As in other parts of the country, Oberlin experienced profound changes in relations between the sexes and thought about homosexuality during the interwar period.
Before World War I, college students spent most of their time with others of the same sex, even at coeducational institutions such as Oberlin. This was due both to the social rules enforced by the college administration, which acted in loco parentis (literally “in place of parents”) to restrict interactions between the sexes, and to the values of student culture itself. Classrooms, dormitories, chapel services, and student social lives were segregated by sex at Oberlin—as was the campus itself (women’s rooming houses were located almost exclusively in South Campus and men’s dormitories in North Campus). In part due to the separation and differing expectations of the sexes, “romantic friendships” and physical affection among students of the same sex, as well as the use of cross-dressing, were ordinary and non-stigmatized parts of men’s and women’s campus life.
After the social disruptions of World War I, as male and female students began to share more interests and medical models of homosexuality gained popularity, the traditionally homosocial arrangements and “romantic friendships” that characterized Oberlin in the nineteenth and early twentieth century began to be associated with “abnormal” homosexual desire. By the 1930s, new fears of homosexuality would fuel student resistance to campus sex-segregation and restrictive social rules. They would also inform administrative efforts to shape changing student social and sexual norms, through Oberlin’s first sex education program for male students, for instance. 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.” (Fears primarily related to male students; women were considered to be without strong sexual desire.)
It was not only those who were hostile to same sex expression that believed homosexuality was a universal potential. Robert Durand (OC 34) was aware of his same sex desires from a young age and recalled that he felt same sex attractions were common among his peers. In the late 1930s and 1940s, the administration gradually conceded to some of the student demands for heterosexual dating options, while the traditionally homosocial student culture gave way to new heterosocial conventions and a modern model of “homosexual” identity became increasingly popular. These developments would undoubtedly lead to the profound sense of “difference”—stigmatized, and in a few cases exalted—that would come to characterize the lives of LGBT narrators from later years.
I have uncovered no evidence of any wide scale administrative purges of homosexuality at Oberlin during the interwar period, as there were at other colleges and universities, such as at Harvard in 1920. At Oberlin, anxieties about cross-racial sex and heterosexual expression may have overshadowed fears of campus homosexuality, especially before the 1930s, and may have even helped open possibilities for same sex expression.