Oberlin was first and foremost a place for learning. Yet LGBT students rarely saw themselves reflected in classroom material.
“It’s what was edited out in our education at Oberlin [that] seems so bizarre now,” Bill Vance (OC 56) recalled. “Even in Freddie Artz’s class, [we took] a whole year of Western intellectual history without any sense that there was an interesting homosexual dimension to it, that you should even think about such things when you get to Michelangelo and Shakespeare and so on.” As a specialist in American literature later in Vance’s life, dealing with Walt Whitman’s Calamus poems “was just a natural part of what you had in your curriculum.” But at Oberlin in the 1950s, any mention of homosexuality in the classroom was “very, very rare, and always with a negative connotation.” This “made it much more difficult,” he recalled, “when there was no historical or public affirmation of people who felt the way we do.”
Often angered by professors’ silencing of the subject, students increasingly brought LGBT themes to the forefront of the classroom during the 1960s. Henry Klein (OC 64) remembered an Early Renaissance Art course in which one gay student, “particularly offended by th[e] professor’s silence and denial to address issues of homosexuality in Florence,” wrote a limerick on the room’s hidden chalkboard before class. When the board was revealed by the professor part way through his lecture, the class “roared with laughter to his shock and embarrassment” at the following verse:
There once was a Florentine homo,
Who sculpted St. John for the Duomo.
After a year, they found he was queer,
Ad hominum, ad hoc and ad homo.
Timothy Hansen (pseudonym; OC 64), a flamboyant student involved in Oberlin’s theater world, used the gossip he picked up from other gay students in a sociology term paper that “made use of soc-babble and ‘friendship’ charts” and “actually documented who was sleeping with who (without real names).”
Martin Beadle (OC 66) recalled writing a paper on “The Rights of Homosexuals” for his senior-year criminology class. “As I look back,” he said, “I realize that I was furtively trying to find out about my people.” In the Carnegie Library,
the books on homosexuality were locked in a gray locker, like a gym locker. [The librarian] unlocked the locker, got out the book I needed, put it on the counter and pushed it across the counter with the back end of her pencil, and gave me a huge scowl. This was the first time I ever read about gay people and their lives.
Roger Goodman (OC 68) also intervened in classroom discussions, drawing on his knowledge of historical figures such as Tchaikovsky and Gertrude Stein.
I didn’t allow professors to get away with not naming it…When we’d look at Michelangelo’s David, and the professor would talk about the beauty of the body, and isn’t this wonderful, and how could a man create such magnificent male beauty as the David? And I would say, “It’s because he loved boys! Because Michelangelo was a gay man, so he knew the bodies of men—intimately.” Or we’d be talking about the paintings of David Hockney of naked boys swimming in swimming pools…and no mention of Hockney being gay. And I would say something in class about it and how it reflected who David Hockney was. Or talking about Gertrude Stein in an American Lit class and not talking about her being a lesbian and I would say, “How can you talk about The Autobiography of Gertrude Stein, written by Alice B. Toklas, without recognizing that they were life partners?
“I loved being the Oberlin College scandal,” Goodman recalled. “And why not extend that scandal into the classroom, where truth needs to be told?”