In earlier decades, gay male students and professors had maintained rich, “underground” campus social circles, and some had visibly expressed their sense of “difference” through flamboyant camp behavior. But it was only after a national gay liberation movement emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s that significant numbers of gay students “came out of the closet,” or openly declared their sexual identities to heterosexuals in a political context. The women’s movement, which swept the Oberlin campus around the same time, also led women narrators to openly declare their identities, and for the first time they recalled lesbian and bisexual campus circles and activism. For both gay men and lesbians, these developments reflected a new political, rather than moral or psychological models of LGBT identities, and, as historian John D’Emilio has written, “quintessentially expressed the fusion of the personal and the political that the radicalism of the late 1960s exalted.”
In the early 1970s, lesbian and gay students at Oberlin held campus dances, published articles and magazines about gay and lesbian issues, held “consciousness-raising” groups, spoke out about sexism and anti-gay attitudes on campus, and formed important political organizations that endure today. Oberlin Gay Liberation, founded in 1971 as Oberlin’s first gay student organization, endures through multiple name changes as the Oberlin Lambda Union. The Women’s Collective, co-founded by a lesbian couple in 1972, endures as the Baldwin Cottage Women’s Collective.
The early 1970s also saw institutional commitments to these students’ ideals. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual narrators remembered the Human Development Program—a radical departure from earlier campus sex education efforts—as empowering courses that helped them explore and start speaking openly about their sexual identities. While the chartering of gay student groups was an incredibly contentious issue across the nation, this process was relatively stress-free at Oberlin. This was undoubtedly facilitated by the new focus on student autonomy and sexual freedom after the dismantling of the in loco parentis community model, but was also thanks to a liberal administration under Robert Fuller, Oberlin’s progressive “boy president” from 1970 to 1974. In 1974, Fuller also approved funding for an Intern for Homosexual Concerns, a student position designed to advocate for LGBT people at the college. The same year, after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Oberlin Psychological Services announced that it was “doing what we can to better educate the community in a new understanding of homosexuality.”
The women’s, black, anti-war, and student movements overshadowed gay and lesbian activism at Oberlin in the early 1970s, but developments on these fronts also contributed to changes in LGBT student life. An Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of Women was formed in 1971 as the women’s movement swept the campus, leading to increases in numbers of women professors and the formation of a new women’s studies option. Also a result of the women’s movement, many women narrators who now identify as lesbian or bisexual recalled important personal transformations and increasingly visible lesbian and bisexual campus individuals and circles. In 1971, President Fuller also launched the college into a massive recruitment effort to increase the numbers of students of color on campus. As numbers of black students increased and the Christian rhetoric of the civil rights movement shifted to the language of separatism and revolution, it also appears that the “live and let live” attitude that seemed to have characterized black students’ relationship to LGBT people in earlier years also changed. Black nationalist students increasingly associated homosexuality with white supremacy and American imperialism towards the mid 1970s, and stigmatized black LGBT students accordingly.
The move towards separatism in student movements also highlighted rifts between and within various self-defined groups, even if they held many common beliefs. Narrators recalled that lesbians and gay men rarely socialized as such, yet both the feminist and gay liberation movements expressed a belief in sexual fluidity. While both movements appear to have been dominated by white students, they also allied themselves with other movements on the Left such as the black power movement. Politicized gay male students also criticized campy students associated with the Conservatory, who had been the most visible manifestation of campus homosexuality until the early 1970s, for what they perceived to be their sexism and lack of political awareness. Yet it was in part due to flamboyant students’ visibility and efforts to secure campus space in the 1960s and earlier that gay political organizations were able to emerge when, and as easily as they did.
The contentious relationship between different self-defined groups at Oberlin—gay and straight, women and men, college and Conservatory, people of color and white, town and gown—would remain contested territory in the following decades, as identity politics became the dominant lens with which to view the college community.