Frank Burton, Fear of Reprisal, and Gossip Networks

As a serviceperson during the war, Frank Burton (pseudonym; OC 49) felt that he and other gay and bisexual men “were able to not only lead a double live, but so freely, that people looking right at us never saw it.” He remembered, for instance, a “very masculine” serviceman easily picking him up in a pub, all the time surrounded by ostensibly heterosexual bar patrons. Burton contrasted this “freedom” with the post-war McCarthy era, at Oberlin and other parts of the country, in which LGBT people were increasingly “unmasked” and punished. But while it may have been easier to maintain a “double life” during wartime, exposure was still disastrous. Burton recalled that one Army friend “ended up in the stockades” after he was reported as gay.

At Oberlin, where he returned from service in 1946, Burton was part of a loosely organized cluster of friends whose primarily shared interest was sex with men, in contrast to Wood’s and Brenner’s groups that also organized around a shared sense of identity and culture. The latter groups “probably evolved out of the actual studies,” Burton said, “and I wasn’t a good student back in those days.” Instead, Burton “used to go out and get drunk all the time, and carried on with a wild crowd.” He felt that the tension of leading a “double life” led him to drink, but this did not mean that he internalized negative social views about homosexuality. “It was just natural for me,” Burton recalled. “I just felt like, I wish I had more freedom.”

Burton was not alone. Even as many gay students and faculty developed rich gay circles and networks on campus, most were secretive and cautious in public, and developed heterosexual personas to “mask” their gay lives. At Oberlin, “you just had to play a role; that was all there was to it,” Burton recalled. “And you were always in danger…of placing yourself in some sort of social jeopardy.” The consequences were very real. In 1939, Ohio had become one of the first states to enact what became known as a “psychopathic offender” law, which made it legal to subject people convicted of criminal activities such as sodomy to possible institutionalization and “cure.” Lobotomies were not unheard of, and as late as 1971, claims were made that many of the sex criminals sent to the Northwest Ohio’s Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane were kept there well beyond the time they should have been and frequently abused.[76]

Burton also knew of a student who was expelled from Oberlin after being reported as a “queer”—a fate that befell growing numbers of gay and lesbian students at American institutions in the two decades after World War II. His closest gay and bisexual friends “thought it was a travesty,” and were frightened, he remembered, yet “they were scared all the time anyway. You were scared to death that you’d get on the wrong side of the authorities.”

In order to protect each other and make sense of campus events, gay and bisexual students exchanged information by word of mouth. In other words, they gossiped, an invaluable mode of communication during a time in which no printed information about LGBT campus life was avaialable. Brenner recalled speculating with his friends about a faculty member who “ran through the woods and killed himself,” for instance. They concluded he was homosexual; “Why else would you do that?” Gay and bisexual students also shared information about faculty and administrators who were perceived as threats. When Burton spotted a faculty member identified by students as hostile to homosexuals at the notoriously cruisy Everard Turkish Baths in New York City, he also “passed that all around” at Oberlin. “And then the consensus of opinion [was that] he was trying to protect himself by pointing fingers at everybody else,” Burton recalled.

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