In addition to materials from the Oberlin College Archives and secondary sources, this narrative is based on over seventy oral histories conducted with Oberlin alumni, faculty, administrators, and residents of the surrounding area—all referred to in this text as “narrators.” The oral histories were collected by the snowball method, in which narrators are asked to identify people they knew, those narrators asked to identify people they knew, and so on. The “seed” narrators were contacted through the Oberlin Lambda Alumni “Out List.”
The snowball method is crucial for uncovering “hidden” social networks, but it does have limitations. Most graduates from classes before the 1970s on the “Out List” are men, for instance. Because gay men and lesbians did not generally socialize as such until after the early 1970s, the majority of these men were unable to provide names of lesbian and bisexual women. Additionally, of the women I did interview, especially those who graduated before the feminist movement of the early 1970s, many did not consider themselves to be lesbian or bisexual when they were students and/or were not part of lesbian or bisexual networks or friendships. They were therefore also frequently unable to identify additional women narrators. As a result, I have interviewed few women for this project.
Oberlin was (and remains) a primarily white school in its student and faculty makeup. Largely as a result, I have also interviewed few African Americans, only one Latino alumnus, and no narrators from other non-white ethnicities. This is especially true of classes before the late 1960s. Despite Oberlin’s early history of abolitionist agitation, the college did not hire an African American faculty member until the late 1940s, and aside from a brief swell after the Civil War, African Americans made up no more than three to five percent of the total student body until the late 1960s. Due in part to student and alumni pressure and the impact of the civil rights movement, the administration began to recruit students of color at this time, and the percentage began to slowly increase. In 1971, African Americans made up seven percent of the college and the faculty voted to approve a massive recruitment effort with the goal of fifteen percent students of color by 1975 (a goal that former president Robert Fuller believed the college met). Oberlin also enrolled token numbers of other non-white ethnicities before the 1970s; a handful of Japanese American students were accepted during World War II, for example.
As such, this narrative is primarily a history of white, young gay men at Oberlin, especially before the 1970s. It is my hope that women and people of color will help enrich and expand the record of Oberlin’s LGBT history through the website feedback forums, which can be found at the end of each narrative section. Readers are also encouraged to post general comments or more in-depth personal narratives in the Share Your Story section.
Another result of drawing narrators through the “Out List” is that, at the time of the interviews, the vast majority strongly self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. They did not necessarily identify as such at Oberlin. Similarly, some Oberlin graduates who now identify as heterosexual did not necessarily identify as such as undergraduates. College was a period in which students were considered to be somewhere in between children and adults, and many had not yet settled on their “adult” sexual identity. “Experimentation” may then have been more widespread in a college environment. In retrospect, more than a few narrators (especially women from earlier classes) also felt they were “naïve” about their sexual identities at Oberlin.
This “naivety” may have been due to narrators’ ages or the profound silencing of LGBT topics they recalled in classrooms, the press, and everyday conversation before the 1970s. But it may also be due to the fact that the heterosexual/homosexual classification scheme, now so entrenched that most people take it for granted, was far less rigidly defined earlier in the twentieth century. Historians have convincingly shown that the categories of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual—all identities based on the sex of sexual partners—are relatively new classification systems.
Historian David Halperin has maintained that, “there is no such thing as a history of male homosexuality.” He instead argues that there are histories to be written of at least four different but concurrent “prehomosexual models of male sexual and gender deviance,” including “friendship or male love” and “passivity or inversion.” Historian Martha Vicinus similarly names “two major paradigmatic forms of lesbian behavior, namely romantic friendships and butch-femme roles,” in addition to a “modern lesbian identity” based on sexual object choice.
I touch on two of these “prehomosexual” models in the Oberlin narrative: “romantic friendship” and “gender inversion.” “Romantic friendships,” which may or may not have incorporated sexual expression, were common, and not stigmatized, among nineteenth century men and women in the U.S. They were common on college campuses, even coeducational schools such as Oberlin.
Under the “gender inversion” model, same sex desire was seen as an indicator of a larger stigmatized crossgender identity. A woman’s attraction to another woman would be seen as one sign of a “masculine soul in a female body,” for instance, not necessarily as a sign of a “lesbian” identity. In the first third of the twentieth century, in fact, popular magazines rarely distinguished between transexualism, same sex desire, or crossgender behavior. Historian George Chauncey has illustrated a shift only in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s from a division of men into “fairies” and “normal men” (based on their gender identity or “active” or “passive” sexual role) to a division of men into “homosexuals” and “heterosexuals” (based on the sex of their sexual partners) as the way working class people New Yorkers understood and categorized male sexual and gender behavior. He suggests that this shift occurred at least two generations earlier in middle class culture.
The majority of this Oberlin narrative covers a time period in which the homosexual/heterosexual division was well established as the most popular way of understanding sexual identities among the middle class—the class to which most Oberlin students and faculty belonged. Yet the “gender inversion” model persisted. At Oberlin, same sex desire was closely associated with non-normative gender expression (and vice versa) well past the early 1970s. More that a few narrators, especially from earlier classes, expressed the belief that men could be considered (and consider themselves) “normal” or “straight” even if they had sex with other men—as long as their gender presentation was conventional and they played the “masculine” role in the sexual act. This belief was consistent with “prehomosexual” divisions based on gender identity, described above.
Language is closely related to the subject of identity. There were a large number of terms used to describe identities that we now group under the umbrella of “LGBT” at Oberlin, in narrators’ memories and archival documents. These included the euphemistic, such as “friend of Dorothy,” “Mr. King,” “artistic,” “one of these,” “gay,” and “musical;” terms that described not only sexual preference, but also crossgender identification, such as “fairy,” “queen,” “pansy,” “dyke,” “faggot,” “bulldagger,” “effeminate,” and “Needsa” (a unique Oberlin invention, short for “Needs-a-dress”); and the clinical, academic, or moralistic, such as “homosexual,” “abnormal,” “lesbian,” “queer,” and “man-despiser.” Some narrators had no words to describe themselves at Oberlin or resisted the language that was available to them.
Using modern terms to describe past behavior runs the risk of erroneously ascribing modern identities to people in the past. When possible, I use the terms people used to refer to themselves at Oberlin. I sometimes use the umbrella term “LGBT” to refer generally to same sex desire, expression, and identity, as well as gender transgression—be it camp behavior, cross-dressing, or transgender expression. When talking specifically about homosexual male experience, especially after World War II, I use the word “gay,” a code word that appears to have become popular on campus among World War II veterans and became more widely used by gay men starting in the early 1960s.
I use the term “lesbian” to refer to women who were exclusively sexually and/or emotionally attracted to other women. This term appears to have not been widely associated with same sex desire at Oberlin until well after the 1920s, and some women graduates were not aware of the term as late as the 1960s. I use “bisexual” to refer to men and women who were attracted to both men and women, and “transgender” to refer to any crossgender expression. Few, if any narrators recalled using these terms at Oberlin.