FDR’s Investigation of Homosexuals at the Army and Navy YMCA in Rhode Island

FDR’s Investigation of Homosexuals at the Army and Navy YMCA in Rhode Island

Donna Patricia Ward - October 16, 2018

Thomas Brunelle was recovering in a naval hospital in early 1919. As he waited to be discharged to rejoin his unit, he longed for the days, and nights, of excitement and adventure that he experienced at the Army and Navy Young Man’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Newport, Rhode Island. Another patient, Chief Machinist’s Mate, Ervin Arnold listened to Brunelle talk of the drag shows, dances, theatrics, and “degenerate” activities that happened with regularity at the YMCA.

Over the next several months, Brunelle’s conversation with Arnold would lead to a naval investigation, signed off on by a future president of the United States! The lead investigator was none other than Ervin Arnold, who sought to quash sexual encounters happening at the Y by personally recruiting enlisted men to operate as undercover investigators.

The Newport Sex Scandal was an investigation into illicit sexual behavior of Navy personnel. Over 15 men went through court martial proceedings for sexual encounters with undercover investigators. Linked to the investigation was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and future President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Below is the sensational but true story of the Newport Sex Scandal that unfolded between 1919 and 1921.

FDR’s Investigation of Homosexuals at the Army and Navy YMCA in Rhode Island
Army & Navy YMCA in Newport, Rhode Island. Library of Congress.

“It is Fun to Stay at the YMCA!”

Newport, Rhode Island had become a major port city by the mid-1700s. Situated at the lower section of Narragansett Bay, it was an important and ideal location for military installations. Wealthy industrialists had flocked to the waterfront land of Newport to build grand summer homes for their wives and children. When Army and Navy officers arrived, Newport’s elite civilian society welcomed them with open arms. The two hierarchies created a “mutual respect” for each other which resulted in considerable financial contributions to the comfort of enlisted soldiers and sailors.

One such philanthropic venture was the construction of a new YMCA building in 1911. The YMCA had been established in Newport since the late-19th century. Its building was small and outdated for the needs of traveling military personnel. A wealthy widow who summered in Newport from Ohio commissioned the construction of a new building that would be modern and have four stories “dedicated to the use and comfort of the enlisted men of the Army and Navy.”

The Army & Navy YMCA was designed with the young man in mind. There were approximately 114 residential rooms spread out over four floors. Each floor contained a lavatory and shower room. On the second floor was a library. On the first floor were reading and writing rooms, a social room, a billiards room, a main desk, sundries room, restaurant, and lunch counter. A large gymnasium provided a place to play basketball, hold dances and theatrical performances, and exercise on an elevated running track. The YMCA provided a “home-away-from-home” for hundreds of thousands of enlisted men that passed through Newport.

FDR’s Investigation of Homosexuals at the Army and Navy YMCA in Rhode Island
U.S. World War II Anti-Venereal Disease Poster. Wikipedia.

As war-ravaged Europe in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson debated with Congress for years about sending Americans into the fray. Finally, when Germany continued its unrestricted submarine warfare against passenger and merchant ships and when it seemed likely that Mexico would align with the Kaiser, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war in April 1917. Without a standing army, the United States began a massive mobilization of men and women to make “the world safe for democracy.” The first soldiers and sailors went to Europe in 1918.

This was the first time that the United States had mobilized so many men to fight a modern war overseas. Their behavior in Europe became a centralized focus of moral crusaders. These crusaders had advocated for decades that sex occurs only between a husband and his wife. They were successful in linking purity and virtue with being a good soldier and a good American. With the help of the US Military, the moral crusaders were successful in equating sexual pleasure with giving away military secrets to the enemy. Democracy would not be victorious if young soldiers were literally sleeping with the enemy.

FDR’s Investigation of Homosexuals at the Army and Navy YMCA in Rhode Island
“The Fleet’s In” by Paul Cadmus, 1934. Wikipedia.

Moral Crusaders Attack Gay Culture

Gay culture had existed long before the onset of the First World War. Men had flocked to urban areas seeking autonomy and the chance to live their lives away from prying eyes of neighbors and family members. By 1910, gay culture had woven itself into the public sphere allowing male sexual identity to manifest in numerous ways. Drag shows were very popular forms of entertainment with the “female impersonator” as a sort of link between a gay subculture and mainstream America. Effeminate men self-identified as queers or fairies. They provided activist information on what to do when a drag show or saloon was raided by local police at the urging of moral crusaders.

Any type of sex outside of marriage was simply unacceptable by moral crusaders. As war mobilization efforts ramped up, these crusaders attacked all aspects of gay culture whether in the private or public sphere. Rambles, public places where men “cruised” each other for a quick tryst, were targeted for immoral activities and patrolled by police. Drag shows suddenly turned chaotic and horrifying when police arrived with knight sticks drawn. At the urging of moral crusaders, doctors, police, and private investigators labeled these men as “sick,” “perverts,” “inverts,” or “degenerates.”

FDR’s Investigation of Homosexuals at the Army and Navy YMCA in Rhode Island
Public health poster, “In order to be a good fighting man you must be…”, 1918. The Museum of American History.

It seemed like “immoral conduct” and “lack of moral perspective” was sweeping the nation. Protecting young enlistees from “unnatural” behavior was paramount to moral crusaders and the US Military. Ervin Arnold felt it was his moral obligation to report the accounts conveyed to him by Thomas Brunelle. After reporting the conversation to his superiors, the Navy began a preliminary investigation to determine if a widespread investigation was warranted. In March 1919, the Navy determined an investigation could commence.

A sexual misconduct investigation fell under the jurisdiction of the US Attorney General. When Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer refused to open an investigation, the Navy took matters into their own hands. Reportedly on March 19, 1919, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, signed off on opening an investigation into the “immoral conduct” reportedly happening at the Army and Navy YMCA in Newport. The Navy assigned Ervin Arnold, a former investigator, to lead the inquiry.

FDR’s Investigation of Homosexuals at the Army and Navy YMCA in Rhode Island
Franklin Delano Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1913. Wikipedia.

The Investigation Becomes Scandal

Ervin Arnold quickly recruited 13 enlistees to act as undercover investigators. He instructed the men to go to the Newport YMCA and participate in all activities, legal and illegal, that took place there. These good-looking men went about their assignment with a sort of vigor. They met men in the reading and social rooms and performed a sort of courtship ritual. Then they took their relationships to the next level by partaking in what police, doctors, and investigators deemed “unnatural” behavior that was illegal in many parts of the United States. After their encounters, the undercover investigators reported to Arnold about their “findings” rarely mincing words. There was very little of these reports deemed printable by the national press. The New York Times used phrases such as “conduct of character,” “immoral conduct,” and “lack of moral perspective” to paint a picture of what transpired at the YMCA in Newport.

By April 22, 1919, 15 sailors had been arrested for their “lack of moral perspective.” Their former lovers, the undercover investigators, had reported all of the sexual activity, including sodomy, to Arnold. Each sailor arrested was urged to give the names of others who had participated in “unnatural” behavior in the hopes of receiving a lenient sentence. The “evidence” was overwhelming and military tribunals court-martialed the “perverts” and “degenerate” enlistees.

Seventeen sailors were charged with sodomy and “scandalous conduct” and sent to the military prison at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine. Two sailors were dishonorably discharged, which prohibited them from ever seeking veterans’ aid or joining the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). Two charged were declared innocent. The investigation began to change when an Episcopal priest was arrested and tried. A judge found the Reverend Samuel Neal Kent innocent because the witnesses, working for Arnold as undercover agents, willingly entered into sex acts. And if they did not act willingly, they were acting under unlawful commands from their superiors in the Navy. But the Navy was not out of the woods.

FDR’s Investigation of Homosexuals at the Army and Navy YMCA in Rhode Island
Postcard of Boat Drill at US Naval Training Station in Newport, Rhode Island. Wikimedia Commons.

A group of priests addressed a letter to President Woodrow Wilson. In it, they declared that the investigation was done solely to entrap young men and at no point were any of the investigators charged with sodomy or “scandalous conduct.” The priests stated that for the men arrested, they were confined for months without a trial, which was illegal. Both the New York Times and the Providence Journal suggested that the Secretary of the Navy and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy were well aware of the methods used to court-martial the “perverts” and “degenerates.”

A subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs denounced both Daniels and Roosevelt on July 19, 1921, for their knowledge of the Newport investigation and the methods used. Franklin Roosevelt was furious. He denounced the committee’s findings and stated that the senators were simply using the Navy as a political tool. Roosevelt never commented on the court-martial proceedings or how “evidence” was obtained. By this time Roosevelt had resigned from his Navy post to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for vice-president. In August 1921, Roosevelt contracted what at the time was believed to be Polio while on vacation.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940. New York: BasicBooks, 1995.

D’Emilio, John and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America 2nd ed. Chicago: 1988.

Newport Sex Scandal. Wikipedia.

United States Department of the Interior. National Park Service.