The 1960s were a time of intense conflict over political authority, racial equality, sexual self-expression, and personal autonomy. At Oberlin, LGBT people helped shape these debates. The momentous changes in student culture in turn influenced the ways LGBT students thought about themselves as individuals and, more significantly, as a group.
The civil rights movement, which galvanized the Oberlin campus in the late 1950s to mid 1960s, profoundly impacted the way many LGBT people understood their stigmatized sexual “difference” and ultimately helped pave the way for political action based on a minority model of sexual identity. Starting in the mid-1960s, the college also began working to increase African American enrollment, leading to a more cohesive African American community—one that at least one African American narrator characterized as welcoming to LGBT students.
In the latter part of the decade, the campus hippie and drug cultures’ celebration of sexual pleasure and personal “authenticity,” along with the increasingly radical anti-war, racial justice, and student movements, led some LGBT narrators to be more candid about their own sexual identities. As in the tumultuous interwar period, fears of homosexuality also influenced and shaped the contentious campus debate around social rules, administrative paternalism, and campus sex-segregation in the 1960s. In the early 1960s, the administration continued to act in loco parentis (literally “in place of parents”) to police and regulate male-female student behavior through a host of social rules. Students would successfully dismantle these campus traditions by the late 1960s and early 1970s, which would coincide with, and create an environment relatively conducive to, the founding of Oberlin’s first gay student organization in 1971.
The Conservatory of Music and campus theater programs remained havens for many LGBT students during the 1960s, and the more flamboyant among them increasingly claimed public space for themselves. Theater groups gossiped in the snack bar and outrageous musicians held court in the new Conservatory Lounge, using camp and “drag names” to create a protective in-group, come to terms with their sexual identities, and pressure closeted gay and lesbian students to “come out” into a gay social world. While these flamboyant queens could, and did, include women of all sexual persuasions in their circles, their world was a decidedly male one. Before the women’s liberation movement of the early 1970s, lesbian circles appear to have been much less cohesive and visible than gay male circles.
Gay students and faculty continued to visit off-campus venues, but they appear to have become less important as gay campus circles and spaces became more accessible. Students also increasingly brought LGBT themes to the forefront of the classroom during the 1960s, often angered by professors’ silencing of the subject.
While some administrators embraced ‘60s student radicalism and were relatively sympathetic to LGBT students—most notably John Thompson, the director of the newly formed Oberlin Psychological Services—the Carr administration as a whole was extremely anxious about the questionable “masculinity” and political “impulsiveness” of the student body. These anxieties would come to a head during the 1969 Admissions controversy, in which “questionable comments” were found men’s applications, “ranging from the political persuasion of admissions candidates to masculinity.”
The controversy, sparked, arguably, by an effort to erase homosexuality from the campus, ironically had the effect of broadening campus discussion of LGBT people. In the context of the controversy, students characterized homosexuals as a class of person wrongly discriminated against, grouped gay students along with political radicals and other “outsiders,” and identified gay people as being among the vanguard of those pushing the “liberal limits” of the college and larger culture. These were all significantly positive characterizations in the context of a leftist, anti-establishment student culture, and an indication that homosexuality was beginning to be thought of as a “political”—rather than “moral” or “psychological”—condition by the end of the 1960s.