“Oh Needs-a!:” Camp and “Drag” Names in the Conservatory (mid 1960s/early 1970s)

Oberlin Conservatory of Music, designed by Minoru Yamasaki in 1963.

Oberlin Conservatory of Music, designed by Minoru Yamasaki in 1963.

In 1964, a new, neo-Gothic Conservatory building replaced Warner Hall, the imposing stone structure that had housed the school of music since the late 1800s. The new building may have helped foster more public, defiant expressions of gay male sensibilities. A small group of flamboyant gay students soon appropriated the left corner of the new Conservatory Lounge, next to its floor-to-ceiling steel-reinforced quartz windows: a space strategically chosen for its visibility and proximity to the building’s main entrance.

“I remember Steven Lord [OC 71] would stand in the Con Lounge,” Roger Goodman (OC 68) recalled, “with his hand…on his mouth, and one hand on his hip and he’d watch these [closeted] men walk by. And he’d go [Snap! Snap! Snap!] with a sneer on his face…Cause we really wanted everybody out. Out out.” According to Goodman, his group’s caustic camp behavior was intended in part to draw people “out of the closet,” a phrase widely in use by the time. The group dubbed one “closeted” young man “Needs-a,” short for “Needs-a dress” to this end.

“Needs-a dress” was very femme, but “Needs-a dress” never said anything about being gay. So there would be all these faggots standing in the Conservatory Lounge…and he would come walking through…and Steven [Lord] would say, “Oh, Needs-a!” And then he’d put his hands up to his mouth like this and say, “Do you think she’ll ever know who she is?” And we’d laugh…We had the sharpest senses of humor and the sharpest tongues, and we could destroy with a word if we wanted to.

The term “Needs-a” soon became part of a unique gay Conservatory culture passed down through successive student classes; by the early 1970s, the term would be used to indicate any person who was closeted to other gays, Bill Pfeiffer (OC 74) recalled. By this time, “Needs-a” was, in turn, one of many “drag names” used by Conservatory queens in part to encourage other gay students to “come out” into a gay social world. Like Goodman, Jim Harrington (OC 73) recalled that a “touch of cruelty” was often involved. “People were still given drag names even if they weren’t out,” he said. “Much to their disapproval.”

James Harrington (OC 73). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

James Harrington (OC 73). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Arriving at Oberlin from a conservative, affluent family in Pennsylvania, Harrington quickly found his way into one of the Conservatory’s more flamboyant gay circles, made up primarily of organ majors, and dubbed himself “Mildred.” Christa Rakich (OC 75), an organ performance major from a “very conservative” Roman Catholic family in Connecticut, also part of the circle, was named “Wolfgang” (as in Amadeus, and because she studied German). “For me, [the drag name] was sort of a gentle cajoling out of my straight persona,” she recalled. Drag names were then both part of students’ rejection of conservative social expectations and an attempt to create a gay Conservatory in-group. “We left behind our ‘straight lives,’ with straight families and conservative backgrounds,” Harrington remembered, “and [the Conservatory] is where we felt comfortable being ourselves, camping around, using drag names, [and] doing really outrageous things.”

Christa Rakich (OC 75) discussing fingerings in a Bach organ piece with Doug Pike in the Conservatory Lounge. From the 1973 Hi-O-Hi. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Christa Rakich (OC 75) discussing fingerings in a Bach organ piece with Doug Pike in the Conservatory Lounge. From the 1973 Hi-O-Hi. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

For Rakich, Harrington, and many others, drag names were an almost religious rebirth out of their old (straight) life and into their new (gay) life. Harrington’s lengthened drag name was in fact “Mildred the Baptizer,” because of the role he took in “christening” other students. While “drag” (or more precisely, camp) names were likely used earlier at Oberlin, they flourished during the 1960s and early 1970s. They were used not only to bring closeted gays “out” to other gays, but also to create an in-group and help gay and lesbian students come to terms with their sexual identities. They were often based on pieces of music (two boyfriends were dubbed “Chloe” and “Daphne,” for example) or individual characteristics (a young man from the South was named “Magnolia,” for instance, while one black organ major was dubbed “Sheba”—as in “Queen of”).

Ann Matter (OC 71) was soon christened “Parsifal,” after the Wagner opera, “because I was innocent in a way,” she remembered, “or at least that was the camp explanation.” A religion major, Matter was attracted to the Conservatory camp culture’s focus on aesthetics, music, and literature—in opposition to the earnest, politically active world associated with the college. “We were there at Oberlin during a really desperately serious time with all the anti-war stuff and these very self-righteous agitators,” she recalled. “We, the queer students really, saw ourselves as having a sense of humor about life, of not being so deathly serious, of being more ironic.”

While the Conservatory camp circle could (and did) include Matter and other women of all sexual orientations, Matter remembered it being a decidedly male world. “Some men would say terrible things [like]…‘women stink like fish,’ [or] ‘oh cunts,’” Matter recalled. “It was still this kind of campy misogynism that wasn’t…vicious or anything. But I felt enough of a difference about how my difference isolated me and their difference gave them a world.” Although Matter knew of some lesbian upperclasspeople, such as the cellist Scotty Banks (OC 69), Matter’s girlfriend Lynn was the only lesbian she knew well at Oberlin. At the time, there were still few women professors, no “out” lesbian professors, and no strong feminist movement at Oberlin—all reasons why lesbian social circles may have been less cohesive or visible in the late 1960s.

Ann Matter (OC 71). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Ann Matter (OC 71). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

While Matter was critical of the gay camp world, she also understood that the gay men “were young people who understood that they were different and they were trying to make their way in the world.” Matter felt gay Conservatory students used camp and drag names as a coping strategy. “It was about making a little wall around ourselves,” Matter remembered. “We spoke our own dialect and we had our own jokes…We had all the Noël Coward periphrastic ways of referring to ourselves like, ‘she’s a vegetarian,’ or ‘he’s very musical.’” As in earlier years, gay students created an in-group for protection, deflecting negative attitudes by equating homosexuality with sophistication and talent.

In the early 1970s, the Conservatory Lounge remained a hub for these highly theatrical, campy musicians, Rakich recalled. “I remember seeing graffiti on a bathroom wall in the Conservatory that said, ‘The Con Lounge: coming soon to a theater near you,’” she said. “It was almost like, if someone could have filmed the goings-ons on the Con Lounge, you’d have the makings of a soap opera right there.”

Even LGBT students who eschewed the campy, theatrical Conservatory world or were not “out” to other gays considered the Conservatory to be a haven. For Richard Bentley (OC 70), a piano major from Florida, the Conservatory was a “safe house.” “I had absolutely no reason to venture ‘outside,’ he recalled. “I was conflicted enough about being gay that the feeling of ‘safety’ at the Conservatory was enough to keep me from going anyplace else.”[165] The Conservatory also remained closely associated with LGBT people in college students’ imagination. Herb Zeman (OC 65) remembered the following joke circulating during his senior year: “How do you separate the men from the boys in the Conservatory? With a crowbar!”[166]

While Raymond Harvey (OC 73) disliked what he called the lack of “sincerity” among the “flamboyant, fun-loving” gay musicians, he also nonetheless found the Conservatory to be an important social hub. “While I was here…I locked right into a very committed relationship through my junior, senior, and fifth years here,” he recalled. “We knew we were committed to each other, but we didn’t see anyone else doing what we were doing, and I think that we struggled a lot because everyone else was just sort of campy and having fun.”[167] Of course, camp and commitment were not mutually exclusive; David Hearst (pseudonym; OC 74), widely acknowledged by narrators to be one of the campiest students in the Conservatory, began a relationship at Oberlin that has continued to the present day.

Though other gay students may have disapproved, it was the campy queens who were the public face of gay Conservatory life, and one of the major reasons that the school of music remained a haven and magnet for campus LGBT culture. “Drag” names and camp behavior were expressions of their sense of “difference” and part of their efforts to create community, but music itself was perhaps most central to their lives and sense of identity. Historian Nadine Hubbs has written that while LGBT identities were pathologized and stigmatized, being musical was “sublime and transcendent, and as such largely beyond reproach.” Similarly, LGBT people “deemed to possess talent in this rarefied art…were thereby rendered exceptional and transcendent, if not vindicated.”[168]

Dedication of the new Warner Hall in 1964.

Dedication of the new Warner Hall in 1964.

This seems to have been the case for Roger Goodman. As a young man deeply disturbed by the culture’s condemnation of his sexuality, Goodman recalled that his only emotional outlet before enrolling at Oberlin was his piano. “And so I became, at least interpretively, a child prodigy,” he said. Goodman felt that his interpretation of musical works was directly linked to the pain of growing up gay in a homophobic culture. At a student recital at Oberlin, Goodman recalled students being “uncomfortable” with his unusual interpretation of a Brahms piano piece. He later heard Stephen Lord respond to student criticism with the following statement: “Well you may not like it, darling, but you can’t argue with it, can you?” For Goodman, this one-liner captured the spirit of his gay Conservatory circle.

“We were the ones you couldn’t argue with interpretably in our music,” he recalled. “We may not have been the best technicians, but we were the best musicians in the Conservatory.” This “made us feel special,” Goodman said. “And it made our closet doors disappear. Not just open up, but disappear.” Gay musicians’ “talent” could then be a source of personal pride that might overshadow the shame of their stigmatized sexual identities. Their sense of musical superiority might also prompt the view that they possessed a higher or different morality from that binding “ordinary” people. “We were the special ones,” Goodman recalled. “We were the ones the other Conservatory students looked to for our gifts, for our talents.”

Many organ majors had, perhaps, a more flamboyant, playful approach to their musical and gay identities, but they also expressed their “unusual” sexual and gender identities through music. Some, such as the outrageous George Lamphere (OC 72), “had amazing falsetto voices,” Christa Rakich remembered, “and would just sing these enormously high descants at full volume” while playing organ at church services. “I mean just blaring it out above a full congregation, really turning heads. And in the environment of a religious ceremony, it was really quite outrageous behavior [laughs]. And yet, musically completely successful.”

Some organ majors, such as David Hearst (pseudonym; OC 74), also performed “Divine Follies” with gay priests at a certain Cleveland church where one organ major worked a part time job. A cross between the campy “theater” of their everyday lives and religious ceremony, gay organists and priests performed the Latin liturgy in the empty church, slightly intoxicated, complete with incense, copes and miters. The church was their stage, and “what is liturgy but good theater?” Hearst asked rhetorically.

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

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

Gay Conservatory students also lived together in off-campus houses. In Jim Harrington’s senior year, he and a handful of other gay men lived in a house owned by Esther Bliss Taylor, who Harrington characterized as “a charming old woman around eighty.” A widow of a professor and the President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, her only regulations, no alcohol and no women, appear to have attracted an all-gay house from the early 1950s until her death in 1980—one more example of a unique Conservatory culture passed down through successive classes of students. Thomas Tibbetts (OC 59) lived with a group of gay Conservatory friends in Taylor’s house in 1959. Raymond Donnell (OC 53) also lived at the house, shortly after Mrs. Taylor’s husband, a physics professor, died in 1948 and she began taking boarders. Did she know these young men were all gay? Harrington believed she was “totally clueless.” Donnell, on the other hand, felt Taylor “was a very bright cookie.” Her coded comments about Professors Artz and Stetson, both of whom she had known for quite some time, led Donnell to believe that she was well aware that her boarders were gay.

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