The “naïveté” about homosexual identity discussed in the previous section would be more difficult to maintain by the early 1930s, after a short-lived “pansy craze” swept major U.S. cities and homosexuality made its way into popular literature such as Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) and plays such as Mae West’s The Drag (1927). The visibility did not escape Oberlin’s attention. In a 1933 sex education lecture, chemistry professor James McCullough cited “increased divorce, lowered birth-rates, increase of abortion, [and] the appearance of homosexuality on stage and screen, and in magazines.”
The heightened visibility took place during a time of profound shifts in thought about homosexuality and same sex socializing in the nation and on campus, partly reflected in the Oberlin yearbook, the Hi-O-Hi. In the teens, twenties, and early thirties, male/female couples were rarely pictured together, and physical affection was depicted only between women or between men. During this time, “romantic friendships” and affection between students of the same sex was common and not stigmatized, as discussed in the “pre-history”.
Towards the mid 1930s, as medical models of homosexuality gained popularity and men and women began to share more activities, same sex affection was increasingly associated with stigmatized homosexual desire. Photos of same sex groups in the Hi-O-Hi began to give way to images of distinctly modern conventions based on opposite-sex socializing and dancing, hand holding, and “romance.” Student demographics also began to shift during the 1930s, with more students coming from the urban East, resulting in growing religious and cultural diversity. This was also perhaps a student body more likely to hold modern beliefs about homosexuality and demand opportunities for heterosexual dating and socializing.
As the traditionally homosocial arrangements that characterized Oberlin in the nineteenth and early twentieth century began to be associated with “abnormal” homosexual desire, fears of homosexuality would fuel student resistance to social rules and campus sex-segregation and inform administrative efforts to regulate changing student social and sexual norms. Like the prominent sex educators of the 1930s, some students and faculty felt sexual attractions were profoundly modifiable; they claimed that a sex-segregated campus or a lack of heterosexual dating options was enough to awaken students’ same sex desires.
In his writings about the mandatory sex education lectures for freshman men that he began in 1930, physical education professor W.R. Morrison offered the following “scientific” example to illustrate the learned nature of sexual behavior and the importance of “establish[ing] right [sex] habits” among Oberlin men:
Male rats placed together in one cage without females will become homo-sexual. They will carry on intercourse among themselves. Even though both male and female rats are in the cage the young males will try to copulate with either sex at first. The reactions to sex advances are very different and the young male rat soon learns to select the female.
Like the “young male rat,” the Oberlin male student also spent most of his time in sex-segregated environments. The administration’s new sex education program for men was then an effort, in part, to prevent male students from becoming “homo-sexual.” It is not altogether surprising that Professor Morrison, the man who, in 1935, praised the Nazis as “a movement” that would “revive all that was good in Germany” and “cleanse the country of all vice and crime,” was also the man who spearheaded Oberlin’s sex education program, created in part to cleanse the male student body of what he called “sex abnormalities and perversion.”
Morrison characterized homosexuality “not [as] an inherent characteristic due to some biological peculiarity,” but “simply an anti-social habit.” It was “most common where the sexes are segregated,” he felt, in settings such as the military and boys’ and girls’ schools. Morrison’s writing reflected the beliefs of social hygiene sex educators of the period, who, according to historian Jeffrey Moran, “rested their hopes on the insight that the human sexual instinct, unlike the animal’s natural urges, was profoundly modifiable.”
Similarly, for students writing in the Marxist student publication Progress, the sex-segregation of the Oberlin campus was enough to produce a “maze of homosexuality and other abnormalities,” while restrictions on heterosexual dating could populate the campus with female “man-despisers.” “Such a thwarting of biological drives,” read one 1934 article, “is impossible without the development of numerous forms of perversion.” As a solution, they called for the end of social rules and championed “companiate marriages,” which redefined marriage in more egalitarian terms, consistent with the new conceptions of women’s equality advanced by the suffrage movement.
The administration made concessions to students’ desires for more liberal rules—to a very limited degree. In 1934, while the faculty voted to continue the 11:00 women’s curfew and 8:30 curfews for freshmen women, and rejected proposals permitting dancing in dorms, they did agree to allow co-ed seating at the (still) mandatory chapel.
They appear to have kept a check on interracial displays of affection. A 1937 handbill written by “The White Students of Oberlin” claimed that after a black male and white female student shared a dance at a Men’s house “rec,” the Dean of Men “called the colored man in to talk the matter over with him,” advising him “in effect, to remember [his] ‘proper’ position in our social set-up.” Whether the administration stepped up its regulation of homosexuality and gender transgression as these subjects gained campus attention is unclear.