In 1960, a small group of first year students wrote a remarkable letter to the Oberlin Review in protest of the mandatory sex education seminars they had attended. “Our main objection to these two venerable doctors,” they wrote, irreverently referring to the seminar instructors, “is that we were required to return with them to the days of unquestioning conformity, Victorian morals, and the dusty pronouncements of the dangers of Communist infiltration if our sex codes are relaxed.”
The students—at least a few of whom were “red diaper babies,” or children of Communist Party members or other leftists—also offered what was for the time a radical defense of homosexuality. “Dr. Jean’s attitude toward homosexuals, ‘that they ought to be pitied, rather than looked down upon,’ is the kind of narrow minded attitude which, in fact, makes homosexuality the problem that it is,” they argued. “Only if homosexuality is accepted as a natural social phenomenon, as it is in England, can we approach the problem objectively, if we agree that this is a ‘problem’ after all.
Two weeks later, Professor W. Arthur Turner responded incredulously to the “offensive” letter in a manner consistent with the in loco parentis community model, which empowered faculty to act as “parents” to students. “To me, and many others who have been at Oberlin since you were in rompers, and longer,” Turner began, “your letter seems immoral, rude, and silly.” Moreover, “in terms of the Christian morality upon which this country—and this college—were founded,” he wrote, “the implications of your letter are simply immoral.”
Students would give Professor Turner far more reason for offense in the following years. The sex education letters stands as a harbinger of the student radicalism, sexual expression, and increased visibility of LGBT people—as well as administrative anxiety about these developments—that would characterize the Oberlin campus in the 1960s. The letters also suggest, rightly, that protest against paternalistic administrative efforts to shape student male-female socializing and sexuality would be linked to growing acceptance and visibility of LGBT people and issues on campus.
A host of administrative restrictions still defined student heterosociability at Oberlin in the early 1960s. Male students could only visit women in their dormitories from 2:00 to 4:00 on Sunday afternoons, and eagle-eyed house mothers patrolled the halls with rulers to enforce regulations that rooms be open at least twelve inches and that couples have three feet on the floor at all times. Women had 8:30 P.M. curfews, and “parietal forms” could be completed by parents to restrict their behavior even further. Girl-boy-girl-boy seating, prayers, and a starchy dress code were observed at meals, and the administration banned alcohol and student automobiles.
As early as 1959, a student called for a “change from prudish attitudes” on campus to “a more positive attitude towards man-woman relationships.” By the mid 1960s, the level of student discontentment with social rules was extremely high. Involvement in the civil rights movement had a dramatic impact on many students’ perceptions of their own place in society and their ability to create change, and their challenge to the in loco parentis community model would only become stronger as student movements focused on the Vietnam War and racial justice became more powerful.
As they had in the 1930s, fears of homosexuality informed debate about social rules. A 1963 report from Harvard University Health Services, sent to President Carr, claimed that “liberalizing” social rules could lead to “tragic end[s].” According to the report, the generous coed visiting hours at one university led a sophomore male, goaded by his roommates, to a “failed” sexual experience with a female student. “He brooded about his failure and became increasingly convinced that he was hopelessly perverted.” “Overwhelm[ed]” by “fears about being a homosexual,” the student visited the psychiatric clinic, where, happily, “treatment was successful in restoring this boy to his emotional health.”
President Carr, a political liberal and civil rights activist inaugurated in 1960, may have had this cautionary tale in mind when he defended social rules in his 1962/63 Annual Report. “Oberlin’s students come from a society that increasingly approves of the automobile by the high school student as a means of mobility as well as a way of achieving privacy,” he wrote, “and thereby the opportunity, indeed, the necessity, to make earlier decisions…concerning sex and alcohol.” Despite changing social mores, Carr supported in loco parentis, a concept by then under attack by students as well as national courts. “When patterns of contemporary student behavior reach the point where they are in serious conflict with a college’s traditional qualities and purposes,” he wrote, “that college would seem to have both the right and duty to seek to influence and regulate student social life in an attempt to bring it within limits deemed consistent with the institution’s own character.”
This sounded much like Professor Turner’s note about the “Christian morality upon which this country—and this college—were founded.” It may have been a battle cry. The next semester, two men were suspended for alcohol possession and use. Within hours of the news, 400 students had gathered in protest. According to one narrator, a Dean called a student to his office to dissuade an inter-racial relationship around the same time, creating a “campus scandal.” And in May 1964, the faculty voted to discontinue the “Saturday Night Calling Hours” at women’s dorms that they had approved the year before, which also led to protest and increased student pessimism about the possibility for change through “proper” campus channels.
Two unverified stories circulating among gay students during the 1963/64 school year suggest that the administration’s “duty” to “influence and regulate student social life” also included policing the most visible manifestations of campus gay life. Howard Spendelow (OC 66) remembered hearing a rumor “that apparently one year the Admissions Office decided to…weed out some of the most obnoxiously overt flaming faggots.” According to the story, this move backfired: “The organ department got really pissed off, because they didn’t get any good students.” (At the time, organists were considered to be among the musicians most likely to be gay.) A year after he graduated, Jim Mosher (OC 62) also recalled hearing that one of the more “outrageous” theater queens was called into the Dean’s office to “name names.” The student “kind of looked at the back of his nails and said, ‘Why certainly Dean Holderman; shall we start with faculty and administration?’” According to the story, the “inquiry [then] immediately stopped.”
If these anecdotes point to students’ apprehensions about anti-gay administrative policies, they also suggest a plucky confidence in what these students perceived to be their important—indeed, invaluable—role in the institution. In fact, some gay students hardly felt that they were a minority—for them, gay sexuality seemed to encompass the entire college. Howard Spendelow (OC 66) remembered “some rainy winter days [when] we would sit in the snack bar and do circles of who knew who and even who had slept with who…I can remember with some degree of accuracy, exercises like that that ending up with a hundred names.”
These conversations occurred in the context of an increasingly sexualized and politically militant campus culture. In 1964, a student led contraceptive coop was formed, which later became the Oberlin Sexual Information Center (SIC), and in 1968 the Oberlin Clinic began to offer birth control. By the mid 1960s, some students violated federal law by crossing into Canada to send medical supplies to the Vietnamese, and many attended anti-war demonstrations in Cleveland, New York, and Washington, D.C. Hundreds of students also participated in sit-ins and anti-war protests on the Oberlin campus itself. In the most dramatic of these, over fifty college students surrounded the car of a Navy Recruiter in the town of Oberlin in October 1967. In time, the number swelled to just over one hundred, and police sprayed the students with fire hoses, smoke, and finally tear gas.
These protests garnered national media attention and altered the tone of student protest against campus social rules. While women’s curfews were eliminated in 1966, few major changes had been made to social rules by the late 1960s. Each faculty rejection of increasingly compromised student proposals resulted in growing aggravation among students. In May 1967, several hundred students staged a rally and all night vigil in favor of liberalized rules for off-campus housing. An anonymous handbill released after the faculty’s rejection of their proposal vividly expressed students’ displeasure:
We will no longer allow those clowns who live in a dream-world to make rules for us. We will no longer let prudes and perverts stifle our lives. We hereby declare ourselves independent of those fools who think that love and loving can be legislated. We will fuck when we want to fuck, we will live where we want to live. We hereby declare all College regulations, null. If we are caught, we will not obey, if we are punished, we will not ascend to the punishments…We hereby categorically declare our freedom.
The calls to “fuck who we want to fuck” and militant declarations of “freedom” also impacted the way LGBT students thought about their own sexual lives. Roger Goodman (OC 68), influenced by his immersion in the campus drug culture, radical activist circles, and what he called the “blatant faggotry” of his small Conservatory circle, made the radical step of publicly declaring his homosexuality in his 1968 “senior perspective.”
The campus hippie culture, of which Goodman and the majority of Oberlin students considered themselves to be a part, also pushed the boundaries of acceptable manliness. What was once a signifier of homosexuality—long-haired, “soft” men—became a symbol of rebellion, infused with the virtue of manly resistance to authority. For “straights,” as non-hippies were called, this was an unacceptable development, and one sign of the college’s, and the country’s, decline (a point of view expressed in a newspaper clipping about an October 1967 campus sit-in to the right of this text).
The administration, under President Carr, who had earlier in the decade “chided students for what he termed ‘public demonstrations of affection,’” was clearly filled with anxiety over the “effeminacy” and political radicalism of the male student body by the late 1960s. In 1969, for example, the Admissions Committee discussed the “capable student athletes who had been admitted to Oberlin…but who had decided to go elsewhere.” This led to a general conversation about the “concerns of broadening the pool of male applicants.” One Committee member suggested that “something had to be done to alter the image of Oberlin as ‘that girls’ music school.’” Given the overwhelming association of homosexuality with the Conservatory, it’s not difficult to imagine the unspoken inference being “that fags’ music school.”
As an aside, the perceived opposition between (effeminate) gay students and (masculine) student athletes—not limited to the late 1960s—is of course a false one. It could also be destructive. Michael Jarvis (OC 69) was a captain of Oberlin’s swimming and diving team, the second Oberlin swimmer to earn All-America honors, and in 2004 would be inducted into the Heisman Hall of Fame. He was also in “massive denial” about being gay and made several suicide attempts at Oberlin. “Part of the problem I had with being gay is that I felt like I was masculine and I was attracted to men who were masculine,” he recalled. “So that doesn’t quite fit that stereotype [that gay men were effeminate and] could have been part of the confusion at that point.”
Administrative anxiety over campus masculinity, student radicalism, and the increasing visibility of flamboyant gay male students came to a head in 1969—at the height of admissions selectivity and nationally publicized student radicalism at Oberlin. The first student members in the history of the Admissions Committee discovered “questionable comments” on roughly 10% of men’s applications, “ranging from the political persuasion of admissions candidates to masculinity,” and eventually leaked the information to the Review. The comments found on the interview sheets, reprinted in a February 1969 Review article, included:
1. ‘Here’s our classic case. A National Liberation Front Member. Every cliché at his grasp. Very difficult to pin down. Never a straight-forward answer. Outspoken. Very factual in approach. Active in all movements…He doesn’t show me much. It’s an R (reject) all the way.’ [His SAT scores were verbal, 643, math, 530. American history achievement, 800.]
2. ‘Well, this kid certainly won’t help the male image on campus – it’s too late even for hormones!…Nothing against him, but I’m not sure I want to take responsibility for sending our girls another one of these.’
3. ‘I am sure his good sense and Quaker-like attitude will help toward control of campus impulsiveness so common these days.’
In the weeks following the leak, a picket line and information center were set up in front of the Admissions office, the chairman of the Committee on Admissions met with the Cleveland Press and the New York Times, and a “Senate Letter on Admissions” was sent to all parents, trustees, and presidents of regional alumni clubs.
The controversy, sparked, arguably, by an effort to erase homosexuality (strongly associated with effeminacy) from the campus, ironically had the effect of broadening the campus discussion of LGBT people. At a Senate meeting following the disclosure, for instance, there were “angry outbursts from various members of the audience,” according to the Review, including one senior who called the “questions about religion and homosexuality…absolutely shocking and unexplainable.” The Review also published an article by the campus SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), which argued that the admissions controversy was only one example of the larger role Oberlin played in producing student “products” essential to the perpetuation of U.S. “class stratification.” Radicals, along with “freaks, homosexuals, and other ‘deviants’ are pushing the liberal limits on individuality,” they wrote. “They are unlikely to meet the necessary specifications of the Oberlin product.”
Just four months before the June 1969 Stonewall riots and the birth of the modern gay liberation movement, these public statements characterized homosexuals as a class of person wrongly discriminated against, grouped gay students along with political radicals and other “outsiders,” and identified them as being among the vanguard of those pushing the “liberal limits” of the college and larger culture.
Under pressure from students and alumni, President Carr resigned at the end of the year. By this time, the student movement had all but won the war on social rules and in loco parentis; earlier in 1969, students and administrators agreed upon the creation of several coeducational dorms after reviewing similar housing systems at colleges and universities such as Stanford and Michigan—a decision made famous by a 1970 Life Magazine cover article. The changes in student social, sexual, and political life, the successful attack on the college’s role in loco parentis, and the increasing visibility and “politicization” of LGBT identities would create an environment conducive to the founding of what would be the college’s first gay student organization, Oberlin Gay Liberation, in 1971, marking the beginning of a new era in LGBT student life.