World War II relaxed the social restraints of peacetime and exposed a generation of young people to new ways of life. For LGBT people, the war constituted a “national coming out,” according to historian Allan Bérubé. Gathered together in military camps, gay, and smaller numbers of lesbian service people “often came to terms with their sexual desires, fell in love, made friends with other gay people, and began to name and talk about who they were.”
From 1946 to 1948, veterans comprised the majority of all males in colleges across the country. Stories from three of these veterans—Frank Burton (pseudonym; OC 49), George Brenner (pseudonym; OC 50), and Robert Wood (GST 51)—suggest the impact the war had on gay and bisexual life at Oberlin. The three students were considerably older than traditional undergraduates and had matured quickly during the war. In the service, they and other veterans they befriended at Oberlin had sexual experiences with other men, and some were “brought out” into a gay social life. As such, veterans were much more likely than other students to act on their desires, understand their same-sex attractions as a sign of a “gay” identity, and form friendship networks with other gay and bisexual students and faculty.
The arrival of veterans appears to have contributed to the formation of a number of gay circles, many of which coalesced around prominent gay professors or departments of study. Brenner was part of group of gay history and liberal arts majors that formed around Professor Frederick Artz, for instance, and it was rumored that English professor Stan McLaughlin, director of the Oberlin Dramatic Association, had a similar circle. Wood recalled a flamboyant gay group made up primarily of Conservatory students. All of these students claimed campus space for themselves, including entire dormitory halls and off-campus houses.
Because of the social condemnation of homosexuality and the serious consequences of exposure—expulsion, loss of status, even arrest or state-enforced lobotomies—gay narrators were secretive about their circles, dated women, and developed heterosexual personas to “mask” their gay lives. The fact that none of the three narrators remembered knowing each other suggests that individual gay circles may also have been insulated from one another. But not all LGBT students were discreet. The campy “fairies” and “screaming queens” associated with the Conservatory were by far the most visible expression of campus homosexuality during the late 1940s. Their brilliance, in turn, helped hide more conventionally gendered gay circles.
All three veterans explored off-campus gay venues that proliferated during World War II, such as bathhouses and gay bars in Cleveland. Two narrators also made their way to a uniquely Ohio event: annual Halloween parties at a rural farmhouse, attended by costumed gay and lesbian revelers from across the state. These on- and off-campus “gay worlds” were vital spaces where LGBT students could find sympathetic friends, lovers, and sexual partners, share information about gay culture and history, and simply “be themselves.”
None of the three narrators were aware of lesbian social networks. The fact that few women taught at Oberlin in the post-World War II years may help explain why lesbian communities on campus were less visible and perhaps less organized than gay male circles. Another reason may have been the student gender ratio; after a predominantly female presence during the war, males made up roughly sixty percent of Oberlin graduates in 1949 and 1950. Narrators did recall more than a few gay African Americans, even though African Americans made up no more than about four percent of the total student enrollment during the late 1940s. Wood remembered an African American voice major who was part of a group of primarily gay Conservatory students and Brenner recalled “any number of gay, black men at Oberlin” who “didn’t stick together” but “were all a part of a larger [gay] group.”
While the three veterans understood their attractions to other men, more or less, as signifiers of a “gay” identity, not all students did. As in the interwar period, the boundaries defining sexual identities were contested, and many models of male sexuality and gender difference continued to exist alongside another. Male students who did not adopt sexual identities, did not want to associate with gay people in a social space, or simply wanted a quick, sexual “outlet,” sometimes found a meeting space in campus restrooms. Others simply had “encounters” without understanding them to constitute a core part of their identity.