Vice Clique Cover CMYK 4Wx300ppiBy Robin Will, Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest for PQ Monthly

Who can resist a good sex scandal? In November of 1912, The Portland News was selling extra editions on the street, with stories of queer sex and suicide at the YMCA.

In the months that followed, 68 men were eventually implicated – in the crime of consensual sex. The Oregon Journal called the group, “The Vice Clique.”

Historian George Painter documents the events and their repercussions in his book, The Vice Clique: Portland’s Great Sex Scandal, self-published in December 2013, available through Espresso Book Machine.

Here’s the background. 1912 was an election year, and, for neither the first nor the last time in Portland, one of the campaign issues was vice. An assiduous “volunteer investigator” heard from an elevator boy about somebody at the YMCA who didn’t seem quite right, and turned the name over to police. Then, a 14-year-old boy arrested for shoplifting inexplicably offered the defense that he had been sexually corrupted by several men, and included the guy at the YMCA when he started naming names. Police paid a visit to the Y, and one of the men they questioned attempted suicide by poison. The Portland News was all over it.

The News’ coverage was barely factual, as George Painter discovered when he started digging through police records, trial transcripts, and accounts from competing newspapers. He follows the lives–pre- and post-scandal–of the men who were charged or investigated, as well as the cops, the judges, the lawyers, and even the members of the Oregon Supreme Court at the time. Painter also examines the legal legacies of this uproar, which included a law that allowed for neutering of undesirables in Oregon until its repeal in 1983.

Painter’s book is a valuable picture of public morality and law at the dawn of the Progressive Era in Oregon. At 292 pages in length, including 45 pages of footnotes and a detailed index, its thoroughness is not in question; it’s difficult to imagine what might have been overlooked. Historians will be using this book for reference; but Painter’s prose style is accessible, and the book could conceivably be read for background or entertainment.

MultCo Jail Log CMYK 300ppiA summary is impossible, but a few points are worth mentioning in a brief review.

First, the prejudice and closed-mindedness is jarring even to someone who was expecting it. We have, indeed, come a long way since 1912 in Oregon.

Second, there are some chuckles to be found among the police documents and explicit trial transcripts that Painter cites. There was naïveté expressed in court about what was anatomically possible between men, and Judge Gantenbein’s convoluted logic in pronouncing it all unnatural is laughable from this distance, although thinking of it as law is scary. Furthermore, in the mindset of 1912, apparently there was no such thing as consensual gay sex: there were only perpetrators and “boy victims.” A boy victim in one crime could become a perpetrator elsewhere, if his subsequent “victim” was younger.

Third, politicians, do-gooders and police rose to the occasion–and used the scandal to increase the state’s power and influence. As a direct result of the Vice Clique scandal, the definition of sodomy was ludicrously broadened, and the maximum penalty tripled–from 5 to 15 years. That law stood until 1971. A eugenics-and-sterilization bill, which had been submitted every year since 1907, also gained traction in 1913. The rationale was, for the good of society, to keep undesirable elements from breeding, although how this might apply to homosexuals was unclear. The 1913 bill was defeated by referendum, but the legislature brought it back unchallenged in 1917, giving the state broad powers to sterilize the feebleminded, sexual perverts and moral degenerates – including those convicted of sodomy. The last man was sterilized under that law in 1951; the last forced sterilization of any kind happened in Oregon in 1981, and the 1917 statute wasn’t repealed until 1983.

Fourth, it’s clear that Portland had a substantial and visible population of gay men 100 years ago, in spite of everything. Painter’s book depicts an active and social gay community with known cruising spots and at least one gay bar/nightclub as a gathering place: the men’s dining room at the Louvre Restaurant.

Finally–and here’s the part that’s interesting–things turned out less horribly than one might expect. Only one of the “Portland 68” went to prison; another had his sentence overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court. Two others served time in the county jail. Some men took the opportunity to leave town. Others were investigated but never charged. And although certainly lives were changed and careers were derailed, many of the men implicated in the scandal remained in Portland and spent the rest of their lives here. Perhaps this was an early indication of the gay-tolerant tradition that we enjoy today.

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Post Author: PQ Monthly Staff

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PQ (Proud Queer): Your source for LGBTQ news in the Pacific NW — www.PQMonthly.com
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PQ (Proud Queer) is a monthly print and daily online publication covering Oregon and SW Washington’s LGBTQ communities in all their diversity. We are committed to providing fair, timely and in-depth reporting on news that matters to LGBTQ people as well as insightful coverage of arts and culture.
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Proud Queer Monthly represents and provides LGBTQ news, entertainment, arts, culture, business directory, resources to the Portland, OR and SW Washington lesbian, gay, bi, trans, & queer community.

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