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PODCAST | RHODE ISLAND REPORT

FDR, sex, and the Navy: Two artists are uncovering a little-known piece of Newport history

“Scandalous Conduct” is a new art and research installation that dives into the history of how sailors and civilian men were targeted in a homophobic undercover operation to root out “immoral acts.”

The Naval Training Grounds in Newport, Rhode Island around 1919.Collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at alexa.gagosz@globe.com.

Not long after World War I ended, about 30,000 sailors in the United States Navy returned to the seaside town of Newport. But shortly after they landed, the city was in the midst of a national scandal: sailors and civilian men were being targeted in a homophobic undercover operation to root out “immoral acts.”

The young men were recruited by a machinist’s mate and an amateur detective, who had convinced the sailors to engage in sexual acts with other men and then report their findings.

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Today, little is known about the investigation, other than handwritten daily logs that have been uncovered, written by a group of sailors that were part of the operation. But two local artists and co-publishers of Headmaster Magazine, Jason Tranchida and Matthew Lawrence, have dedicated themselves to shining a light on this little-known piece of Newport’s history, including the future US president who was involved in their multimedia project “Scandalous Conduct.”

Tranchida explained the scandal’s history and his project on this week’s Rhode Island Report podcast. This latest episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, other podcasting platforms, and by listening to the player above.

Q: After these sailors were caught, what happened to them?

Tranchida: Dozens of sailors were caught, rounded up, and thrown on a ship in the middle of Newport Harbor in 1919. There weren’t any trials, no information, and really no end in sight. It’s possible that they didn’t know what to do with them once they actually rounded them up. Eventually, it went to trial in the fall. Some were dishonorably discharged. Others were thrown in jail. So think, these were young men and their lives were ruined in this entire scandal.

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But an editor at the Providence Journal at the time caught wind of it. The editor, John Rathom, almost took a homophobic Navy entrapment scene and turned it into a national scandal.

An ad for the Navy show "Jack and the Beanstalk" in Newport, Rhode Island appeared in the Providence Journal after World War I around 1919. Navy sailors dressed in drag for the show, was used as a Navy recruitment tool.The Providence Journal

Q: What were some of their “entrapment tactics?”

Lawrence: While sailors were involved with this sting operation to stamp out gay sex within its ranks, the Navy was also producing a staged version of Jack and the Beanstalk that featured a cast that included a lot of Navy men in full drag. We were really surprised by the disconnect — arresting gay men while at the same time celebrating drag culture.

Q: How are you digging up archives?

Lawrence: There was one book written about this in the late 1980s. It came out right after the author died, so it didn’t get the amount of attention that it could have otherwise. We’ve also gone to a number of places in Rhode Island. We still need to go to the FDR Library in Hyde Park, New York, which has been closed for the last year and a half because of the pandemic, and the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

But when the operators were tasked with entrapping other sailors, they would have to come back in the morning and write up these daily reports.

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Q: What do you know about these daily reports?

Lawrence: All of those reports are housed at the National Archives. They are crazy powerful, graphic, and oddly contemporary. And you can tell that they are written by 18 year olds.

We gave our first lecture on this research project in 2020 and this scholar, Sherry Zane, said she had started this research years ago. She shared all of her research and these documents that she had taken photos of on her flip phone back in the early 2000s, and we created an audio project so we could bring them to life.

Q: What was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in all of this?

Tranchida: FDR was the undersecretary of the Navy at the time. It’s questionable what and how much he knew. We know that he knew that this happened, but he may not have known the tactics. It’s unclear what trickled up and down the command. Rathom, who was well connected throughout the country, could have completely derailed FDR’s political career, preventing him from becoming president. But Rathom died, and the scandal kind of died with him.

An article in The Boston Globe reporting on the Navy entrapment scandal in Newport, Rhode Island in July 1921.The Boston Globe

Q: What is the end project going to look like?

Lawrence: The final project will be a combination of sound and video work along with some other pieces that we’re still developing. Since I’m a writer and Jason has a sculpture background and an interest in photography, we could really go in a lot of directions. It’s important for us to tell the story effectively and that will depend a lot on where and when it ultimately happens. Basically, we want to tailor the project to the space that it’s in, and the pandemic has made it tricky to figure that piece of the puzzle out.

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Q: Why do you think it’s important to tell this story, especially now?

Lawrence: For one thing, these types of things are still happening. Last year, in Georgia, there was an incident where police were arranging drug deals on Grindr, and there was a big sting, arresting anyone who showed up.

But this is part of Newport history. It’s part of Rhode Island history. And these “subcultures” are not new. People have a tendency to think that being gay is new. Or that people are just now comfortable with being out. I think that stories like this challenge that way of thinking.

Q: What challenges have you faced when conducting this research?

Lawrence: Accessing the archives at the Naval War College was a bit of a bureaucratic challenge that took a few months, and we ended up finally visiting on March 13, 2020. We were in the archives when staff got the call to plan to work from home for “a few weeks.” Unfortunately for us, they’re now doing a multi-year renovation project that means they’re not accepting research visits until some time in 2023.

We anticipated encountering archives that maybe wouldn’t want to share information about the scandal but so far that hasn’t been a problem at all for us. Our biggest issues have been finding a venue and determining when it would be safe — and smart — to produce in-person events.

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The Naval Training Grounds in Newport, Rhode Island in 1919.Collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.