This narrative begins in the 1920s, just after World War I ushered in a new “sexual liberalism” among middle class Americans, and ends in the early 1970s with the advent of a national gay liberation movement and second-wave feminism, both of which popularized modern, “political” models of LGBT identity. Only when detailed histories of other colleges are available will we have a good sense of what was common and what was unique to Oberlin during this period. Yet there are a number of themes that stand out from narrators’ memories and archival evidence, many of them closely related to the “uniqueness” and character of Oberlin in general.
During the 1920s to the 1970s, Oberlin was known for its progressive race relations, traditions of campus radicalism and academic excellence, and its exceptional music conservatory. Oberlin also lacked traditional college social institutions such as fraternities and sororities. These qualities were understood by many outside and within the institution as being feminine, effeminate, odd, “queer,” or even overtly homosexual. The same qualities also appear to have attracted students, staff, and faculty who were themselves atypical, including those who felt a profound sense of sexual “difference.” Tony Wells (OC 62), a gay Conservatory student from a small Kansas farm town, recalled that he enrolled at Oberlin “because I instinctively knew that I would be nurtured there along with other highly intelligent, talented misfits.”
Some LGBT narrators recalled a politically progressive campus that was nonetheless socially conservative, citing strictly enforced social rules and anti-gay student attitudes and administrative policy. Still others felt that Oberlin’s political and intellectual nonconformity extended to the sexual sphere, or that the college at least offered freedoms that were unavailable under the watchful eyes of their parents. Narrators’ differing experiences may be partly the result of the overwhelming public silence about LGBT lives and sexuality on campus before the 1970s—one point agreed upon by all narrators. It may be that the void left by this silence meant that students’ individual backgrounds, temperaments, and contact with other LGBT people played a crucial role in shaping their experiences of Oberlin before the 1970s.
Certain campus programs and majors also appear to have been more closely associated with LGBT social life than others. The Conservatory of Music in particular was strongly associated with male effeminacy and homosexuality, both on and off campus, from at least the 1930s. This was not simply due to the larger cultural association of music with homosexuals—so strong that “musical” itself was a euphemism for homosexuality during this period. The Conservatory did serve as a haven for many LGBT individuals and as a magnet for campus LGBT life and culture. Gay Conservatory students and faculty sustained alternative kinship, support, and mentorship networks, cultivated a unique Conservatory LGBT culture complete with its own history and folklore, and nurtured sensibilities that facilitated the rejection of cultural, religious, and psychological norms that served to stigmatize them.
While Conservatory musicians were often ridiculed as effeminate or irrelevant “fairies,” their status as artists possessing “talent” in one of the country’s top conservatories also brought them considerable praise. Historian Nadine Hubbs has shown how the parallels between being “musical” and being gay allowed for some “slippage” between the two categories, “open[ing] up possibilities for a deprecation of the former, an appreciation of the latter, and even for the existence of some special correlation between the two.” Similarly, for some, being “musical” and gay at Oberlin meant being members of a special class—or a “glamorous fraternity,” as one gay male graduate from the class of 1962 put it.
Theater programs also provided a refuge for gay students. Some narrators involved with Oberlin’s theater world formed what they now characterize as “secret societies” or “clubs.” Like musicians in the Conservatory, some also recast their sexual “difference,” popularly associated with mental illness or sin, instead as a sign of a privileged or elite relationship to style and talent. The camp behavior employed by some of these students also functioned as a “solvent of morality,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1964, “neutraliz[ing] moral indignation, [and] sponsor[ing] playfulness.”
In a twist on the in loco parentis college community model, particular gay male professors also acted as gay “parents” to shape, anchor, and nurture gay male circles at Oberlin. History professor Frederick Artz, for example, regularly discussed gay literature and culture at his home with groups of gay liberal arts students in the late 1940s. Music theory professor Robert Melcher, while married and with children, nonetheless served as a confidante for and discreetly shared books and articles on homosexuality with at least a few students from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. English professor Stan McLaughlin, the director of the Oberlin Dramatic Association, “created the kind of social atmosphere in which you could be relaxed with a bunch of guys, learn some of the lore of the campus, [and] stories about people in the past,” one gay male graduate from the class of 1966 recalled. The fact that few women taught at Oberlin before the 1970s may help explain why lesbian communities on campus were less visible and perhaps less cohesive than gay male communities.
LGBT Oberlinians also had changing relationships with off-campus communities in Cleveland and elsewhere. Halloween parties held at a rural Ohio farm in the late 1940s drew hundreds of costumed young gay men and lesbians from all over the state, including Oberlin. In 1962, a gay theater circle attracted Cleveland gay bar patrons to their campy (and hugely successful) campus production of The Boy Friend by posting flyers advertising the “gay musical comedy” at area gay bars. In the early 1970s, gay organ majors regularly performed “Divine Follies” with gay priests at a Cleveland Catholic church, while residents of the newly formed Women’s Collective spent nights at an Akron lesbian bar. Certain houses in the town of Oberlin also developed “gay” reputations; one faculty widow, the president of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union, appears to have rented her extra rooms to successive groups of all-gay boarders from the early 1950s until the 1980s.
All of this is not to say that, before the 1970s, Oberlin was a “gay mecca.” While the administration appears to have favored a laissez-faire approach to same sex sexuality, there were times when it did police and punish gender and sexual nonconformity. Some narrators reported discriminatory hiring and admission practices, homosexual witch-hunts, and expulsions.
Policing of gay male students was often fueled by anxiety about the campus “male image” and what the administration perceived to be the negative effects of effeminate men on their efforts to raise funds and attract quality high school graduates (most often identified as male in Admissions Committee minutes). Ironically, Oberlin’s traditional strengths—its exceptional music conservatory, commitment to admission regardless of race, and traditions of student activism and academic excellence—were often cited (in Committee minutes, for example) as potential liabilities.
As I suggested above, the “femininity” of the Conservatory, the limited racial “mixing” in campus housing, student leftist politics, and intellectualism could and were read as odd, “queer,” or overtly homosexual by those within and outside the institution. Administrative reaction to these associations and efforts to create a more “masculine” and politically moderate campus occasionally came to the surface. The most dramatic example, perhaps, is a 1969 Admissions controversy, in which “questionable comments” were found men’s applications, “ranging from the political persuasion of admissions candidates to masculinity.”
The administration was possibly more anxious about heterosexual cross-racial desire than same sex expression, taking direct measures to discourage dancing, dating, or even socializing between male and female students of different races as late as the 1960s. Historian James Oliver Horton has written that “the heart of the argument” against African American enrollment at Oberlin in 1835 was “the often unexpressed sexual fear of racial integration of a coeducational institution,” suggesting that Oberlin’s sexual politics were in fact shaped by race from the beginning.
Oberlin administrators acted in loco parentis to shape students’ moral and social development, enforcing a host of social rules restricting and supervising interaction between the sexes. At least by the 1930s, the administration had also established gendered residential zones on campus; women’s dormitories and rooming houses were almost exclusively south of College Avenue, while men’s dormitories were north of College Avenue, with academic buildings concentrated in the middle. At the same time, the administration choreographed closely supervised heterosocial interactions. Male students generally went to women’s dorms to eat meals, for instance, often sitting boy-girl-boy-girl.
Strict supervision of interactions between sexes and races may have overshadowed and helped open possibilities for same sex expression on campus. A graduate from the class of 1928 felt that the strict sex-segregation of dorms and curfews for women facilitated male-male sexual expression for example, a claim that narrators from later years echoed. For this reason, campus sex-segregation was also often a source of anxiety. Fears of homosexuality would in fact fuel student resistance to campus sex-segregation and social rules and inform administrative efforts to shape student social and sexual norms (through Oberlin’s first sex education program for male students, for instance). Especially before World War II, some students and faculty felt sexual attractions were profoundly modifiable; they feared that a sex-segregated campus and lack of heterosexual dating options could lead to an increase of homosexuality or other “perversions.”
The history of the debate around social rules and in loco parentis at Oberlin unfolds parallel to the history of the emergence of modern LGBT campus communities. In the 1920s and 1930s, organized student resistance to social rules and sex-segregation appears to have begun in earnest—just as the modern model of homosexuality gained popularity and the campus moved from a homosocial to heterosocial student culture. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the successful student dismantling of in loco parentis, the end of social rules, and the creation of coed dorms coincided with the emergence of the national gay liberation movement, the formation of Oberlin’s first gay student organization, and the beginning of a new era in LGBT lives at Oberlin and beyond.