The gay liberation dances, attended by students of every sexual preference, were the most public and popular of Oberlin Gay Liberation’s activities. Gary Keeper (OC 73), who had “mainstream Oberlin politics,” according to Pat Clawson (OC 73)—“at a time when mainstream politics meant participating in sit-ins when military recruiters came to campus,” he clarified—was the main force behind the dances. They provided an opportunity for gay people to “test the waters,” Bill Pfeiffer (OC 74) remembered, and were “an effort to become visible on campus, thinking that prejudice would be reduced if people found out that somebody they knew and cared about was gay.”
According to Dean Langeler, the organizers were concerned about the first dance in the ‘Sco, which was held just after Gay Lib’s charter was approved in October 1971. “I told security I wanted them to have a very adequate staff on duty that night,” he recalled, “and I didn’t want them in the Student Union but I wanted them nearby.” The concern was well founded. During the dance, a high school student began a fight with an Oberlin student and a “full-fledged ruckus blossomed,” according to the Review, leading college security to shut down the dance.
At the second Gay Lib dance, Pfieffer and what he described as a “very big lesbian,” were appointed as bouncers, and President Fuller and his wife arrived in a gesture of support. Given the contentiousness of the issue around the nation, the Fullers’ support was remarkable.
The fight may have reflected a town/gown rather than a gay/straight split, or it may have been that the two were closely related. Peter Klein (OC 72) recalled that many of his gay friends faced harassment or violence from high school boys from the town. He remembered one “physical attack” that occurred in the old Carnegie Library, with “police [and] a lot of people breaking it apart.” On the other hand, for gay town residents like Jeffrey Mostade, a teenager when Gay Lib was founded, “Oberlin College and its GLF were very important to the communities surrounding Oberlin…No other places could one see/hear(taste/smell/feel) another open gay person.”
The dances were one of the few Gay Lib activities that drew large numbers of Conservatory students, who were generally characterized as “apolitical” by narrators. As such, the dances were rare meeting spaces for the campy Conservatory culture and politicized gay groups, which Pfieffer felt were “almost like two different worlds.” The groups’ sensibilities were different in many ways. If Conservatory queens, in general, felt homosexuality was an exclusive, in-group identity and relied on camp as a coping strategy (see 1960s: “Camp and ‘Drag’ Names’” for more on this), gay liberationists expressed a belief in a sexual continuum and preferred direct political confrontation.
LGBT Conservatory students, in general, “thought of themselves as non-political,” organ and German double-major Christa Rakich (OC 75) recalled. “The Conservatory people had, not exactly more imagination, but they lived in their imaginations more,” she felt, “whereas the college people were more practical oriented.” Conservatory student David Hearst (pseudonym; OC 74), who attended the gay dances, nonetheless found Gay Lib meetings to be “very boring” and disagreed with “those that thought we should be out there all the time with signs and buttons and everything…because I was comfortable and I felt very accepted.”
On the other hand, some LGBT college students criticized the Conservatory camp culture for what they characterized as its sexism and lack of political awareness and “pride.” “Homosexuality is not a Conservatory affair,” Jay Gorney, a college student involved in Gay Lib, wrote in his 1973 Review essay “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Faggot.” “The Con, however, does encourage the attitude of gay man as Punchinello: He can camp, but not too much. He should be out enough to be amusing, but never really proud, open. The Con is afraid of strong, free gays.”
Martin Garro, also known by his drag name “Sister Blanche of the Agony of Jesus,” felt gay Conservatory students often lacked political awareness as well. After two years at Oberlin, in 1973 he transferred to Columbia University, where he found the use of drag names to be a more overtly political act “meant to mock the male patriarchy and ‘macho’ posturing,” he recalled. At Columbia, “there were frequent debates over whether the use of drag names was progressive or counterrevolutionary.” While there were similar debates at Oberlin, “in general…gay life…was dominated by the Conservatory types, who tended not to think in political terms.”
The divide between campy and “political” gay male sensibilities at Oberlin mirrored national gay scenes. Historian Esther Newton has argued that there are two historic “gay” sensibilities: a “camp/theatrical” sensibility and an “egalitarian/authentic” perspective. While the former sensibility is “associated with the greater dramatism and more expressive gender roles of the upper and lower classes, as opposed to the restraint—not to say dullness—of middle-class domestic life,” the latter perspective “springs directly from middle-class democratic and bourgeois ideology” and shaped the nineteenth-century institution of “romantic friendship,” the feminist movement, and the gay liberation movement.
Still, a story from Jim Harrington (OC 73) suggests that camp and political action were not necessarily mutually exclusive, and that gay liberation dances served as a site for both. Leading a tour for prospective students and parents past Wilder Hall, where students were preparing for a Gay Lib dance in 1972 or 1973, “one really campy queen, who had a beard,” caught one mother “looking rather disapprovingly at him” and “rais[ing] her eyebrows” at the idea of a gay dance,” Harrington recalled. The queen “caught her doing that gesture, came over to her and said, ‘Darling, I love that dress. You must send me the fabric.’” The mother was “absolutely disgusted,” Harrington recalled; “I don’t think her dear little boy came to Oberlin.” The story suggests that, despite their stylistic differences, campy queens and gay liberationists shared a belief in the importance of being visible and “coming out” as gay individuals. I have also argued that, by visibly claiming campus space in the 1960s and earlier, campy queens laid the groundwork for a politicized gay campus presence.
It may have been the case that the students most in need of gay dances and other Gay Lib events were also the ones who felt they were not able to “come out.” Richard Linn (OC 72), a self-described “jock” from an upper middle class Jewish family in suburban Boston, wanted “so badly to go to the [Gay Lib] meetings,” but was afraid to be seen by his friends. Mainstream media depictions of homosexuality, such as the 1962 movie “Advise and Consent,” which he saw on television as a high-schooler, or the 1968 movie “The Sergeant,” about a predatory older homosexual Sergeant, which he saw at Oberlin, “contributed to my image of a gay life being sad and sleazy,” he recalled. Linn kept his identity hidden at Oberlin, and “internalized the perceptions to the point of thinking I was a freak.”
Similarly, Ricardo Barretto (OC 74) felt pressure from other gay students to be “out,” but felt it was important that heterosexuals, especially his fellow residents in Spanish House, think of him as a “straight arrow.” Raised by an affluent family in Mexico, he recalled that most students with Catholic backgrounds viewed Gay Lib with “great skepticism,” and that gay Hispanics were “terrified and wouldn’t be caught dead at gay events.” “If anything, the Hispanic men on campus spent a great deal of energy distancing themselves as much as possible from gay student life whether in fact they were gay themselves or not,” he recalled. “But the fact that one heard rumors from friends and acquaintances indicates there were cracks in the wall.”
Black students felt Gay Lib “was a white thing by and large,” Barry Smith (OC 71) recalled. “And the gay African American students weren’t going into [the black student organization] ABUSUA announcing that they were going to the [Gay Lib] dance.” While Smith felt those involved with Gay Lib were “incredibly brave [and] wonderfully outrageous,” he “was not ready to take that step.” The black community was “were not pro-gay folks” in general, he recalled, but “if you question any family, you’ll find a cousin, a brother, a sister, somebody back up in there. So it’s sort of like ‘live and let live,’ but publicly ‘No, I’m against it.’ It was that kind of hypocrisy going on.”
Holly Boswell (OC 72), a composition major in the Conservatory then living with a male name and appearance, felt that there was no place for her sense of “difference” at Gay Lib events. While she felt comfortable with the hippie “gender-bending” on campus, there was “virtually no cultural context in which to view [transgenderism],” she recalled. “It would have appeared to be totally freakish…to bend one’s gender that radically.” She only later became a prominent transgender activist, fusing her interest in ecology (awakened at the first campus Earth Day in 1971), spirituality, and transgenderism in her group “Kindred Spirits,” an alternative spiritual community for transgendered people.