Lived Experiences of Same Sex Desire (1930s)

It was not only those who were hostile to same sex expression that believed homosexuality was a universal potential. Robert Durand (OC 34), who was aware of his same sex desires from a young age, also felt same sex desire was common. His memories are a contrast to narrators from later years, many of whom reported feeling hopelessly “different” and “alone.”

Robert Durand (OC 34). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Robert Durand (OC 34). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

As a high school senior in North Carolina, he recalled that he “fooled around” with the majority of the neighborhood boys. “The sex interlude was not too long, but we went sailing through it,” he recalled, laughing. Even though adults “frowned upon” these activities (Durand assumed his mother knew), his two brothers “thought nothing of it,” and he and his friends openly recruited new playmates. When he asked boys if they were interested, “some of them said yes, some said no,” Durand recalled, but there was no fear of a violent rebuttal, nor was there the stigma of homosexual identity associated with the sex. “I didn’t know the term [homosexual], and I didn’t think of it that way,” he remembered. “You were just assumed to be regular, and that means heterosexual…and in a sense we regarded ourselves that way.”

At Oberlin, Durand was “isolated living with relatives in the town” and did not hear much talk about homosexuality. But at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Durand majored in economics before transferring to Oberlin, “there was always talk of homosexuals.” Those that “acknowledged that they’d done it” spoke relatively freely about their experiences in Durand’s recollection, and “their attitude towards it wasn’t too much different than mine; they were not worried much about this.” Underlying this attitude was the belief that “almost all of us were attracted to each other,” and that people’s decision to act on their desires “was a matter of degree and a matter of how much repression that was going on.” In Durand’s view, these ideas were accepted by most people he spoke with, “whether they did it or not, and my belief at the time was that a hell of a lot of them did it at one time or another in some degree.”

At the same time, congenital models of sexual identity that treated the “homosexual” as a discrete percentage of the population, such as those put forward by sexologist Havelock Ellis, influenced others on campus. In an address to a student group in 1933, chemistry professor James McCullough quoted Ellis approvingly, stating, “both the strength and the direction of the individual’s erotic impulses are largely dependant on…endocrines [secretions of the gonads].” McCullough closed his speech by asking students to “understand the persons whose attitude toward the sex life is different from your own…If we crush them and spoil their experiment in the name of precedent, morality, religion, we prove nothing except that we are afraid to wait for the true outcome.”[63]

In a similar vein, economics major Bob Diehm (OC 37) remembered living with a group of self-identified gay men at Oberlin. “We knew who the [gay] students were usually,” he recalled, “and they knew who we were.”[64] There was always gossip, Diehm remembered, most of it centered on the Conservatory. “‘Everyone knows about them,’” people would say; “‘that place is full of queers.’ And then there would be more specific talk about who was and who wasn’t.”[65] The Conservatory of Music, founded in 1865, would continue to be a focal point for gossip and a haven for homosexual men and women well into the 1970s. [For more about the Conservatory’s role as a magnet for queer individuals and culture at Oberlin see “Conservatory as Haven” and 1960s: “Camp and Drag Names”].

Like Durand’s, Diehm’s memories suggest a sense of relative ease about his same sex attractions, which would become far less common among narrators from later years. “I’ve never even thought about getting married [to a woman],” he recalled. “It’s all right, but not for me.”[66] With one of his gay roommates from Oberlin, Diehm moved to New York City and participated in the varied gay culture the city offered during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1975 he co-founded Integrity, a national organization for gay Episcopalians, and also took an active role in the formation of the organization now known as the Oberlin Lambda Alumni.

In the late 1930s and 1940s, the administration gradually conceded to students’ demands for heterosexual dating options and the traditionally homosocial student culture gave way to heterosocial traditions. At the same time, the modern model of “homosexual” identity gained increased popularity. All of 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. The shifts would also lead to a stronger sense of a shared “gay” identity and more cohesive LGBT campus circles, especially after the disruptions of World War II, discussed in the following sections.

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