives," as they were called, weren't being relieved of their other duties merely to document immoral propositions and lewd gestures; they were being sent by the Navy's own Comstock to record the nitty-gritty, complete to climax, and that they did. If Arnold and Hudson never felt uneasy about their squad's professionalism under these strange circumstances, they should have. In at least two instances, operatives later admitted to having had anal sex to orgasm with their delighted partners. Transcripts indicate that others slept the night through in the same bed once the deed was done, with one operative even paying for his room with "Beckie" Goldstein. (The only aversion that remained an absolute for the sailors was kissing, something that trade could never engage in without jeopardizing the distinction between him and his queer partner.) James Goggins, a new recruit in the summer--when the number of operatives swelled to over forty--and one of Arnold's busiest young men, acknowledged a midnight tryst on the grass near Forty Steps on Cliff Walk in which he was fellated but then failed to get the name of the sailor who "did" him. They met again. A second time Goggins neglected to return with a name for the record. Many of the operatives, when recounting their pre- or postcoital conversations, also seemed especially gratified at being told by the fairies that they had large penises. The screen of disinterest grew rather thin at times.
The first of the Ladies of Newport to be brought in was Fred Hoage, a bit-part silent-screen actor before the war and--ironically--one of the more discreet members of his circle. Nervous and confused, he professed to be willing to tell whatever he knew about gay life in Newport, as did many of the men rounded up in the coming weeks. By the time five men were sitting in the brig five days later, a panic had set in among the potential suspects. Men who were arrested began implicating others whom the operatives had never met. With more than a dozen in detention by the end of the next week, and the number scheduled to rise, Lieutenant Commander Foster (head of the court of inquiry) began to wonder if the Navy was going to be able to contain Ervin Arnold's one-man purity crusade. The brig aboard the USS Constellation was full; if Arnold wasn't put in check soon, he'd hang the whole state of Rhode Island, Foster complained to another officer.
On May 1, 1919, the Foster court of inquiry announced its findings and declared that sufficient evidence had been gathered to court-martial fifteen of the arrested sailors. They remained behind bars all summer and were tried in the fall, at which time some were released and others sentenced to varying prison terms. And there the matter might have ended, had not Arnold, Hudson, and a few other equally zealous officers wished to press on with the investigation even before the first court-martials began, expanding their field of operations beyond downtown Newport and encompassing the arrest of civilian homosexuals as well. Roosevelt gave his permission and allotted the needed funds, displaying what was later felt to be a dismaying lack of concern over the ethics of entrapment and the welfare of sailors, some still in their teens, who were being allowed--encouraged, really--to participate in illegal sex acts. But even then the repercussions of the investigation might not have been so dramatic had Arnold been more selective in his quarry. It was one thing to go after "Duke" Hawkins, the handsome young black man who waited tables at the Y restaurant. It was quite another to want to bring down an Episcopal minister with a solid reputation among the church hierarchy and citizenry of Newport.
When Reverend Samuel Neal Kent was arrested in midsummer, the investigation officially ended and the troublesome publicity began. His trial brought to the fore two different kinds of innocence about sexuality and sexual issues--both of which are still part of the debate today, though to a much less striking degree. On the one hand, the church fathers of Rhode Island seemed quite sure, at least in their public statements, that the forty-six-year-old chaplain, graduate of the renowned Latin School of Boston and a man who had devoted his life to good works, was not guilty of the eleven counts of "lewd and scandalous" behavior with which he was charged. Known to his men as "Pop" Kent, he was clearly a decent fellow and an effective professional who took his spiritual duties seriously. That a minister who had risked his life the year before tending to the sick during the dread influenza epidemic could also be the same man who liked to masturbate sailors bordered on the incomprehensible to Rhode Island Bishop James DeWolf Perry and his colleagues, or so they intimated. He couldn't have anything in common with a Fred Hoage or a Beckie Goldstein. On the other hand, the government and prosecuting attorney had no problem believing that Kent was guilty, but were--at first--oblivious to the import of their own methods. They were naively unprepared for the fact that a judge or a jury would be equally outraged by the story behind the indictment.
Kent's trial necessarily brought out all that Arnold had labored to keep secret. Young men of seventeen had been sent out into the night like streetwalkers, taught to dissemble, paid to spend their time in rooms where liquor and drugs were available. Men in their late twenties, who could certainly have declined the assignment, had allowed their bodies to be used "in unspeakable ways." When one befuddled operative left the stand, having acknowledged that he understood his instructions were to let the minister "play with my penis and to allow it until [I] had an emission," reaction in town set in against the Navy and its tactics: Kent was found innocent. Stung by the verdict, the government wasn't ready to let the matter rest. Under a recent war statute that prohibited conduct leading to "moral contamination" within a ten-mile zone of any military installation, plans were made to try Kent a second time in a federal court. He was hunted down like a fugitive while recuperating at the Battle Creek Sanitorium in Michigan and brought back to Providence.
Embarrassing as the ordeal was for Samuel Neal Kent, the second trial in January 1920 was no less a rejection of the Navy's approach and values than the first. The highly capable defense attorney humiliated Arnold's operatives, hammering away at their inexact memories and dwelling on the extent to which they had solicited and enjoyed the attentions of the many men they reported on. By this strategy, the debauched nature of the operatives--or, just as frightening a thought, the debauching of these boys by a government into whose care their parents had entrusted them--became a more pressing concern than the supposed lust of Newport's homosexual crowd. Fourteen clergymen, business leaders, and prominent socialite friends of Kent's testified on his behalf, and Kent was found innocent a second time. At this point the Providence Journal, a newspaper long antagonistic to Secretary Daniels and the Wilson administration, went on the attack, and publisher John Rathom did his best to inflame public opinion and widen the scandal to a national level. He was eminently successful. Fearing catastrophic effects on enlistment, Daniels was forced to call for a high-level naval investigation of the matter. Two months later that commission issued what was essentially a whitewash of the Navy (not a surprising development to anyone following the proceedings), which in turn led to a more aggressive, independent-minded Senate investigation.
Homosexual acts were hardly within the range of traditional senatorial experience, and there is the quality of a turning point in American sexual history in the image of the three senators who composed the committee reading the explicit testimony of the Newport and Providence court transcripts and journeying to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to interview the defeated sailors at the naval prison. There Fred Hoage told them of Lieutenant Hudson's threat to "make it hard" for a friend of his unless he testified that he had slept with Kent, and others insisted that they had been denied counsel, were beaten under interrogation, and coached in their self-incriminating testimony. The committee members also met with Franklin Roosevelt, the now-indignant Arnold and Hudson, and as many of the panicked operatives they could locate, several of whom were suddenly developing what one senator described as suspiciously convenient memory lapses. The committee's report was made public after Roosevelt had left office and well after the 1920 election in which he ran as the Democratic candidate for the vice presidency, but it was nonetheless a galling moment for him. His part in the entrapment, any specific knowledge of which he continued furiously to deny, had been characterized by the naval investigators as "ill-advised." The Senate committee went much further, declaring Roosevelt's actions "reprehensible." Senator Henry Keyes, Republican of Vermont, urged the release of all the men held at Portsmouth in the light of the government's contempt for due process. LAY NAVY SCANDAL TO F. D. ROOSEVELT, ran the New York Times headline, DETAILS ARE UNPRINTABLE.
Two of the investigating senators also had something to say on the subject of the government's policy toward homosexuals in general. If the medical and scientific community was now suggesting that sexual deviance was a mental illness rather than a crime, it should be treated as such, they argued. The recommendation was made that anyone in the armed forces suspected of homosexuality be dishonorably discharged and referred for medical care rather than tried and imprisoned. "Perversion is not a crime," Senator Keyes maintained, "but a disease that should be properly treated in a hospital." Edwin Denby, Josephus Daniels's successor in the new administration of Warren Harding, dismissed the proposal out of hand for two reasons, one enlightened and one vindictive. He wisely noted that innocent men might be affected by unfounded malicious gossip. Suspicion of homosexuality was too vague a charge. The sterner aspect of Denby's reasoning, though, was that the true perverts would be getting off too lightly if they were simply slapped on their limp wrists and released from the service. The Navy would become a refuge for the sexually maladjusted, and that must never be allowed to happen.
THE NEWPORT SCANDAL faded rather quickly from the national news--it was not the kind of occurrence the public enjoyed hearing about--and by the time FDR ran for the governorship of New York in 1928 and then for the presidency four years later, the sad fate of the Newport men and their sexually active entrappers and Roosevelt's part in the affair were ancient history. Interestingly, we may never know if the thirty-second president was aware of the complex nature of the relationship between his wife and Lorena Hickock, the lesbian journalist who moved into the White House with the Roosevelts in 1941, but we do know that Roosevelt came to see that homosexuality was not necessarily an impediment to effective government service. During World War II he protected Sumner Welles, his undersecretary of state, as long as he could, until Welles's indiscretions passed all acceptable bounds. Only with great reluctance did Roosevelt ask for his advisor's resignation.
The traumatic events of 1919 and 1920 were probably never forgotten, however, by three groups of people: the men who stood trial or were court-martialed, the operatives who were initially billed as guardians of morality and later portrayed as victims or potential degenerates themselves, and the shaken clergy of Newport. The ministers, led by Bishop Perry, had been forced to cope with some disturbing ambiguities. They had insisted throughout the ordeal, and especially after the second acquittal, that the Navy owed Reverend Kent an apology. (Convinced to the last that Kent had had sex with the men who testified against him, Daniels and Roosevelt swore they would never apologize.) Yet the ministers were equally vocal in their demand that the government agree never again to press young men into this kind of unsavory covert operation. The paradox of their position wasn't lost on the Navy's lawyers when the ministers were questioned during the naval court of inquiry's hearings in early 1920: the ministers wanted an apology made to Kent--implying that the operatives were perjurors and that no illegal sex had occurred--yet they also wanted an end to the entrapment practices, which supposedly hadn't amounted to anything if the operatives were fabricating their stories and Kent was innocent. The government was within its rights when it said to the complainants, in effect: Which is it? But by the time the dust had settled, the clergy of Rhode Island and the leaders of the American Episcopal Church had had to come to terms, in private, with the inadequacy of their notions of male sexual expression and sociability. At some point they realized that the "Christian brotherhood" Kent professed as his principal feeling toward the sailors, however genuine, was complicated by other factors. Arnold's net hadn't brought to the fore a world divided, neatly and absolutely, into pogues and cross-dressers on the one hand and older men of fatherly mien and pastoral tenderness on the other. The lines were blurred, and the weight of the testimony left its mark. After 1921, Samuel Neal Kent was quietly disqualified from performing religious duties and, except for a brief stint as a chaplain aboard a cruise ship in the 1930s, worked in secular positions until his death in Florida in 1943.
(The bishops, especially Kent's friend and best character witness, Philip Rhinelander of Pennsylvania, would have been mindful of the sex scandal that had rocked the Episcopal Church only several years earlier. During Christmas week in 1912, Alfred Garnett Mortimer, the sixty-four-year-old rector of Philadelphia's most affluent parish and a leader of the American High Church movement, was dismissed from his post by Bishop Rhinelander and then defrocked. He left the country on New Year's Day 1913. The bishop refused to discuss the case, despite a public outcry for information, but rumors about a homosexual ring at St. Mary's were widespread, and some of Mortimer's curates were dismissed a few weeks later. Only a short time before, an elderly Episcopal minister in a nearby suburb had resigned under a similar cloud, and in the same embarrassing month of Mortimer's departure--January 1913--an Episcopal pastor in Westfield, New Jersey, was reported by his teenage choir boys for "familiarities" and vanished overnight. In sum, a moral and public relations debacle for the Episcopal Church that threatened to tar the whole profession.)
Nothing of any detail is known about the later lives of the young operatives, but they were left in the most curious position of all. They had agreed to join Ervin Arnold's squad of their own free will and had assumed their roles without complaint. They had been told that they were ridding Newport of degenerates who, left to their own devices, would entice innocent sailors into sexual relationships. None questioned the logic of preventing that end by proceeding to have sex with those same suspects. More important, none felt he was descending to the level of a homosexual simply by engaging in sex with homosexuals because they weren't--in their chief's phrasing--the "cocksuckers and rectum receivers." The operatives lived by the unwritten codes of their day and their class; they knew that society was more interested in, and repulsed by, the effeminacy and gender confusion the fairy represented than anything that these masculine decoys adopting a non-oral or active anal role did. Their tragedy resulted from the clash of values that occurred when the normal practices of trade were scrutinized in too public a forum by the military hierarchy, the clergy, the press and its middle-class readership. What was accepted among working-class youth in most parts of America was intolerable debasement, if widely known and discussed, to other classes of society. In that light, their leader was transformed from a psychosexual expert and moral watchdog to a pimp. They were seen as dupes.
Finally, what of the Ladies of Newport? By the early 1920s, it appears, all those who were in prison had been released and allowed to resume their civilian lives. If they had come from big cities and returned there, they were probably aware that what had happened to them was not unique. They weren't the first and they wouldn't be the last homosexuals made to pay for their mannerisms, cross-dressing, and sexual dalliances conducted in private or otherwise. Resuming an old life in a small town would have been well-nigh impossible: a Wing Biddlebaum, run out of town at night, seeking anonymity in Winesburg, Ohio, was nothing compared to this antic group with its relish for feminine names, gay argot, cosmetics, and boisterous sex parties. For them, a more plausible home would be the gay subculture of New York and San Francisco, Philadelphia and St. Louis, New Orleans and Baltimore, Boston and Chicago.
Yet the very existence in Newport in 1919 of a robust circle of fairies--self-identified gay men who, before their persecution, felt surprisingly little need to disguise their adopted feminine attributes--prompts speculation about their lives before they joined the Navy. It strains credibility to think of them meeting one another aboard ship and only then evolving the styles with which they were comfortable. Their flagrant use of the YMCA lobby as a pickup area, their willingness to talk with Arnold in the naval hospital even though he must have appeared an outsider, their gait on the street, and their success in impersonating women in the Navy's theatrical revues, which carried over into their private parties, is evidence that implies they had long since formed their ideas about what they wanted and what they thought they could get away with. They weren't inventing a way of life in the nineteen months of the American involvement in the war; they were more likely bringing it, ready-formed, into a new community from the disparate cities and towns they came from. What the war provided for them was what large-scale military conflicts often provide: a sense that their number was larger than they thought, that their sexual and social world was not a small one.
That world was as rigid as it was convivial. The fairies' testimony in court hints at some well-established rules. Those among them who took on the role of "husbands," who were scarcely regarded as homosexual, were expected to remain the dominant partners; everyone was expected to have a sexual specialty--pogue or cocksucker, active or passive; a true fairy was locked into his femininity as securely as a husband was locked out of it. But their position also involved an astonishing bravado, the savvy and pluck of a survivor. (It was a boldness only the exceptional outsider could appreciate. Moving to Chicago in the late 1890s, Sherwood Anderson was shocked by his first sight of men with painted faces, but gradually came to feel a troubled fascination with their ability to handle the abuse they endured in the rough-and-tumble of the warehouse district.)
The assumptions at the end of the century--our assumptions, our stereotypes--a bout gay life in America at the beginning of the century have been so governed by the concept of "the closet" and related notions of invisibility, as George Chauncey has persuasively argued, that we are apt to lose sight of an important element of gay history and, indeed, of American history. The sexual world of our grandfathers was never as simple as ours is alleged to be complex, nor was any thinking person's experience of public social life as tidy or narrow as the high school texts and the television documentaries would make it. Life in 1920 was perilous for a gay man, to be sure, and potentially isolating for anyone who was not inclined to bond with the overtly homosexual, convention-defying fairies. Most men who wanted to have a sexual relationship with another man were well advised to keep their interests or activities a secret from family and heterosexual friends. The price to pay for deviating from masculine traditions was high. Proclaim it from the rooftops, as F. O. Matthiessen wrote to his lover, the painter Russell Cheney, and you must live with the consequences "for it is an anomaly the world as a whole does not understand." But the public life of the fairies in Newport and elsewhere, the forging of so many happy private unions (like Matthiessen's and Cheney's), and the increasing concern with limiting homosexual activity after World War I (in the form of bathhouse raids, police "sweeps" of movie houses, and censorship in the theater) tell us something vital, namely that the old social order with its strict gender roles was being questioned long before Stonewall and the counterculture of the 1960s appeared. That process was also under way prior to the upheavals wrought by the Second World War and the Great Depression. In fact, the first traces we are able to perceive at this moment of ongoing research assume a discernible outline even before the highly eroticized decade of the screen idol, the speakeasy, and the flapper.
Excerpted from The Other Side of Silence by John Loughery Copyright © 1999 by John Loughery. Excerpted by permission.
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