Grumpy Ghey: Fear and Loathing in Idaho

by / Aug. 23, 2017 12am EST

I don’t pretend to know much about Idaho. There is, of course, the potato connection. Carole King moved there to escape the trappings of Los Angeles in the mid-1970’s. A college roommate of mine who’d done some volunteer firefighting in Idaho helped put out a small fire on her property.  And a fellow music journalist in Boston had dinner at her Idaho home… apparently she rolls great sushi. Oh, and supposedly John Waters filmed the infamous final scene of Pink Flamingos there. But that’s where Idaho and I parted ways. That is, until I recently watched a documentary film called The Fall of ‘55.

I’m late to the table on this one, this ‘Idaho homosexual scandal,’ but given the tidal surge of hate that’s recently drenched our nation, it seems like a good time to reflect on how far we’ve come. And if there’s anything remotely positive to pull from the film, that’s it.

Released in 2006, The Fall of ‘55 was written and directed by Seth Randal, and it documents a series of unfortunate events that occurred in Boise, Idaho in (you guessed it) 1955. The story is told mainly by descendants of those involved since most of the original characters have since died. A mid-1960’s book entitled The Boys of Boise, by former Time and Newsweek editor John Gerassi, also exists.

Context is everything, so I suppose it’s important to acknowledge that back then, Boise was a much harder sell to prospective transplants than it is now. With a large population of Mormons and a thriving Church of  Latter Day Saints (L.D.S.), Boise was as unblemished as the Osmond Family’s teeth – and that was how it was marketed to potential transplants from other, racier cities. Indeed, Boise fancied itself a ‘vice-less’ community without any so-called ‘red light district’ to worry about. With some 70 thriving churches, it was largely perceived as ‘immaculately respectable,’ as Time magazine coined it — an idyllic, upstanding and faith-based mountain town that provided respite from the big-bad-everywhere-else.  

But homosexuality isn’t a vice. It’s not an issue of respectability or morality. It is, rather, a fact of life and a human characteristic that’d been exhibited for centuries. Back then, however, perception was quite different. And Boise was in for a big surprise when a juvenile probation officer named Emory Bess started to hear bits of information from youths he worked with, detailing prostitution between teen boys and adult men throughout the city. All hell broke loose.

Bess’s son Ron is interviewed throughout the film, and he’s unwavering in his pitch: his dad was acting on behalf of teens who were being victimized and violated. But by the end of the film you have the strong impression he was candy coating his motivations, which is something easy to do when considering the fate of children perceived as being in harm’s way.

It speaks volumes that Bess initially had a great deal of trouble putting a plan in motion to pursue and prosecute the adults involved; nobody wanted to go anywhere near his discovery. Perhaps this should’ve been the first indicator that some things are better left well enough alone, “but in a respectable town like Boise, this just didn’t happen,” — an annoying statement made repeatedly through the film. And yet, by definition, it’s untrue. What Boise failed to realize is that it wasn’t unique in this regard. Not even close.

Even in the early-mid aughties when the film was in production, the language and tone of its key sources reek of ignorance and homophobia. “He bumped into this issue of boys being involved with men in a homosexual way,” is how Ron Bess phrased his father’s discovery. In a homosexual way. He may as well have said ‘of that persuasion’ and gone limp wristed for the camera. He looked uncomfortable talking about it, but not so much about the investigation his father pursued: He looked uncomfortable discussing homosexuality on any level. So did Alty Travelstead, whose dad was implicated in the scandal. Travelstead’s father had been a prominent Boise businessman and an L.D.S. church branch president who owned a dance studio and a successful restaurant called Howdy Partner. For the latter, he was known for staging rooftop floor shows that stopped traffic – a flair for the dramatic. You get the distinct impression listening to him talking about his dad that Alty never really accepted his father’s sexual preference.

“I found out years later that my dad had practiced homosexuality in the Boise community,” he said, adding that it was something perhaps studied by psychiatrists, but not something that actually happened in a place like Boise. He practiced it? I’m sorry, but homosexuality isn’t something that gets practiced. Not in 2006, and certainly not in 2017. It’s clear listening to Alty speak that he remained stuck in the 1950’s mentality that drove his family to move down to Mexico. In a rare moment of positivity, it’s revealed that the Travelsteads marriage survived despite Alty’s father being gay.

And yet, even though these folks got to witness firsthand what happens when intolerance reigns, you get the distinct impression they learned very little.  

When Bess conferred with the Boise PD, he was informed that he needed to have some proof before any action could be taken, so he took up with private investigator Howard Dice. Later, P.I. William Fairchild was brought on, a man who had worked ‘investigating homosexuals’ for the State Department which included ’rooting them out’ of the Air Force. Shortly afterward, a list of 500 suspected local gays had been compiled. Less than a year and a half later, 16 of them had been arrested. Families fell apart, lives and livelihoods were destroyed, and Boise’s reputation was soiled. But really, Boise needn’t have been so ashamed. Looking back now, that’s what stands out – not the scandal itself. The city dug its own grave with undue hysteria.

Nowadays, mainstream media outlets tend to let folks from differing perspectives contribute op-ed pieces as a nod toward bipartisan thinking (perhaps an illusion, but at least they try). Back then, however, the Idaho Statesman —Boise’s metro daily — wrote a series of its own scathing columns, condemning homosexual behavior and taking a ridiculously toned moral high ground that wouldn’t be tolerated now. In doing so, the paper portended to speak for Boise while simultaneously stirring the pot bringing the public to a rapid, rolling boil. “Crush the Monster” one headline read, discussing the “evils of moral perversion ” and referring to the issue as “a cancerous growth,” and a “filthy canker,”  while another editorial went on to remind once more that, “…it didn’t seem possible that this community harbored homosexuals to ravage our youth [who’ve been] victimized by these perverts… causing these boys to grow into manhood with the same inclinations as those who are called homosexuals.”

Oy gevalt. 

Other publications followed suit.

“The iniquity was currently uncovered as a result of a courageous probation officer having the moral stamina to report the facts to several to several church-related men of moral concern…,” yarned The Idaho Challenge Newsletter of the Idaho Allied Civic Forces. Yes indeed, it takes courage to condemn people and stand on self-appointed moral high ground.

But there’s an important distinction to be made here, and it’s one that doesn’t surface in the film until a psychiatrist named John Butler is brought into the scenario – another L.D.S. church member, curiously enough, but one with a much broader world view than that of the Boise masses. Butler is the first person in the film to acknowledge that the Boise youths in question had created an enterprise for themselves. Nobody was raped here. Not one of the youths involved claimed on record that they’d felt taken advantage of, wrongly coerced, preyed upon, etc. On the contrary: examined through a different lens, these teens were taking advantage of these older, closeted males – and that’s something that’s been going on forever, from booming metropolises to the most remote corners of the world. It was blackmail, money, and maybe a little sexual pleasure, plain and simple. “The pathology of the community and the level of homophobic paranoia was intense,” Butler correctly surmised. He was the only character in this play that stated incarceration was not the way to go, suggesting instead that Idaho ought to build community supports for gays and, “…let them form their own society and be left alone.” Boise parents resented Butler’s remarks as being indicative of their not knowing how to handle their children. Eventually, the L.D.S. church excommunicated him.

In the end, just shy of 1500 people were questioned. Prominent Boisians were arrested, including a bank president and a local actor (extradited from San Francisco, where he’d fled). The Chief of Police was fired. A witness for the prosecution committed murder. A West Point cadet named in an incident of sexual activity was bounced from the academy. Later, he committed suicide, having never recovered from the shame it brought him and his family.

In the midst of it all, Time ran a story in December of 1955 entitled “Idaho Underworld” that brought national attention to the situation in Boise, claiming existence of a “…widespread homosexual underground” there that was preying on hundreds of teenage boys.  It embarrassed residents – as well it should have. But it would seem that Boise was embarrassed for the wrong reasons. This has been a recurring pattern. A more recent 60 Minutes segment and anniversary-driven media recounts of the events (much like this one) tend to stir angry letters from Idaho residents who feel their state has suffered enough.

Gerassi’s book was published in 1966, and it shed light on some possible motivations behind what amounted to a witch hunt besides fear and hate. He cited the wealthy elite of Boise’s effort to maintain economic control over the city as a factor in the scandal, stating that the original probe was focused on one excessively wealthy  gay man in particular who was never arrested. In an updated forward of the book,  historian Peter Boag suggests that the hysteria in Boise was linked to the fear of communism in the 1950’s, since homosexuals were thought to be easy prey due to their perceived “weaker moral fiber.”

It was a bell that could not be un-rung. Realizing that they’d fueled a lynch mob mentality in Boise by insisting the city rid itself of all homosexuals, the Idaho Statesman attempted to backpedal when it released a statement calling for “shock and disgust” to be “replaced with calm and calculated analysis and consideration.” Noting that gay behavior had existed “as long as the weaknesses of the human mind have been evident,” the paper suggested tackling the problem with a less punitive approach. But the language used, including multiple appearances of the word ‘infected,’ did nothing to change perception.

I realize there will always be new ground to cover, new strides to make, new protections to reach for. Our country is in trouble, and I completely understand the need for rallies, for calling to arms, for solidarity. But sometimes it’s reassuring to be reminded that we have freedoms which were unimaginable seventy years ago, when street urchins could take advantage of your secret and your peers could get away with calling it moral weakness. Use it as a means to keep calm or as a motivation to fight harder – your call. I’m just going to bask in the relief of knowing my reality isn’t so terrifying, and really, there’s nothing wrong with that.