Informed in part by New York City’s June 1969 Stonewall riots, and inspired by black power, women’s liberation, and student movements, the gay liberation movement exploded across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Coming “out of the closet and into the streets,” as one gay liberation slogan demanded, loosely organized groups such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) critiqued the police, psychiatric, and legal establishments through direct action, street protest, and media activism.
Campus organizations were among the vanguard. While a handful of discreet student groups influenced by the homophile movement were established as early as 1967, campus gay liberation groups formed after the summer of 1969 were wholly different. University of Chicago’s GLF, founded in December of 1969, picketed a “notorious” Chicago policeman, brought legal action against the police department with the local ACLU, and held the city’s first gay dances, “attracting up to 2,000 at a time.” By 1970, the University of Kentucky had a class about gay liberation politics with the consent of the administration and the University of Colorado at Denver gay liberation group held “organized guerrilla theatre” spectacles “for educating college students on campus.” The gay liberation movement consisted primarily of men; most students involved with gay liberation politics at Oberlin were also gay men.
There may have been early gay organizing attempts at Oberlin. Ken Sherrill, a government professor in the late 1960s, recalled a conversation with Andy Meltzer (OC 69), who said that “he’d gone to see [a] Dean…[in 1969] about having some kind of space for gay and lesbian students in the Student Union building.” The administrator allegedly responded, “What do you need that for? You already have the cafeteria.” Sherrill’s anecdote suggests that administrators may have been dismissive of politicized gay students’ demands, but it may also be an indication that gay male students had already successfully and visibly claimed public campus space, such as the cafeteria, by the late 1960s. Gay students had in fact claimed space in the snack bar and Conservatory Lounge in the mid and late 1960s, if not in an overtly “political” manner.
It was not until March 1971 that the Review reported that about forty students met in Wilder to discuss the formation of a gay student group, prompted by “a common feeling that the College gay community meets with an oppressive type of tolerance and general intolerance of homosexuality.” A month later, John Adams (OC 71), an African American voice major who had attended the meeting, introduced the college community to the gay liberation movement in a full-page article titled “an expression of love—gay liberation widens the scope of human relationships:”
The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) has been formed all across the country to fight the enslaving lies and myths which America hopes to perpetuate. We are following the example of the Third World and the Women’s Liberation movement in rejecting what we are told we must be, and fighting for an alternative to this oppressive society…We are going to have to spend a lot of time talking openly to each other about our lives, our doubts, our fears, and our encounters with “straight-walled” fronts…called people. We are going to come to confront, then rip apart the anti-homosexual notions that even our best friends hold against us.
Pat Clawson (OC 73), who was also among those at the first organizational meeting, would ultimately write the charter for and co-found Oberlin’s first gay student organization, Oberlin Gay Liberation, or “Gay Lib,” as it was more commonly called. A tireless Marxist rabble-rouser who served on the editorial board of the Activist and joked that he spent more time protesting the Vietnam War in Washington than on the Oberlin campus, Clawson had already founded student organizations such as the Oberlin Radical Coalition and the Anna Louise Strong Union, one of whose chartered purposes was to “overthrow the American government.” Clawson saw gay activism as “part of the general strategy of liberation,” he later recalled in an oral history.
According to its charter, which needed the Student Life Committee’s approval before the organization could become a student organization, Oberlin Gay Liberation sought, among other goals, “to seek freedom of sexual expression and an end to sexist oppression of gay people…, to eliminate the harassment of gay people as evidenced by open hostility and by covert sexist attitudes, [and] [t]o help gay people have an open and full sex life by sponsoring social events.”
This last goal—like “overthrowing the American government”—was illegal; “consensual sodomy,” which included any same sex activity, was not legalized in Ohio until 1972. The Oberlin community was not unaffected by this law; around 1971, a key administrator was arrested in Cleveland on a sodomy charge, according to Robert Fuller, Oberlin’s president from 1970 to 1974. Fuller was not aware of the incident until Dayton industrial leader Jesse Philips (OC 37), a “very powerful” trustee who at the time was funding the construction of what would become the Philips Gymnasium, “came to me and said I had to fire the guy,” Fuller recalled. Fuller called Philips’ bluff, the issue never reached the Board as a whole, and the administrator was not fired.
In this context, the chartering of gay liberation groups was a controversial issue, even on liberal college campuses. According to a national 1974 survey of gay student groups by the National Gay Student Center, 29% of the responding organizations had “either failed to obtain recognition or had had problems obtaining it” and approximately 20% had “resorted to litigation to obtain recognition.” By 1970, the Florida State University GLF had not received recognition from the administration, the University of Michigan GLF was denied access to Student Union, and New York University’s Gay Student Liberation was denied space for a gay dance. Still, by 1971 there were recognized gay organizations at more than 175 colleges and universities nationwide.
Given the contentious nation-wide atmosphere and Ohio’s sodomy law, it is remarkable that Oberlin Gay Liberation’s charter was approved in October 1971, five months after the initial organizational meeting, “without too much trouble,” the Review reported, “although there was some legal question whether the [Student Life Committee] would be condoning sodomy by their actions. They concluded they would not be, since the organization was basically educational in nature.”
George Langeler, Dean of Students from 1966 to 1988, recalled working behind the scenes to make sure Gay Lib became a student organization after its charter was approved. “Every [student] group had to have a faculty advisor,” he recalled. “I thought this group might have trouble getting an advisor, and they did, at first.” Langeler approached Tom Bechtel, the Dean of Men, who would eventually agree to become Gay Lib’s first faculty advisor, along with dance instructor Brenda Way. There were “times when [Bechtel] would tell me that he and his wife would get kidded about playing this role,” Langeler recalled. “Remarks would be made…always in jest, but nevertheless, it suggested the community certainly had a long way to go with regards to being adjusted.”
A string of Review articles written in 1971 by students involved in the Oberlin Gay Liberation projected a militant tone, expressing a belief in a sexual continuum and making connections to other movements on the Left, such as women’s liberation. John Adams’ full-page article, which explored the intersections of “AmeriKKKa[n]” capitalism, “male supremacy,” black liberation, and “proud” homosexuality, was one of the first. An article by Pat Clawson and Oberlin Gay Liberation co-founder Gary Keeper (OC 73) titled “Gay Lib moves out of the closet” was published a few weeks before the organization’s charter was approved, and Clawson’s “The False Fear of Homosexuality” appeared the next month. Patrick Broome (OC 71), the president of his graduating class and a student involved in Gay Liberation, also included a reference to Oberlin’s “homosexual community” in a fiery speech at the 1971 Alumni Luncheon that attacked Oberlin for its complicity in what he called the “Great American Nightmare” of racism, sexism, and war.
Despite the rhetoric, narrators remembered Gay Lib as being primarily a social organization; nobody was “committed to the cause,” Clawson recalled. Oberlin students may have been less active around gay liberation politics than students at other colleges because of the Oberlin’s geographical isolation from large urban LGBT communities, the relative “tolerance” of its intellectual, liberal student body, and an “out” gay presence that narrators recalled being dominated primarily by “apolitical” Conservatory students. Oberlin Gay Liberation, made up primarily of male students, did set up a counseling service, created a library with “movement literature,” and held “consciousness-raising groups” and gay liberation dances by 1972. Reflecting the organizational structure of the Left, there were no elected officers and a rotating chairmanship.
Of course, simply holding open, visible social events changed the face of student gay lives. In his 1971 article, “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever you are!,” Karl Spahn (OC 75) wrote about “openly associating with other Gay Lib members in the Wilder main lobby; asking at the main desk for the key to the G.L. office; dancing with other boys at the G.L. dance; mentioning my membership in G.L. to a friend; [and] selling cupcakes at the G.L. bake sale.” For Spahn, this was less of a political act than a “benign cycle of therapy.” “[T]he more I do for Gay Liberation,” he wrote, “the more it does for me by making me less uptight about publicly acknowledging my homosexuality.” Tellingly, he also argued that “militancy is not appropriate for Gay Liberation in Oberlin. What we must combat here are not the hangups of the community so much as the hangups of homosexuals themselves, for these latter persist in full force even in a relatively tolerant social environment.”
Oberlin Gay Liberation (OGL) became the Oberlin Gay Union (OGU) a few years after it’s founding, reflecting the larger national shift from liberation to identity politics. Christa Rakich (OC 75), who created and filled the newly formed role of president around 1974, recalled that the “‘U’ seemed less intimidating than ‘L’. ‘L’ had a connotation of anger, or justice-demanding, and we just wanted to be inviting and friendly—not militant.” The Oberlin Gay Union today endures, through multiple name changes, as the Oberlin Lambda Union.