At the end of their first semester in 1960, a small group of Oberlin freshmen signed a remarkable letter to the Oberlin Review in protest of the mandatory sex education seminars they had attended. In the strident, irreverent style that would come to characterize campus rhetoric in the late 1960s, they objected to their instructors’ “unquestioning conformity, Victorian morals,” and “dusty pronouncements of the dangers of Communist infiltration if our sex codes are relaxed.”
The students, at least a few of whom were “red diaper babies,” or children of Communist Party members or other leftists, also offered what was for the time a radical defense of homosexuality. It was the “narrow minded attitude” expressed by their instructors—“that [homosexuals] ought to be pitied, rather than looked down upon”—that “in fact, makes homosexuality the problem that it is,” they argued. “Only if homosexuality is accepted as a natural social phenomenon…can we approach the problem objectively, if we agree that this is a ‘problem’ after all.”
Two weeks later, professor of English W. Arthur Turner responded incredulously to the letter, which he told the students was so “offensive” that it “ought to make your parents ashamed of you.” “For me, and many others who have been at Oberlin since you were in rompers, and longer,” he wrote, “your letter seems…rude and silly.” Moreover, “in terms of the Christian morality upon which this country—and this college—were founded, the implications of your letter are simply immoral.”
This particular debate appears to have ended with Turner’s letter, but the exchange stands at a watershed in Oberlin College’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) history—looking back at the college’s socially conservative roots, but a harbinger of the movements for sexual freedom that were to come in the 1960s and early 1970s. The letters also illustrate the complex mixture of paternalism, political liberalism, student radicalism, and conservative Christian morality that shaped LGBT people’s experiences of Oberlin, to varying degrees, during the time period this narrative addresses: the 1920s to the early 1970s.
This set of values is consistent with Oberlin’s Christian activist background: founded in 1833 as an evangelical Christian settlement in the West, the college was also a pioneer in coeducation, one of the first in the U.S. to admit students regardless of race, and a key player in the national abolitionist, temperance, and prohibition movements. In more recent years, some have claimed that Oberlin’s early “progressive” commitments have been extended to LGBT issues and individuals. Out magazine, after noting the college’s “legendary” early political history, named Oberlin “the best small school in the country for gays” in 2004, and in 1993, Newsweek similarly dubbed the college a “gay mecca.”
This was not true of Oberlin during the 1920s to 1970s. While the college would gradually shed its Christian focus, beginning as early as the late 1800s, its view of sexual morality was constrained by this heritage well into the 1960s, if not beyond. As at other schools, Oberlin administrators and faculty acted in loco parentis (literally “in place of parents”) to shape students’ moral and social development, enforcing a host of restrictive social rules, mandatory religious instruction and sex education programs, sex segregated campus residential zones, and choreographed heterosexual interactions. As the sex seminar exchange suggests, the Oberlin students we now group under the “LGBT” umbrella were most often considered by their academic parents to be objects of pity, immoral, weak-minded, and/or mentally ill. At Oberlin and elsewhere, they were subject to punishment, expulsion, loss of status, and even arrest.
Despite this, LGBT students and faculty created rich campus worlds and social networks. Oberlin was neither “akin to a large closet” before the 1969 Stonewall riots, as the otherwise informative Oberlin LGBT oral history collection Into the Pink asserts—nor were all LGBT Oberlinians “coping with confusion, aloneness, or …finding a cure.”
While a profound sense of stigmatized “difference” weighed heavily on many minds, not all LGBT Oberlinians internalized feelings of immorality, mental illness, or deviancy. Few were as bold or “political” as the freshmen signers of the sex seminar letter, but many students and faculty accepted their sexual desires or gender difference, and some even recast their stigmatized “difference” as a sign of a privileged or elite relationship to style and talent. And even though the consequences of campus exposure were serious, few reported being completely isolated or “closeted” at Oberlin. Many instead spoke of “wearing a mask” that could be strategically removed in gay circles, or of creating “secret societies” or “clubs.” I found that vibrant gay male campus social networks have flourished as long ago as the 1930s, sometimes flamboyantly so, but more often just below the surface of their fellow Oberlinians’ recognition. [Evidence about bisexual women and lesbians is less conclusive, as discussed in the “Methodology, Identity, and Language” section.]
This narrative seeks to unearth the worlds hidden “behind the masks” of LGBT Oberlin students and faculty. It also offers a view of Oberlin’s history through a “queer” lens, touching on the LGBT-related significance of campus civil rights activism, the influx of World War II veterans, the Conservatory of Music, the campus feminist movement, and the decades-long debate regarding social rules and the in loco parentis campus community model. As such, this narrative is influenced by the effort to reclaim stories of pre-Stonewall LGBT lives and debunk what historian George Chauncey has called the myths of “isolation, invisibility, and internalization.”