The Sodomy Scandals – Revealing and criminalizing secret gay culture

Prohibitionist era scandalized and criminalized homosexual sex as sodomy.

Homoculture LGBT History Silvia Hildebrandt

Gay culture boomed in Europe ten years before it got widely accepted and tolerated in art deco-esque New York City. Marcel Proust published with In Search for a Lost Time the first novel to openly address homosexuality in literature. Richard Oswald directed 1919 Anders als die Anderen, a movie about a violinist in love with his male student, one of the first and few films showing sympathy towards homosexuality. Richard Oswald had already worked on the German screen adaption of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray three years before. But not only in the arts did gay culture bloom in Europe: the nightlife of the German Weimarer Republik had a hugely active gay community although § 174 of the German Criminal Code banned homosexuality, charged with up to five years of prison.

But in the USA thePortland Clique Scandal gave way to a intolerant attitude towards homosexual culture.

A boy accused of shoplifting caused a nationwide scandal by revealing Portland’s secret gay community. That’s what happened in 1912 to Benjamin Trout. He said a group of men corrupted him and forced him into it. A war on gay culture and gay men followed. Hidden bars and meeting points were raided and attacked, newspapers lunged at the story, as it became clear that famous men were involved too, such as Edward Stonewall Jackson McAllister, a Portland attorney, Progressive activist and leader in the state Democratic Party.

The Sodomy Scandals – Revealing and criminalizing secret gay cultureAnother famous Portland VIP of the gay clique was Theo Kruse, owner of the Louvre restaurant. In the following years he had to close his restaurant, but tried to stay in business by reopening another which clearly and openly addressed gay men as customers, called the Rainbow Grill —its menu featured a Special Men’s Meat.

A large group of the accused were also members of the YMCA, thus people’s attitude towards the whole organization and the Portland upper class turned into homophobia and open hate. This gave way to justifying forced sterilization.

But what people frowned upon the most, was not the idea of a relationship between two men, but the thought of what they were doing in bed. Society neither scandalized and criminalized a gay lifestyle nor a choice for male/male love, but lawyers proclaimed the sexual act of anal penetrationa crime against nature. Even heterosexual couples engaging in anal sex could be charged for sodomy.

The Sodomy Scandals – Revealing and criminalizing secret gay culture

The end of the decade turned out to be in no way better for the LGBT culture; in 1919 the Newport sex scandal repeated the criminalization of gay sex life. In the Naval Training Station hospital in Newport, a Thomas Brunelle told Chief Machinist’s Mate Ervin Arnold about his own involvements in Newport’s gay subculture centered around the Army and Navy YMCA and the city’s Art Club. Investigations, arrests and trials lead to 17 sailors charged with sodomy and scandalous conduct. This time a nation under the pressure of Prohibition, not only criminalized anal sex, but also effeminate behavior, cross-dressing, orgies, and alcohol and drug abuse as well.

In 1916, the US military had already begun to use the blue discharge, neither honorable nor dishonorable, but widely issued by commanders to get rid of men associated with homosexual behavior.

So, when the nation left the rough rural men’s (sex) life of the bachelor cowboys behind, the US adopted not only a prohibitionist, but also a homophobic mentality.

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