Students spoke freely about heterosexual relationships and conquests, but Conservatory student Luke Warmer (pseudonym; OC 53) did not discuss his “difference” even with his male sexual partners, confiding almost exclusively in the journal he began at the age of seventeen, at the death of his father. In his Oberlin entries, he described his trysts and attractions in great detail and mused about everything from music to human behavior to the nature of sin and homosexuality.
At the time of his last interview, at the age of seventy-five, Warmer successfully maintained a sexual and romantic relationship with both a man and a woman. But as an undergraduate, he had a difficult time reconciling his sexual desires with the strict gender roles, characteristic of the era, that defined men as dominant and women as passive. “I will not become a man,” he wrote in a 1951 entry, “until I realize women are ornaments and must be handled as such with respect, or interest. And in being ornaments to his essence, they make a man a man.”
If Warmer felt that female accessories confirmed one’s masculinity, he seemed to have believed that sexual experiences with men had a feminizing effect. In a 1948 entry, he wrote that sexual attraction to girls “brings out the man in me, gives me a feeling of mastery and domination,” while with men, “I feel week [sic], with a thin, nervous, surface feeling.” He wrote of his attraction to women as a “Power” that he might “lose” or “drift away from” in a 1949 entry, and again described homosexuality as a weakness, or something an “immature” or “undeveloped” man might “take to,” in a 1952 entry, relating a sexual encounter with a vagrant.
His writings about music were also filtered through the era’s gender roles and colored by the cultural association of music and musicians with effeminacy and sexual nonconformity. “Most men are not artists, but business men,” he claimed in a 1951 entry, “because there it is easier to be a man and live in ascendancy over the work.” In a 1949 entry, after listening to Debussy’s La Mer, he wrote about the connection between music and a “debauched” sex life and feared for both his musical and sexual future—“not separately, but combined.”
At the same time, Warmer later recalled in an interview that music also ultimately helped him disregard social norms and convention. Music was another “world” he could enter, with its own sense of time, meaning, and morality (or lack thereof), which may have destabilized the “naturalness” and inevitability of everyday social norms. “During the middle of the last movement of the Haydn,” he wrote of a Cleveland Symphony concert in 1948, “I suddenly realized that I hadn’t made a slightest movement since the music had begun and that it seemed as if not one second had elapsed between then and the beginning, as if time had completely stood still.” Music could also be a near sexual experience: “During the Ravel,” he wrote, “I had an orgasm of the mind.”
His Episcopalian upbringing soon went out the window as he questioned conventions such as organized religion and sin, especially as it related to sexual expression. “Sin is that which harms you,” he argued in a 1952 entry after describing a sexual encounter in a Conservatory men’s room. “But to repress the sin instead of entering into it is not virtuous. So enter it. There are times when sin does not harm and it is not sin.”
His blissful descriptions of his attractions and “affairs” with male students and staff also often seemed to overshadow his anxiety about being a “man.” One 1949 entry was devoted exclusively to describing a head “so deserved to be loved that all I could think of beside the head itself, and its owner, of course, was my yearning to have the part of a woman.” In another 1949 entry, Warmer effused about the “strange and wonderful…way I’ve fallen in love” with a male student.
“I was shaking like a leaf with nervous excitement,” Warmer wrote in another 1949 entry waiting for a young man to visit his dorm room. “What I am wondering intensely about is the future of this affair,” he wrote. “There seemed to be a relationship between us beyond the physical.” Yet there was rarely a moment when he or his affairs were not aware of the consequences of their encounters: “When he was leaving,” Warmer wrote of the next morning, there “was fear of guilt in that outside my door he was back in society which might discover.”
At times, Warmer imagined himself bucking convention altogether. “[T]here’s such a thing as living unafraid of others,” he wrote in a 1948 entry, practicing a speech he planned to recite to a high school friend with whom he had had a long, unacknowledged sexual relationship.
I’m not trying to defy others, I just want to show that what other people think shouldn’t effect you or anyone, one must be free, it only makes a difference when it involves others, and especially when it harms them[.] But this does neither…What you’re doing is not wrong for you’re following only instinct and surely that can’t be wrong—it could in the eyes of convention, a word I’m beginning to hate—even if it weren’t instinct, no difference.
In the end, Warmer did not follow through with his speech. But his entries are proof that, despite the silencing of same sex sexuality and relationships, the fear of exposure, and the social stigma surrounding effeminacy and homosexuality, students were smoldering below the surface, imagining other worlds.