The Kinsey Report, Sexual Identity, and Oberlin Tearooms (late 1940s)

Among other questions from male students during a 1947 Oberlin sex education lecture were a few about homosexuality. One read, “Does the fact that a man appears effeminate have any bearing on his being a homosexualist? If so, what causes it?” Another asked for “estimates on the prevalence of homosexuality.” The definitive, terse answers, ostensibly from the instructor, were “Endocrine imbalance” (irregular secretions of the gonads) and “2%,” respectively.[81]

Historian Allan Bérubé has shown that World War II helped popularize the idea that the “homosexual” was a minority, or a discrete class of person.[82] And the 1947 sex education answers do contrast with Professor Morrison’s early 1930s sex education musings, in which he characterized homosexuality “not [as] an inherent characteristic due to some biological peculiarity,” but “simply an anti-social habit.”[83] But as in the 1930s, the boundaries defining sexual identities were contested, and many models of homosexual identity continued to exist alongside each other after World War II.

For instance, Luke Warmer (pseudonym; OC 53) recalled sexual encounters with two masculine male students—one of them a “wiry” football player and both of them dating women—whom he later characterized as “normal” and “straight.[84] Warmer felt that “a guy can have a guy go down on him and he still remains straight. He’s really attracted to women and he has no trouble with women.” Warmer classified these men as “normal” based on their “insertive,” “male” sexual role and overall masculine gender presentation, not based on the sex of their sexual partner (namely Warmer, a male).[85]

This way of understanding sexual identity was widespread enough that Alfred Kinsey mentioned it in his bestselling 1948 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, better known as the Kinsey Report. He dismissed the tendency of some men to define their sexual identities according to the sexual role they played, and wrote instead that all “physical contacts with males [resulting in orgasm were] by strict definition… homosexual.”[86] Kinsey was advocating a “modern” homosexual identity that privileged the sex of the sexual partner over the gendered sex role that person played. [For more about different “prehomosexual” models of sexual and gender identity as they relate to Oberlin’s LGBT history, see the “Methodology, Identity, and Language” section.]

Warmer’s position that the masculine men with whom he had sex were “normal” is perhaps more tenable if the authoritative campus position was that “homosexualists” constituted a very small number of effeminate men with glandular disorders. But this point of view expressed at the 1947 sex education seminar would also be called into question by the Kinsey Report’s most shocking finding: the higher-than-expected incidence of homosexual behavior among American men. His 1953 study of female sexual behavior reported similar results.

Kinsey’s statistics helped many gay and bisexual Oberlin students counter feelings of isolation and make sense of their same-sex attractions. “Am I or not,” Warmer asked in a diary entry in 1948. “The Kinsey Report says 1/2 of the male population has had homosexual associations. Now certainly God didn’t make a third of the population (male) abnormals, which is what the report found.”[87]

Conservatory student Michael Miller (pseudonym, OC 50) read the Kinsey Report at Oberlin; it was the first he had seen information about homosexuality in print. “I would say that’s among the most positive introductory discussions,” he recalled, “that there were as many homosexuals as there were.” But if Kinsey advocated a “modern” homosexual identity (based on the sex of one’s sexual partner, rather than gender identity or sexual role) he also believed in a spectrum of sexual behavior. The famous “Kinsey Scale” divided this continuum into seven points, “0” being completely heterosexual in behavior and “6” being completely homosexual in behavior. Miller would have fallen somewhere in the middle. He had dated women in high school, and was “madly in love” with a drum majorette, but also “fooled around” with other boys on his neighborhood baseball team and in the Boy Scouts.

Miller continued to have sexual encounters with other male students on campus, but he did not consider his attractions to be a core part of his identity. “There was an element that this was ersatz or you know, eventually I would get serious with a woman and get married,” he recalled. In fact, at the time of Miller’s interview, he and two of the three men he had sex with on campus were married with children. As Miller’s comment suggests, college was a period in which students were still considered to be somewhere in between children and adults and may have not settled on an “adult” sexual identity. They were also perhaps freed from some societal conventions and given more opportunity to “experiment” than they would in later years. College, then, may have been a time when more people were engaging in homosex, yet fewer people adopting gay identities.[88]

There were then many “types” of same-sex sexual and non-normative gender behavior and identities at Oberlin, many different social circles, and many different meeting spaces. If some flamboyant Conservatory “queens” threw parties in the Throne Room and some butch “gay” or “queer” liberal arts majors met at Frederick Artz’s “teas,” those students who did not adopt sexual identities, did not want to socialize with gay people, or simply wanted a quick, sexual “outlet,” may have found a meeting space in campus restrooms.

Doug Cooper (OC 50). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Doug Cooper (OC 50). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

The lavatory on the first floor of the Carnegie Library was “the only sex we’d ever have and it was rare,” Doug Cooper (OC 50) recalled; “getting caught would not have been a cool move.” Cooper himself was reacting against cultural stereotypes that equated homosexuality with effeminacy. During the first week of his freshman orientation, Cooper, a Spanish major, was assigned an effeminate organ major as a roommate. “And damned fool that I was, I asked to be transferred out of there immediately.”

Donald Havas (OC 52). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Donald Havas (OC 52). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Double bass major Donald Havas (OC 52) also visited the men’s restroom in the bottom of Rice Hall, where “there was always some kind of activity going on.” He did not identify as gay at the time, and believed that “certainly not everybody down there looking was gay.” Many of the male students with whom he had encounters at Oberlin have since married and raised families, living a “heterosexual life.” Havas feels that sexual encounters in campus bathrooms were simply an “outlet” for youthful male sexual energy, in lieu of heterosexual activity that was strictly regulated by the administration.

By the sixties or earlier, the idea that men who had sex with other men could consider themselves to be “normal” or “straight”—regardless of what sex role they took or how masculine they were—would become far less tenable, and these students would largely be understood to be “closet queens” unable to accept their gay identities. This was due to shifts in the way people understood sexual identity. While same-sex desire would be closely associated with effeminacy (and vice versa) in later years, the “modern” conception of the homosexual/heterosexual classification scheme would continue to gain popularity after World War II.

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