Born into a Christian family in Youngstown, Ohio, Robert Wood (GST 51) was already twenty-five years old when he enrolled in Oberlin’s Graduate School of Theology in 1948. He had served as an infantryman in the Army, was wounded during the invasion of Italy, and spent twenty-two months recovering in military hospitals, for which he was decorated with the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. It was also in the Army that Wood had his first sexual experience with another man, though he wasn’t “brought out” into a gay social world until his undergraduate years at the University of Pennsylvania.
One of Wood’s reasons for attending Oberlin’s Seminary, which trained students from the college’s founding until 1966, was to counter the anti-gay messages he had heard expressed by Christians at Penn. “I happened to be in a meeting one time when they started quoting all the negative verses in the scripture about homosexuals, and that sort of frightened me,” he recalled. “I realized they were using these texts to bash me and other homosexuals, so I decided that when I went to Seminary, I would learn my Bible as well or more than they did so I could use the scripture to confront them.”
Finding only books in the Seminary library that associated homosexuality with “perversion, sin, and sickness,” Wood later decided he would have to write his own. After graduating, and spurred by the anti-gay backlash of the McCarthy era, Rev. Wood lectured at meetings of early homophile groups such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, and in 1960 published the groundbreaking book Christ and the Homosexual. Hailed by the gay press as a “pioneer for gay rights in America,” he is the subject of a forthcoming biography.
It was with Oberlin in mind that Wood created two fictional characters for Christ and the Homosexual, David and Paul, who “had met in college when both were among the great influx of veterans getting an advanced education under the G.I. Bill.” They first ran into each other at the “corner soda shop,” roomed together their senior year, and by graduation were “deeply and passionately in love.” The fictional couple remained together for life in a “homosexual marriage.”
Among gay students on the actual Oberlin campus, “promiscuity was the run of the mill,” Wood remembered. “Although there were some that hung around together,” he recalled. “You’d see them at the hamburger places, there was just one movie house in Oberlin at the time, I might see them there or at the Allen Art Museum or walking on campus.” While “you never quite knew how close or how meaningful the relationship was…there were some who were trying to make a little more lasting friendship or commitment.” His personal preference being monogamy, Wood began a “one-gender marriage” with the American abstract artist Hugh M. Coulter in 1962. They remained a couple until Coulter’s death in 1989.
Soon after enrolling at Oberlin, Wood met a flamboyant piano major named Jack Challener (OC 52) in the magazine section of the Carnegie library. “It wasn’t very difficult to recognize each other, that we were both gay men, without being terribly obvious,” Wood recalled. As an undergraduate at Penn, a gay friend had informed Wood that the Oberlin Conservatory was “full of queers,” and Wood was “finally happy to meet one,” he recalled, “because I figured Jack could introduce me to some of the others on campus.”
Challener didn’t disappoint. He was one of three gay Conservatory students that lived in a large room on the top floor of Burton Hall that appears to have served as a social hub for gay Conservatory students. It was called the “Throne Room,” Wood remembered, “because that’s where the queens hung out.” By the time Wood began frequenting the room, it was a tradition, passed down through successive classes of gay Conservatory students. In contrast to his austere seminary quarters, the Throne Room was “decorated with lovely drapes and flowers on the center table,” Wood remembered. “They were very swishy about it.” They also held frequent parties; at one graduation bash, Wood recalled close to thirty male students “camping and kissing” while saying their goodbyes. (It appears that, due to its unique architecture, Burton’s top floor was a haven for several gay male groups during the postwar years, such as George Brenner’s circle.
The campy Conservatory “fairies” were a contrast to the more subdued gay circle Wood had been a part of at Penn and were often too public for his liking. “When I went to the Throne Room and it was all private I was more at ease,” he recalled, “but if I’d see one on campus or going to the library or something I didn’t always feel I wanted to be seen with them.” Wood remembered them dressed “with long, flying scarves, and the limp wrists and the hollering across the street, ‘Hello deary and honey, and when am I going to see you again?’”
The visibility of the Conservatory “fairies” were not entirely lost on the rest of the dormitory, Al Mather (OC 52) remembered. “On an icy, sleety morning someone posted a large sign over the front door [of Burton Hall] to be seen as you exited which said, ‘Due to inclement weather, all flights to the Con are cancelled today,’” he recalled. “Clearly a slur.” [For sections discussing the role of the Conservatory as a haven and magnet for LGBT people see 1950s: “Conservatory as Haven” and 1960s: “Camp and ‘Drag’ Names in the Conservatory.”]
Wood also recalled that the open effeminacy was “a contrast and helped me to hide a little more myself, simply because I didn’t fit that stereotype.” And despite the secretiveness and fear of reprisal among many students, Wood remembered that camp jokes were discreetly used to support each other and add a “family touch” in a hostile environment. The Conservatory rehearsal building, Browning Hall, might be remarked on to extend the private space of the Throne Room (“browning” being slang for anal sex):
Walking across campus, you’d see a gay fellow you knew…and he might say, “Bob, have you been to Browning lately?” And I would say, “Well, the Seminary students have no reason to go over there.” And he would say, “Oh, you must go over to see what you’re missing!” Just a little camping as we passed each other on campus, with little remarks like that for a moment, letting our hair down, and hoping that nobody else heard what we were saying.