George Brenner and a Gay History Circle (late 1940s)

George Brenner (pseudonym; OC 50) was the only child of a white, middle class family in New York State. His father was a wholesale jeweler until World War II, when he began manufacturing war items, and his mother, an Oberlin graduate, was active in the Methodist Church and the Foreign Missionary Society. Brenner enrolled at Oberlin in 1944, where he majored in history.

“At Oberlin,” he recalled, “I felt I was the only [gay] person in the world [and] kept all my feelings to myself.” He maintained his secrecy after being drafted into the Army in 1946, serving in the Military Government in Seoul, Korea. But two years later, more mature after his service, he returned to the Oberlin campus, where “it took practically nothing to bring me out.” He soon “discovered a whole gay world had come out. And that was the wonderful revelation for me,” he recalled. “And I joined them.”

Professor Artz holds court in his self-designed living room. 1945. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Professor Artz holds court in his self-designed living room. 1945. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

The highly respected professor of history Frederick Artz (OC 16) was a central part of this “gay world.” Like Brenner, he also felt that veterans played an important role in creating cohesive gay campus circles. “The astounding thing for [Artz] was, before the war and really all through the war, there was no gay life whatsoever at Oberlin,” Brenner recalled. But after the war, gay and bisexual veterans “would kind of identify him [as gay] and be friendly, and he would reciprocate and say, ‘come to tea,’” Brenner recalled, laughing.

Out of these interactions emerged an unofficial gay “tea” group that met at Artz’s house in the late 1940s. Professors regularly invited students from their department to their house for conversation and tea—usually served by the professor’s wife. As such, “teas” were a part of the in loco parentis community model, which treated the college as a “family” made up of student “children” and faculty/administrative “parents.” Artz, who shared his house with psychology professor Raymond Stetson, appears to have made use of this tradition in order to create and nurture an alternative campus “family.”

His group discussed the gay worlds emerging in metropolitan areas such as New York City and read the gay literature that proliferated after the war, such as Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948) and Malaparte’s The Skin (1949). “Most of them had tragic endings,” Brenner remembered, “but it was exciting nonetheless.” The “teas” were also ways to meet other gay students. “[Artz] had a wider range, and he would invite students to his home that I’d never met before,” Brenner recalled. “And it turned out we had the like minds.”

Burton’s secluded fourth floor: home to gay circles in the late 1940s.

Burton’s secluded fourth floor: home to gay circles in
the late 1940s.

Students also created their own social spaces. In the late 1940s, Brenner and other gay liberal arts majors occupied the entire top floor of the new men’s dorm, Burton Hall, which had opened in 1946 to accommodate the influx of veterans. The top floor was made up of about a dozen rooms—less than half of the rooms that made up each of the bottom three floors. Because of its secluded location, the floor allowed gay men an unusual amount of freedom. “At night we would leave all the doors open, [and] we’d go from room to room, socializing and talking and laughing and carrying on and that kind of thing,” Brenner remembered. “Everybody was just kind of excited to be able to be yourself, to come out, to have a group that you identified with, where you could really make true friends.”

Because of the serious consequences of exposure—possible expulsion, loss of status, even arrest—these circles and meetings were carefully hidden from others, and Brenner and his friends were careful to mask their gay lives. “We certainly never let anyone know that we were gay that was not in our circle,” he remembered. “And we would go to, I think, to all kinds of lengths to not to have it known.” Brenner was dating a woman, for instance, as were most other members of his group, in an effort to project a public heterosexual persona.

They were not so successful, however, to avoid rumors. Doug Cooper (OC 50) remembered hearing that “there were homos living up on the top floor” of Burton. Fighting his own attractions to men at the time, Cooper made a point of staying away.

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