Army and Navy YMCA
50 Washington Square
Since the early 20th century, YMCAs have been gathering places for gay men. Newport‘s Army and Navy YMCA, a Beaux Arts-style building, opened in 1911, and when the fleet was in – Newport was home to an important naval training station – the building was often filled beyond capacity. Here soldiers and sailors could bank, shop at the canteen, and eat a homestyle meal. Activities included swimming, bowling, and jogging (and numerous other “indoor sports,” to be sure). The administrators also showed movies and sponsored cabaret evenings of song and performances.
In his article, “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era,” historian George Chauncey relates the story of an official navy investigation in 1919-20 of homosexuality in Newport. Under orders from then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt, young enlisted men acted as decoys to entrap homosexuals, gathering information and later testifying before a naval court of inquiry and at several civilian trials. Twenty sailors and sixteen civilians were arrested as a result of the “investigation.”
The decoys reported that the YMCA, as well as nearby beaches and wharfs, were havens of homosexual activity. Some gay sailors lived at the Y, while others just rented rooms for the night. “Fagott” [sic] parties, the investigators found, were commonplace at the Y in the evenings. The gay men who frequented the Y also engaged in homosexual activities in other cities and maintained contacts with gay men in New York, Providence, and Fall River. But, Chauncey found, in addition to the men who identified as “queer,” there were men who regularly enjoyed homosexual sex but thought of themselves as heterosexual.
Newport‘s YMCA reached its peak in 1951, during the Korean War. When the Navy began downsizing during the Nixon administration, attendance at the Y fell off, and it was closed in 1973. It is now an apartment building for low-income residents.
“The Army and Navy Y.M.C.A. was the headquarters of all cocksuckers [in] the early part of the evening…. everybody who sat around there in the evening…knew it.”
–Navy investigator, 1920