by Joey Plaster
In place of a formal conclusion, I write here about my own experiences at Oberlin in the late 1990s as they relate to the college’s LGBT history. People interested in an overview of the “Behind the Masks” narrative can look at the Themes sub-section and the introductions to the various narrative sections. For information about LGBT Oberlin life after the early 1970s, see Into the Pink. I also encourage readers to use the form below to post general comments about the narrative as a whole.
“Behind the Masks” closes after the birth of gay liberation and second-wave feminism—momentous events, but hardly the death of the beliefs about gender and sexuality that characterized earlier decades. I grew up in a conservative Florida town believing my attraction to other boys was an indication that I was mentally ill or somehow “unnatural.” I was aware of other gay people in my arts high school and the town’s small classical music world, but not among the congregation of the local Presbyterian church I attended regularly with my family. It was at a summer music camp in North Carolina that I kissed a boy for the first time—my first real social/sexual awakening. I remember that he later defended gay sexuality in a letter by associating it with artistic and musical talent. I also remember that when my mother found this letter and others, she responded by sending me to a psychologist. Twenty plus years after Stonewall, the idea that homosexuality was a sign of mental illness and the belief that it was somehow related to artistic talent, themes discussed in this narrative, were alive and well.
I applied to Oberlin because of its coop system, its Conservatory, its “unusual” leftist reputation, and—though I was myself relatively conflicted—because I heard that it was a gay friendly school. I was not disappointed. “Queer” students, as they generally called themselves, were not only plentiful; they were also vocal and, like other Oberlin students, highly politicized.
I met my first boyfriend at a student-run class on LGBT issues during my first semester, played violin in the Conservatory Orchestra, ate at the vegetarian Fairchild Coop, eventually majored in history. That summer, playing in a light opera company in Wooster, Ohio, I immersed myself in queer theory and history. The material was a revelation. For the first time, I read about activist groups such as ACT-UP, the Lesbian Avengers, and Queer Nation. I listened to Morrissey’s Bona Drag non-stop and read Foucault’s The History of Sexuality three times (and even came close to understanding it). I consumed gender theory, queer biographies, and film. I emerged with a completely different understanding of sexuality and history, and returned to the campus angry, energized, and prepared to participate in campus queer organizing.
This narrative ends in the mid 1970s, as identity politics became the dominant lens through which people understood the Oberlin college community. This remained true of the late 1990s. What had changed, at least from my vantage point as a white male, was that much of the tension between identity groups described by narrators of the 1970s seemed to have been replaced by open discussion, analysis, and appreciation. I took women’s studies classes with Professor Anna Agathengelou, a fiery socialist feminist who taught students to look at the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality. I worked with a collective of queer students on a full-length documentary exploring the divisions of race, class, and gender in Oberlin queer communities. With many of the same students, I also helped publish undisclosed recipients, a student publication with the same purpose. During my senior year, I began this narrative as a private reading with history professor Carol Lasser, after a summer interning at San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society.
The general student climate towards LGBT students was liberal, though I sometimes (perhaps self-righteously) felt that, as art major Jay Gorney wrote in 1973, “Oberlin homophobia is worse than that at Ohio State. It’s a hell of a lot easier to deal with honest bigots than with a bunch of patronizing liberals.” Drag Ball was by far the biggest and most popular campus event of the academic year, drawing students of every sexual persuasion to Wilder Hall (the old Men’s Dormitory) in drag, saran wrap, and body paint. But some students also criticized the Ball, part of the annual Transgender Awareness week, for being “blackface for trans people” (see “invocation from the drag king” in undisclosed recipients, for example). I also felt that the administration was generally supportive of queer students—to a point. Oberlin made headlines by hiring openly gay athletic director Michael Muska in 1998. But the same year the faculty also rejected the SMBD Club’s charter status, an indication that the college was perhaps more squeamish about sexually transgressive student groups (or more frightened about losing alumni funding) than they were in the early 1970s, when Oberlin Gay Liberation was easily approved as a student organization.
I saw no direct evidence of the Christian thought that shaped the college in earlier years, but I did feel that Oberlin as a whole remained relatively puritanical—certainly not the “far-Left paradise of agitation, Marxist activism and sexual licentiousness” described in David Horowitz’s conservative FrontPage Magazine. The only evangelicals I encountered were those from outside the college who criticized Oberlin’s gay affirmative policies. “God Hates Fags”, best known for picketing Matthew Shepard’s funeral, paid a visit to the campus during my senior year, partly in response to the hiring of Michael Muska. Students organized a massive counter-demonstration with the support of the administration. Brother Jed, a local anti-gay evangelical preacher, also made periodic visits to Tappan Square. Some tried to argue directly with him, but one of my favorite memories of Oberlin is of the day when Corey Dargel and Yvan Greenberg turned Jed’s tirade into a piece of sublime performance art, described in a wonderfully quirky review by composer Pauline Oliveros.
Conducting the oral histories and research for “Behind the Masks” was part of a personal transformation that Oberlin nurtured. It’s been an incredibly edifying experience, providing me with models of LGBT adult life, reinforcing my confidence in the power of social activism, and inspiring pleasure and pride in queer resiliency and inventiveness. My hope is that the narrative will continue to expand and grow as Oberlin students continue to invent new, queer ways of interacting with the world.