Homosexuals as “Musical” and Conservatory as Haven (1950s/early 1960s)

Warner Hall, the Conservatory’s main home from 1884 to 1964, from 1951 Admissions materials. Courtesy of Robert Fuller.

Warner Hall, the Conservatory’s main home from 1884 to 1964, from 1951 Admissions materials. Courtesy of Robert Fuller.

By the 1950s, the Conservatory of Music had been strongly associated with male effeminacy and homosexuality for decades. “Everyone knows about them,” Bob Diehm (OC 37) recalled students saying in the 1930s; “that place is full of queers.”[116] This was widely assumed to be true even outside Oberlin; as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, a gay friend informed Robert Wood (GST 51) that the Conservatory was, using the same phrase, “full of queers.” The association was so strong that Stephen Calvert (OC 62) “didn’t look for gay people in the college. For me, it was just something in the Conservatory.” “Musical” was a euphemism for “homosexual” at the time, he remembered; “I think I took it a little bit too literally.”

This association of the Conservatory with “queers,” remarked upon by virtually all narrators, was partly the result of the larger cultural association of music with effeminacy and effeminacy with male homosexuality. But the frequent jokes and gossip about “fairy” musicians also had a concrete basis: the Conservatory did serve as a haven for many homosexual students and faculty and as a magnet for campus queer life and culture. Like the larger world of twentieth century classical music, the Conservatory sustained alternative kinship, support, and mentorship networks, and was a relatively hospitable space for LGBT lives.

Clockwise, from top left: Larry Palmer at his harpsichord, August 1960. Palmer in 1958, with Robert Schuler mugging in the background. Schuler tuning a piano. Palmer at his harpsichord, gallery of First Church, August 1960. Courtesy of Larry Palmer.

Clockwise, from top left: Larry Palmer at his harpsichord, August 1960. Palmer in 1958, with Robert Schuler mugging in the background. Schuler tuning a piano. Palmer at his harpsichord, gallery of First Church, August 1960. Courtesy of Larry Palmer.

Larry Palmer (OC 60) recalled a feeling of camaraderie among gay male students in the organ department as well as an important friendship with a gay Conservatory professor. The son of a Presbyterian minister and high school teacher raised in a small Ohio town, as a freshman Palmer fell in love with fellow organ major Robert Schuler (pseudonym; OC 58), a “lovely, moody” boy who would become his boyfriend and remain so for the rest of Palmer’s Oberlin years. Schuler in turn introduced Palmer as “a friend of Dorothy” to Professor Robert Melcher (OC 32), a “virtuoso theory teacher” who would became Palmer’s main confidant, mentor, and friend among the faculty.

Professor Robert Melcher in 1967. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Professor Robert Melcher in 1967. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Melcher, who Palmer affectionately described as “a little wizened, bald-headed man,” shared information about homosexuality, such as articles and books he had collected on the subject, that Palmer and Schuler would not have otherwise had access to. He also passed on Oberlin’s own gay folklore, sharing stories about homosexual musicians such as W.G. Breckenridge, a colorful professor of piano who taught at Oberlin from 1890 to 1934.

Robert Melcher in the Conservatory lobby. Date unknown. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Robert Melcher in the Conservatory lobby. Date unknown. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Another of Melcher’s stories concerned the campus origins of one of the most nationally revered musical pairings at the time, between a French baritone and his celebrated accompanist, an Oberlin graduate. In the early 1950s, the baritone appeared as a part of Oberlin’s Artist Recital Series and was housed at the Oberlin Inn, where the pianist was working a student job as a waiter. According to Melcher’s version of the meeting, it was “love at first sight.” The student was asked to turn pages at the recital, and following graduation was invited to France to become the baritone’s permanent partner—both musical and personal. Melcher, Palmer recalled, “was so happy at the sheer romance” of the story. Other narrators recalled hearing about the meeting as well; the story circulated among Conservatory students at least until the mid 1960s. As such, Melcher was part of the dissemination of a unique gay Conservatory folklore passed down through generations of students and faculty.

Like Palmer, Thomas Tibbetts (OC 59) found a role model in his voice teacher, Howard Hatton, who “ran around with some of the better-known gay luminaries” and was one of the “notable, very well-placed homosexuals” Tibbetts recalled at Oberlin. Unlike Palmer and Melcher, their shared homosexuality was an unspoken subtext to their relationship, Tibbetts recalled.

In contrast to the experiences of many of his contemporaries, Tibbetts had maintained a full, rich gay social life from the time he was in high school, finding gay men in all the major institutions of his “very conservative, Republican, semi-rural” hometown of Marietta, Ohio. He met gay students at the town’s college, who used code words like “musical,” “lavender,” and “gay” to determine each other’s homosexuality, and was “brought out” by a high school friend who told him “what went on in metropolitan areas, what a gay bar was, and [who] the gay people in history were.” They also went “exploring” at male cruising grounds such as picnic grounds, bookstores, and library and department store tearooms in larger towns in West Virginia. A religious young man, Tibbetts played organ in many of the local churches, which he also found were “very cruisy, fertile playing fields for gay people.”

While Tibbetts felt homosexuals were commonly characterized as “mentally deranged queers who wanted to corrupt young children,” he ultimately rejected this message after coming into contact with this diverse group of homosexual and bisexual men. He also soon found a double meaning in the Episcopal hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints,” written about “the joyous saints/who love to do Jesus’ will.” “You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store,” it goes, “in church, by the sea, in the house next door;…and I mean to be one too.”

Thomas Tibbets (OC 59). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Thomas Tibbets (OC 59). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

At Oberlin, Tibbetts majored in economics but devoted most of his energy to music and theater. While he found the Conservatory to be a relatively safe space for gay men, he soon learned that “musical” did not always mean homosexual. “I had come to think that every light-footed, effeminate, lisping male musician was certainly queer,” he recalled. “Now being a more enlightened person, I know that that is absolutely not true, and that you can get yourself into embarrassing situations if you make that assumption.” Through his involvement with music and theater, Tibbetts did become friends with a number of gay students, with whom he would listen to recordings, chat in the coffee shop, and attend concerts. During his senior year, he lived with a group of gay friends in an off-campus house owned by the President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The home appears to have housed groups of primarily gay Conservatory students from the 1950s well into the mid-1970s, another indication that the Conservatory propagated gay “culture” and traditions robust enough to be passed down through successive student classes.

The Conservatory served as a magnet for queer life and culture at Oberlin, just as the classical music world did for the nation as a whole. For those who felt a profound and stigmatized sense of sexual “difference,” music was often an emotional salve, historian Nadine Hubbs has argued, or an “abstract” channel for “sublimation and expression of forbidden desires.” Being nonverbal and “abstract,” music has also been characterized as “value-free” and without “truth claims,” and was therefore especially attractive to homosexuals and other stigmatized groups.[117] Immersing oneself in the world of music could also destabilize the “naturalness” or inevitability of social norms that stigmatized homosexuals in the worlds of religion, psychology, and politics. Luke Warmer (pseudonym; OC 53) recalled that discovering the worlds of “music and color and the senses” helped him to disregard “the Episcopalian upbringing [he] was given…[and] for that matter convention,” as discussed in the previous section.

Young men drawn to music may have been ridiculed as effeminate or “irrelevant” fairies, but Conservatory students’ status as artists possessing “talent” in one of the country’s top music schools also brought them considerable praise. The strong cultural associations of musicality with homosexuality also allowed for some “slippage” between the two categories, Hubbs has argued, and “open[ed] up possibilities for a deprecation of the former, an appreciation of the latter, and even for the existence of some special correlation between the two.”[118] In this way, Conservatory student Tony Wells (OC 62) recast social views that equated homosexuality with pathology by associating homosexuality instead with an elite relationship to style and artistic talent. “We homosexual Conservatory students thought we were becoming members of the same elite, glamorous fraternity as Tchaikovsky and Proust and Gide and Cocteau and Francis Poulenc and Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland and Ned Rorem,” Wells recalled.

Raymond Donnell (OC 53). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Raymond Donnell (OC 53). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

This is not to say that the Conservatory was a homosexual utopia. In the mid-1950s the Conservatory hiring committee rejected at least two applicants because of their homosexuality, according to Raymond Donnell (OC 53). Donnell, an alumnus applying for a position as the Associate Director, was one applicant. The other was an internationally renowned female vocalist, Donnell recalled. “This had to do, not with witch-hunting, but with views about mores, and that people who are now called gay were a bad influence on students, and a corrupting one.”

In this environment, Palmer remembered Melcher being “riddled with guilt and afraid that he’d be found out.” Homosexuality “was totally illegal,” he recalled, “so it really did make a difference when you’re realizing that you’re part of a criminal culture.” As a student, Palmer wasn’t troubled, “but I think certainly for the faculty people, and the mature people at Oberlin, it must have been a great burden trying to live in the shadows of the time.”

In this climate, gay Conservatory students and faculty worked to bypass official administrative regulatory structures by policing themselves and other gay people. Melcher, for those who knew about him, was “sort of a lifeline if something did happen,” Palmer recalled. During Palmer’s senior year, for instance, a newly hired organ professor tried to “put the make” on a gay student who did not appreciate the attention. In order to sidestep the need for administrative interference, the student went to Palmer, who in turn went to Melcher. Melcher then “took [the professor] aside and [told him] this was not going to work, and he didn’t lay off trying to harass [the student], there would be very, very serious consequences.”

Even during a rabidly anti-homosexual era, the Conservatory sustained alternative support and mentorship networks, its own gay folklore and sense of history, and tools to counter anti-homosexual beliefs. It was therefore a relatively hospitable space for LGBT lives.

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