In the atmosphere of paranoia that characterized the cold war era, national security itself seemed to depend on masculine authority and the solidity of heterosexual families. Americans were prompted to look for evidence of foreign infiltration by searching for the “enemy within.” Homosexuals, believed to be immoral, mentally ill, improperly gendered, and untrustworthy, became some of the chief scapegoats of the period, enduring increasing police harassment, witch-hunts, suspicions of disloyalty, and dismissals from jobs.
Narrators from this era, overwhelmingly male and all white, agreed that Oberlin’s music conservatory, historic commitment to racial justice, student leftist politics, and campus intellectualism gave the college an unusual—even “queer”—reputation. But their memories of the college’s social atmosphere and their experiences as LGBT people were often quite divergent. Some recalled a socially conservative campus with strictly enforced social rules and anti-gay attitudes. Other narrators felt that Oberlin’s political and intellectual nonconformity extended to the sexual sphere and offered freedoms that were unavailable under the watchful eyes of their parents.
Narrators’ differing experiences may be partly the result of the overwhelming silence about homosexuality (and sexuality in general) on campus during this period—one point agreed upon by all narrators. It may be that the void left by this silencing meant that LGBT students’ individual backgrounds, temperaments, and contact with other LGBT students and faculty had more to do with their experiences of Oberlin during this period than others. Two women narrators who now identify as bisexual and lesbian also suggested that the pervasive silence about (homo)sexuality may have been one reason that they did not recognize their own sexual attractions towards women when they were undergraduates.
Many male narrators internalized societal views that equated homosexuality with mental illness, deviancy, and sin, and—to varying degrees—isolated themselves from other gay students and faculty. For these narrators, the premium put on “being normal” and the stigmatization of any kind of “difference” during the cold war era weighed heavily on their minds. Other narrators instead associated their “difference” with an elite relationship to style, sophistication, and artistic talent. The Conservatory of Music and Oberlin’s theater programs were havens for these students and faculty and magnets for campus queer culture. There, many formed what they now characterize as gay “secret societies” or “clubs,” and cultivated sensibilities that countered the popular consensus on morality, gender presentation, and sexuality.