Especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many male narrators recalled being so disturbed by their attractions to other men that they sought psychological help. Mental health professionals, as well as the general public, considered homosexuality to be a mental illness at the time, and it was listed as such by the American Psychiatric Association in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM) until 1974. Other Oberlin students internalized this message but did not seek help. For these narrators, the premium put on being “normal” and the stigmatization of any form of deviancy or “difference” during the cold war era weighed heavily on their minds.
Gale Kramer (OC 63), who considered himself “a flawed heterosexual,” went “secretly and ashamedly” to the county mental health clinic in Elyria. “I probably appeared quite sociable,” he recalled, “while feeling desperately different inside.”
Jim Humphreys (OC 61), a mathematics major, “was Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude…but deeply depressed about my sexuality when I graduated, which no one at Oberlin was helpful about,” he recalled. “I only knew that I wanted to be ‘normal’ like everybody else. There wasn’t much in 1950s culture to help me understand what I was going through, so my perceptions of other people were very limited.”
Tom Copeland (OC 66) recalled visiting the psychologist hired by faculty in 1959 who held office hours at Oberlin’s Health Services two days a week. “I said, ‘I am homosexual and I don’t want to be,’” he recalled. “I think those were my exact words.” The psychologist gave him the names of two therapists in Cleveland who were trained in what later became known as “conversion therapy,” but Copeland had no way of getting to Cleveland and subsequently let the issue drop.
Michael Heintz (OC 63), a piano major who recalled campus rallies in support of Fidel Castro—and who remembered his parents’ fears that Oberlin would “turn [him] into a Communist”—nonetheless felt Oberlin was socially conservative and hostile toward homosexuals. The general campus consensus was that homosexuals were “sick, unnatural, [and] perverted,” he recalled. Homosexuality was “something that was absolutely undercover, and not recognizable at all,” he recalled. Not surprisingly, Heintz was “deeply conflicted” at Oberlin. “It tore me apart,” he recalled. “I didn’t know which way to go.”
Donald Downs (OC 62), a violin performance major from outside of Boston, also remembered a socially conservative campus. “That’s a time when they locked women up at night,” he said. “You still put a jacket and tie on for dinner and things were very organized socially. So all those reminders of how you were supposed to be were there. But it was still a lot more open and had a lot more possibilities than back home.”
Downs was aware of an “exotic” and “knowing” “Lounge Crowd” that met in the Conservatory basement to smoke cigarettes, and he had “affairs” with a few male students, but “I knew something was wrong,” he recalled. “The only possibility I knew about male-male or female-female sexuality or anything different [than heterosexuality] was filtered through that whole overlay of the McCarthy era and these terrible fears everybody had.” The images of “Communists, perverts, [and] the invader from within…combined with a really narrow suburban white middle-class focus in the 1950s on being materially well off and moving in a very strictly limited and controlled direction.” These views convinced him that “I wasn’t going to fit in,” and that not fitting in “wasn’t alright.”
Leonard Gibbs (OC 62), a violin and French horn major from west of Cleveland, discussed his sexuality with Downs, but had affairs with women “to try to change myself.” Other than seeing a psychologist at the medical center his freshman year, Downs was his only confidant.
Robert Stiefel (OC 63) remembered seeking guidance from the college doctor at Oberlin’s Health Center his sophomore year. “I was near tears and I was scared and I needed some kind of help,” he remembered, “but there wasn’t any.” After making his confession, the doctor told him, “you’ve had a perfectly good bringing up, this is just a phase you’re going through, and you should be ashamed of yourself for thinking these things, cause you’ll disappoint your parents,” Stiefel recalled.
Remarkably, some gay students did reach out to help Stiefel. On the outskirts of a Gilbert and Sullivan theater group during his senior year, Stiefel remembered a member of a gay theater circle talking one night about how he came to terms with being gay and telling Stiefel about a particularly “understanding” and “sympathetic” student that he could talk with. Stiefel writes about his experiences at Oberlin and his bittersweet friendship with classmate Michael Lynch, later a prominent gay activist in Toronto, in this essay.