Roger Goodman and John Thompson: A Therapeutic Relationship and a Senior Perspective (1964-1968)

Roger Goodman (OC 68). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Roger Goodman (OC 68). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Roger Goodman (OC 68) arrived at Oberlin a “very fat, very socially awkward, highly egocentric and yet frightened Jewish pianist,” he recalled, “among all the other frightened, fat, egocentric Jewish pianists.” Deeply conflicted about his sexuality, he, like other gay students during the period, sought counseling with a campus psychologist. “I told him that I was a homosexual and I didn’t know what to do with this,” Goodman remembered. “I was crying my eyes out.”

The psychologist, John Thompson, refused to “cure” Goodman. Instead, he shared the path-breaking work of Evelyn Hooker, which questioned the mental disorder model of homosexuality, and explained that Goodman’s internal struggle had led him to “truths and self-knowledge” that “most students would never have to even think about.” This was remarkable for a man in a profession that still considered homosexuality to be a curable mental illness.

By all accounts, Thompson was a remarkable man. A young, liberal psychologist, he was the first director of Oberlin Psychological Services, which formed due to overwhelming student demand in 1964, the same year Goodman entered as a freshman. Thompson was well suited to the politicized student climate: during the mid-1960s he gave a campus talk titled “Revolution,” and another on the history of “racist oppression.” In the 1966 Oberlin Alumni Magazine, he extolled “Voltaire’s notion that good and bad are not absolutes,” called “Marxist Communism…an excellent form of government for the peoples of the world,” and celebrated the “heterogeneous population” of the college, where “our freshman boy” with “notions about virile, red-blooded, 100% American males… finds himself with a roommate who can cry, who admits to having affection and tender feelings, who enjoys reading poetry, listens to classical music, [and] says he’s not sure how he really feels about girls.”[169]

Ant Trip Ceremony album cover, with illustrations of band members with hookah inside mouth (Goodman at top right). Courtesy of George Galt.

Ant Trip Ceremony album cover, with illustrations of band members with hookah inside mouth (Goodman at top right). Courtesy of George Galt.

In therapy sessions, Thompson “began to teach me that being gay was a beautiful and wonderful thing,” Goodman recalled. This helped Goodman develop a sense of self-worth and the courage to come out to some friends during his second semester. Oberlin “was a wildfire word-of-mouth community,” Goodman remembered. “So all I needed to do was tell a few people, and they told a few people, and they told a few people…’til everyone on campus knew.” Goodman immersed himself in the campus hippie culture, became the lead singer of the drug culture-inspired band, the Ant Trip Ceremony, found a home among the sharp-witted campy queens in the Conservatory, and participated in the heady protests of the civil rights and anti-war movements.

Goodman also spoke about his experiences as a gay man in Thompson’s Abnormal Psychology classes as an upperclassman. Michael Jarvis (OC 69) recalled being in a class in which Goodman regaled students with tales of “size queens” and other anecdotes picked up from trips to New York City and a semester abroad in London. Thompson was “quite iconoclastic,” Jarvis recalled. “I think he probably enjoyed the shock value of that kind of presentation by Roger.” Jarvis also recalled that at least a few of the Psychological Services staff were gay or bisexual themselves. One female psychologist lived off-campus in a triad with her husband and female lover.[170]

Thompson himself felt Goodman’s most “significant” act as a young, politicized gay student was his 1968 senior perspective, in which Goodman publicly declared his homosexuality, an unprecedented step and a very radical act at the time—a year before the advent of the modern gay liberation movement. A tradition in which graduating seniors discussed their four years at the college, Goodman titled his senior perspective “Is He or Isn’t He?,” a campy appropriation of the mid-60s Clairol hair color commercial (“Does she…or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure”).

John Thomson in 1966. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

John Thomson in 1966. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

“Part of him was scared to death,” John Thompson remembered. According to Thompson, a faculty/staff person had been arrested in Cleveland on a homosexual charge a few years earlier and almost fired from his job. Despite Psychological Services’ confidentiality policy, an Oberlin Dean had also demanded information on a gay faculty member from Thompson. In 1969, a year after Goodman’s perspective, the first two students in the history of the Admissions Committee would discover “questionable comments” on about 10% of men’s applications, “ranging from the political persuasion of admissions candidates to masculinity.” “So, you know, Roger was right about being worried,” Thompson said. “It was a time when there wasn’t any support.”

“That was 1968 and the country was in turmoil,” Goodman recalled. “Oberlin was a hotbed of radicalism…and the one thing nobody was talking about was queer stuff…There was no place for a queer man to be queerly involved with that radical movement.” Goodman then characterized his senior perspective as “a finger pointing session: ‘This is my experience over four years, and you think you all are so radical, and in fact, you are conservative, and bigoted, and biased, and you don’t give a shit about me or my people.’ Because I was beginning to have a sense of my people at Oberlin.”

Charles Bergengren (OC 69), one of the twenty to a hundred people present (narrators’ memories differed) at the perspective in Wilder Hall, remembered it being “breathtakingly radical and breakthrough.” “The whole concept of being open, of being liberated, was just so electrifying,” he remembered. “I certainly perceived it in the context and in the genre of an avant-garde work of art, like some Jackson Pollock painting that would just completely change perception and consciousness.”

The perspective was the first time Goodman’s Ant Trip Ceremony band-mate George Galt (OC 69) recalled him making a public declaration about being gay. “This was not a secret,” Galt recalled, “but to say it out loud in a room was incredibly radical.” He recalled Goodman opening his talk by thanking John Thompson for his support and guidance over the four years. The main message Galt remembered from the talk as a whole was, essentially: “I’m gay and I’m happy about it.”

Goodman in fact taped the perspective for Thompson, who used the recording in his Abnormal Psychology classes for the next few years. After Thompson stopped using the recording, he sent it to Goodman, who was then involved with the Chicago Gay Liberation Front and living in a gay collective based on the writings of Mao Ze Dong. At that point, “my politics were far more radical and far less sexist than they were on the tape,” Goodman recalled. “I was embarrassed by it, so I unrolled it from the reel and tossed it into the garbage.”

At the time of his last interview, at the age of fifty-three, Goodman credited Thompson as being “the first man who accepted me just as I am, with no judgment of any kind.” Goodman arrived at Oberlin “the most self-hating, self-loathing worm,” he recalled, but Thompson “loved me. And that enabled me to love myself.” “It would be an honest thing for me to say that some of the very best years of my life were the years I lived here as a student, learning to be a faggot,” Goodman recalled. “An honest to God in-your-face faggot.”

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