A “Queer” College: Political Liberalism and Social Conservatism (1950s)

It has been a theme in Oberlin’s history that the college’s traditional strengths, its exceptional music conservatory, history of progressive race relations, and traditions of student activism and academic excellence, have also been recast as weaknesses and sources of administrative anxiety. This may have especially been true during the 1950s. At a time when homosexuality, effeminacy, Communism, and other forms of “subversion” bled tautologically into one other, the “femininity” of the Conservatory, the limited racial “mixing” in campus housing, student leftist politics, and campus intellectualism could and were read as odd, “queer,” or even overtly homosexual, both on campus and off.

In 1950, for example, Oberlin’s Admissions Committee discussed “the anti-Oberlin feeling created…by an Oberlin student who had talked to a group of Indianapolis students about…the wonderful Inter-racial atmosphere of Oberlin and the fact that colored and white roomed together.” The Indianapolis group felt “Oberlin was queer” and that “they would not want to come here if this situation existed.”[111]

In Allan Spear’s (OC 58) experience, Oberlin’s strange (or “queer”) reputation was explicitly connected with fears of effeminacy and homosexuality. Raised in a Jewish family in Michigan City, Indiana, Spear was attracted to Oberlin’s politically charged, academic atmosphere. But his father, who was hoping for a more “manly” state school, had heard from a business associate that “Oberlin was a very strange place,” Spear recalled.

And [my father] asked, ‘Why in the world do [you] want to go there? They don’t have fraternities, it isn’t a normal college, they have really weird kids and all they do is sit around and talk about intellectual things.’…And I said, ‘That’s exactly why I want to go there.’ And I said, ‘I’m not like everybody else.’ And this was kind of the fateful line…And then, later on, my father [said], ‘Well I have to ask you something. When you said you’re different from everybody else, you wanna be different from everybody else, are you a homosexual?’ So [my parents] thought I was going to this really weird place that was going to turn me into a homosexual.

Allan Spear (OC 58). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Allan Spear (OC 58). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Spear felt that Oberlin was an unusual school; the stereotype of 1950s college students as the “Silent Generation” did not ring true for him of Oberlin. He recalled participating in pickets of local barber shops and bars that discriminated against African Americans and appearances by folk singer Pete Seeger at his campus cooperative, for example. Yet, if Oberlin had a “queer” tinge and its students were politically vocal, it appears that LGBT people were silent about their sexual attractions and identities. Spear himself spoke out for the rights of others, but kept his homosexuality a closely guarded secret.

Bill Vance (OC 56). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Bill Vance (OC 56). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

During the 1950s at Oberlin, Spear recalled that homosexuals were considered to be “ridiculous, frivolous people with effeminate manners,” “threatening” sexual predators, “artistic” or “musical,” and mentally ill—popular characterizations that were “somewhat contradictory with one another, but all negative.” Spear recalled furtively reading books on sexuality in the campus library in which homosexuality “was always dealt with within the context of abnormal psychology”—a message he internalized, ultimately seeking therapy after graduating.

David Thomas (OC 56). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

David Thomas (OC 56). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Roger Smith (pseudonym; OC 55) also internalized societal views that equated homosexuality with mental illness, deviancy, and stigmatized effeminacy. His freshman-year roommate, an “obvious fairy,” suffered a “mental breakdown” and left Oberlin mid-year. “This complicated my life,” Smith recalled, “because I thought that everybody that had these feelings…must be mentally unbalanced.” Smith himself felt he had “grave, sinister thoughts and desires, and should and would be rejected by anybody that I would share them with.”

Even close friends kept their sexuality hidden from one another. While college students Bill Vance (OC 56) and David Thomas (OC 56), both valedictorians of their high school classes, “spent hundreds of hours” with each other as undergraduates, they both kept their sexual attractions to other men a closely guarded secret. In high school, Thomas had maintained a discreet sexual relationship with another young man in his small Iowa hometown. But he imagined homosexuals to be depraved individuals, like dope addicts or alcoholics. Thomas, instead, was highly intelligent and driven, and at Oberlin, he was “determined to put that [high school relationship] behind me and to go straight.”[112]

The Graduate School of Theology: bastion of morality or nest of iniquity? From 1951 Admissions materials. Courtesy of Robert Fuller.

The Graduate School of Theology: bastion of morality or nest of iniquity? From 1951 Admissions materials. Courtesy of Robert Fuller.

For Vance, keeping his sexuality a secret was a source of terrible anxiety. “We all lived in such intense relationship with each other,” Vance recalled. “[There were] long bull sessions every night [and] always the danger of self-exposure.” A religious young man, Vance was “praying against” his homosexuality and “agonizing over [it] at night.” The “sheer agony” of the perceived conflict between his sexuality and his religious values ultimately led him to question organized religion and the concept of sin. Ironically, Oberlin’s required courses in religion also made him “far more skeptical” of organized religion, and the School of Theology building itself opened his eyes to same sex campus activity. “I remember going into the men’s room there, and at this time there was a lot of gay graffiti, and there was ‘for blow tap toe’ written on [the stall],” Vance recalled. The occasional tapping “scared me,” he remembered; “I’d get out of the booth and run away.”

Peg Morton (OC 53). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Peg Morton (OC 53). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Peg Morton (OC 53) and Bobbi Keppel (OC 55), two women graduates from the college who now identify as lesbian and bisexual, respectively, also recalled limited discussion of campus homosexuality. They felt that the overwhelming silence about sexuality may have contributed to the fact that neither woman recognized her sexual attractions towards other women when they were undergraduates—a statement echoed by women narrators from the 1960s.

Living “in the midst of a core of campus radicals” in Pyle Inn, which became Oberlin’s first student co-op in 1950, Morton recalled two women rooming together in a decidedly romantic fashion. “I remember some sort of a mild comment at one point, and my mild reaction,” Morton said. “Nobody seemed steamed up, it was just what two of our friends were doing.” Still, Morton—who now identifies as lesbian—felt she was exclusively attracted to men while she was a student. “Our hormones change as we get older, so that might be part of it,” she said. “If I had known about different kinds of sexuality I wonder whether my sexuality would have been different.”[113]

“The Pyle Inn ghosts leaving for their annual outing.” 1954. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

“The Pyle Inn ghosts leaving for their annual outing.” 1954. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

In Bobbi Keppel’s introductory psychology class, homosexuality “was just one of those things that was mentioned as essentially a mental illness,” Keppel recalled. The only overt gay circles or people she encountered were abroad, during a year of study in England. During a visit to the French Riviera, a woman who had ties to a fellow Oberlin student’s family introduced Keppel to an expatriate community of gay male artists fleeing harsh sodomy laws in England. “I got a very, very positive introduction to queer culture,” she remembered. “I’d say my friends in France did a good job of undoing [the introductory Psychology class].”

But Keppel was not aware of any same sex attractions while she was a student. It was only later in life that she came out as a bisexual and later yet when she became a bi activist and author (her “coming out” story appears in the book Bi Any Other Name and her photo appears on the cover of Getting Bi.)[114] “I feel that my life has been so enriched by being bisexual,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder if Oberlin had been a friendly place for queer folks, is [my awareness] something that would have changed for me?”

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