“We Did Not Know What to Call It:” Same Sex Expression and Sexual Liberalism (1920s)

The social disruptions of World War I, the feminist movement, the increase of mass commercial leisure in the nation’s cities, and the sexual expressiveness of middle class youth signaled the decline of an older marriage ideal and the formation of a new sexual ethos in the 1920s.[34] Sex was “the problem of the age,” according to one lecturer at Oberlin in 1929. “The flapper and the flaming youth, the misunderstood husband and the mistreated wife, birth control and eugenics, True Story magazines and sex novels, are all occupying constant public attention.”[35]

During the 1920s, Oberlin remained a socially conservative Protestant institution, in its self-description and in its faculty and student makeup. But some students, encouraged by national developments and Oberlin’s growing focus on intellectual over religious goals, increasingly began to object to women’s rules and administrative paternalism. In 1922, two years after women’s suffrage, a student encouraged her classmates to “assert our rights as women in the academic world as we are doing in the political.”[36] In 1924, a student protested the “set of rules of bewildering and sometimes exasperating complexity” that “hemmed in [the] Oberlin woman.”[37] Two years later, while one undergraduate admitted that student automobiles led to “much breaking of the rule against men and women riding together,” he protested an administrative vote on automobile regulations that placed “every student in the role of an irresponsible child.”[38]

The administration voted to lift the ban on dancing between men and women and smoking (for men only) in 1919,[39] but was resistant to most changes and clearly anxious about student heterosexual expression. They appear to have been most uneasy about socializing, dating, and dancing between men and women of different races. A confidential 1920 memorandum from the Acting Dean of College Women to President King read:

We ask [white women] to receive colored women as close associates in their student home, but would swiftly put a stop to the slightest intimacy between white girls and colored men…Oberlin has always counted upon the tradition or instinct which keeps the opposite sexes of widely diverse races apart. This is as it should be, but just how far may social relations be wholesome and natural between groups whose intermarriage would be disastrous?[40]

Leslie “Pratt” Spelman (OC 28). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Leslie “Pratt” Spelman (OC 28). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Anxiety about heterosexual expression, especially cross-racial sex, may have overshadowed fears of campus homosexuality and helped open possibilities for same sex expression during the 1920s. Leslie Pratt Spelman (OC 28), for example, recalled that sex-segregated dorms and women’s curfews facilitated male-male sexual expression on campus, a comment echoed by narrators from later years.[41] Not only dormitories, but also the campus itself remained segregated by sex in the 1920s and 1930s: women’s dormitories and rooming houses were located almost exclusively south of College Avenue, men’s dormitories were north of College Avenue, and academic and administrative buildings were concentrated in the middle.[42]

Spelman and other men who had sex with men did not necessarily identify as homosexual. In a 1994 interview, Spelman recalled that he knew he was “different” from the other boys in his small Michigan town but “knew nothing about what we now call being gay.” Instead, Spelman saw his “difference” primarily in terms of his gender expression and artistic interests. “Instead of engaging in the usual friendships and activities of small town boyhood,” he recalled, “I despised sports, read poetry, and dabbled in art.”[43] He also played organ for several local churches during high school, and would enroll at Oberlin as an organ major in 1922.[44]

Spelman was aware of male-male sex on campus, but learned nothing at Oberlin about “what we now call gay.” “There was gay activity,” Spelman recalled, “but we did not know what to call it. We were rather naïve. It wasn’t in the news—there was no TV, and such actions were not discussed.”[45] In retrospect, Spelman felt he was “naïve” as a young man, but it’s important to keep in mind that his lack of knowledge may also reflect the fact that the homosexual/heterosexual classification scheme most people now take for granted was not yet widely popular.

Oberlin “Lesbians.” 1912 Hi-O-Hi. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Oberlin “Lesbians.” 1912 Hi-O-Hi. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

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 New Yorkers understood and categorized male sexual and gender behavior.[46] While Chauncey writes that this shift occurred earlier among the middle class, Spelman’s comments suggest that he understood his “difference” primarily in terms of his non-normative gender identity; it’s possible that he may have also subscribed to a classification scheme that divided men based on gender identity rather than the sex of their sexual partner. [For more about different “prehomosexual” models of sexual and gender identity as they relate to Oberlin’s LGBT history, see the “Methodology, Identity, and Language” section.]

The Oberlin Lesbian Society. 1903 Hi-O-Hi. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

The Oberlin Lesbian Society. 1903 Hi-O-Hi. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

It is also true that, despite the increased sexual awareness across the country, Oberlin students remained socially conservative and religious, and were not necessarily well informed about sexuality. Only half of the “representative [male] college group” surveyed by psychology professor Raymond Stetson in 1925 knew what “birth control” referred to, while two-thirds felt there was “harm in petting.” Only one received information on sex from his parents.[47] While Professor Stetson himself was aware of books on same sex sexuality, and in fact shared a house with history professor and fellow “bachelor” Frederick Artz from 1924 until Stetson’s death in 1950, his survey included no questions about same sex sexuality—an even more “unspeakable” subject.[48]

Similarly, for many at Oberlin, the word “lesbian” invoked nothing but the homeland of the poet Sappho, if the name of a women’s literary club—the Oberlin Lesbian Society—is any indication. The 1903 Hi-O-Hi explains: “Since Lesbos was the home of Sappho who founded what may be called the first women’s literary club, the name was considered appropriate for the first society among the young women of the academy.”[49] Founded in 1903, the Lesbian Society remained active until at least 1912, after which there is no record of the club in the Hi-O-Hi or the Oberlin Archives. It may be that the homosexual implications of the term “lesbian” had become more public and popular at Oberlin by that time.

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