In the spring of 1919 military staff at the United Stales Naval Training Station in Newport, Rhode Island, launched an investigation into the scope of 'immoral conditions' in the local community. They recruited from among the young enlisted men stationed at the base a number of sailors who volunteered to serve as decoys and to seek out and identify men they suspected of being sexual perverts. The volunteers agreed to have sex with these men, to infiltrate their social networks, and by that means to find out as much as possible about the extent and organisation of male homosexual activity in Newport. The decoys soon discovered that the Army and Navy YMCA was the most popular hangout for 'fairies', by which they referred to men who violated masculine norms of both gender and sexuality - in the first case by displaying 'effeminate' mannerisms or adopting feminine nicknames, cosmetics and dress, and in the second by manifesting a preference for a 'passive', or receptive, role in sexual relations with other men. The decoys also identified as 'fairies' a number of local clergy who ran Sailors' Homes and otherwise ministered to the Fleet. After repeated social and sexual contact with these 'fairies', the decoys turned their evidence over to the authorities, and as a result of their testimony more than twenty sailors were arrested in April 1919, along with another 16 civilians in July. In 1920, the Navy opened a second inquiry into the methods employed in the first investigation. And in 1921 a United States Senate Committee issued a report of its own.
LRB 23 May 1996 | PDF Download