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FDR's Forgotten War Against Homosexuality

Updated April 12, 2018 37.5k views12 items

In 1919, the Navy launched an investigation into the queer culture of the Navy in Newport, Rhode Island. Led by the then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), the Navy sent straight men undercover to entrap gay sailors in what became known as the Newport Scandal. Because FDR is remembered as one of the greatest Presidents of all time, Roosevelt's anti-gay crusade is often overlooked and forgotten. 

Was Franklin Roosevelt homophobic? His anti-gay actions certainly lend support to a resounding, "Yes." FDR approved of an investigation that had straight men seduce known gay sailors in order to have these 'depraved' men arrested. In the early 20th century, homosexuality was not tolerated by any means in the military and was seen as the source of "vice" and "depravity" threatening the Navy. The only positive thing to come out of the investigation was a great deal of insight into the fascinating queer subculture of early 20th century Rhode Island. 

  • Homosexuality Was Vilified As 'Morbid' Perversity In The Early 20th Century

    In FDR's time period, the general view on homosexuality was abhorrently negative. In the early 20th century, being gay was seen as a "morbid sexual passion." In fact, that was how Merriam Webster's dictionary defined it. Homosexuality was not something that was easily forgiven. Many people were afraid of gay men corrupting young boys, especially those just entering the military.  

  • The 1917 Articles Of War Declared Sodomy A Criminal Act Under US Military Law

    By 1917, men having sex with other men was "formally criminalized in US military law." Particularly in Newport, Rhode Island, where FDR's scandal took place, sailors were charged with sodomy under the revised Articles of War. Some servicemen were simply charged with "vagrancy and lewd acts," but any man caught having sexual relations of any kind with another man was immediately charged for sodomy and imprisoned. 

  • FDR Sent Men Undercover To Entrap Navy Sailors

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons

    As the public grew more hardened against homosexuality, so did the government. From 1919 to 1932, the US military worked to remove any gay sailors from active duty. At the time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and used his position to entrap gay sailors in the Navy by sending straight men to seduce them. 

    FDR and his colleagues thought the best way to get these 'vagrants' off active duty was to send straight men to entrap other servicemen suspected of homosexuality. These undercover men were ordered by FDR to be:

    "...observing all and ears open for all conversation and make himself free with this class of men [homosexuals], being jolly and good natured, being careful to pump these men for information, making them believe that he is what is termed in the Navy as a ‘boy humper,’ making dates with them and so forth."

  • The Undercover Men Committing Sodomy To Oust Homosexuals Were Excused For Their Sodomy

    There was a marked difference between those engaging in homosexual acts for the government, and those doing it with "criminal intent." The undercover agents in these cases were referred to as "feigned accomplices,"where, according to the Attorney General of that time: 

    "His intent is not evil but meritorious, since it is in aid, not in obstruction, of justice. This principle, being general and all embracing, applies to unnatural sexual crimes as well as to others."

    In other words, these "undercover" agents were doing "just" work in trying to entrap their fellow servicemen by performing homosexual acts with them.