Fall 2007, Essay by Harmony Pringle ’11
The Thing to Remember
“If you really want to help develop a less hung up, fear-ridden sexual scene here at Oberlin, you could come to the dance sponsored by Gay Lib this Saturday in Rec Hall (Wilder). The dance isn’t just for gay people—it is for everyone who realizes that there is nothing wrong with being attracted to people of your own sex.”
Oct. 8, 1971, Oberlin Review
Joni Mitchell’s nubile voice leaps from the speakers and bounces around the low ceiling of the Wilder Rec Room. The pulsating sea of blue jeans suddenly pairs off. Guys reach for girls, a few guys reach for other guys, and a handful of girls snake their arms around other girls. The incredibly nerdy guy behind the bar keeps the beer flowing as he sways awkwardly to the music. The overhead lights fade. A few bubbling lava lamps and the many strands of colorfully-lit glass beads highlight happy faces. In the dim light, no one notices the extraordinary back hair of the one person actually wearing a dress.
In the corner, a young man from the town stumbles into a couple. Their words are indistinguishable over the music, but they seem to apologize and move away. Suddenly, the young man is back. This time he rams the couple on purpose. His mouth twists into livid shapes, the anger carrying though the sound doesn’t. Again, the couple tries to move away, but the young man swings, his flailing arms connecting briefly with flesh. The male student falls to the ground. A crowd of townies swoops in on the fallen student, blocking him from view.
“Oh my god,” I thought, as I read the online article describing Oberlin’s first gay liberation-sponsored dance. The last fight I had seen had taken place between two butch middle-schoolers, darting around like chickens in a ring of excited students. As lame as it seemed now, I was terrified at the time; I could therefore only conjure a horrified squint at a fight on this scale. I had been googling lazily for a topic for my journalism paper on Oberlin history, perusing and rejecting more heartwarming tales of nineteenth century heroism. But an enormous fight at the first ever Gay dance at Oberlin, right in the heat of the sexual revolution – this intrigued me. And hey, everyone likes fights, right? It was a safe enough reason to care.
After getting my topic approved and compiling a list of possible sources, I plopped down in the smelly dorm lounge to place my first call. My cell phone fluoresced the number of George Langeler, Dean of Students at Oberlin in 1971. He picked up halfway through my cheery answering machine message to tell me that he was in the middle of dinner with friends and to call back around eight. Embarassed, I finally bullied myself into calling again (around 8:30) and was surprised to hear that Mr. Langeler remembered almost nothing of Oberlin’s first Gay Liberation Dance. He recounted that he had been a little concerned that town kids would try to crash it, as they often did the snack bar, but that he had made sure security was on call. I chuckled. (Actually I made this weird sneezing sort of snort – I was too nervous to laugh normally.) “Good thing.”
“Why?” he asked, “did something happen?”
I remember blinking, “um – yeah. There was a big fight, actually.” I knew thirty-six years had passed since the dance, but surely he would remember such a large incident. I filled him in on the details, but he still had no recollection of what the Oberlin Review had called “a full-fledged ruckus.” As I was about to hang up, he sprung the one question I had been dreading. He could have asked anything – my current GPA, my parents’ yearly income, exactly how few times I had showered in the past week– and I would have felt more comfortable. Instead, he asked a much riskier question, “So what interests you about this dance?” I scrambled, “Uh … there’s this great website, uh … yeah, I’m just curious to find, you know, the truth.”
Frustrated, I consulted the list of contacts I had compiled out of the few charitable souls who had replied to my sugary, email request for help. Slightly less intimidated by her local area code, I dialed Ann Fuller. Ann had been married to the President of Oberlin College in 1971 and had attended the second Gay Liberation dance with her husband as an act of solidarity (“showing the flag,” as he called it). She barely remembered the dances, let alone the fight. “At the time, my mind was on other issues such as the women’s movement, with little awareness of the sexual orientation aspect. The focus was on increasing professional opportunities for women at Oberlin.” I think George Langeler’s forgetfulness originated in a similar place. He referred to the early seventies as the years of “Identity Group Development” and Oberlin Gay Liberation was just one more group. Uninvolved, they couldn’t know how much it meant to identify with “just one more group.” A little disaffected, I gave up for the night.
As the deadline for the paper crept closer, I picked the phone up again. Ex- Oberlin President Bob Fuller did remember the dances, but hinted that the magnitude of this “fight” might have been exaggerated. He assured me that had it been serious, he would have heard about it, and there “wasn’t any wind of it the next day.”
Now I was confused. The Review had reported an almost wild-west type brawl, large enough to cause Campus Security to close down Wilder, and yet none of the administration seemed to have been informed. I had read that Pat Clawson, OC ’73 and now the Deputy Director of Research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, had been a founding member of Oberlin Gay Liberation. I dialed his number and prayed that, although he described himself in his email as “the business end” of the dances, he would have attended.
“Pat Clawson,” answered a deep voice on the other end of the line. I immediately launched into my well-rehearsed spiel about who I was and why I was calling, only to realize that my cell phone had disconnected. I scrambled around the room looking for a signal, finally grabbing my laptop and notebook and stumbling down to the lounge. I called again.
“So,” I asked, “were you actually at the first Gay Lib dance?” I held my breath.
“Yes,” he answered. Excitement.
“And was there a fight?” He proceeded to describe a large but “contained” conflict that never escalated into an “all out brawl.” And according to Pat, the fight had nothing to do with homophobia. “Ninety percent of the people there were straight,” he reiterated. He thought the fight, which began between an African-American townie and a straight, white college guy had more to do with race than sexuality. The scuffle grew to involve “a few dozen people” but Pat just told the organizers to keep selling beer. In fact, Gay Lib got into more trouble with the administration for selling beer to minors than for the fight.
My cell hung up on him at least once more during our conversation, but the message was clear. People didn’t remember this dance for the fight. In fact, they barely remembered it at all. Pat said that starting Oberlin Gay Liberation was like “pushing open a door.” It was “a very easy thing to do, but a very useful thing to do.” The transition to greater openness in the Queer community was more evolutionary than revolutionary and everyone I’ve talked to suggests that the dances eased this process. According to Pat, the gay community held such successful dances because few other organizations hosted social events. “I remember when the librarian decided to close the library on Saturday nights – all the students had a fit. I’m not making this up!” College students were bored and the gay kids threw great parties, so everything was cool, man.
When Bob Fuller turned around and began interviewing me, “Why are you so interested in this dance?” I mumbled something about finding this great website and being fascinated by the history, etc. – the same excuse I had given my journalism class and George Langeler. What I didn’t tell him was that, although I didn’t know it at the time, I came to Oberlin in large part because of this dance, or at least because of Gay Lib. I remember reading in the Princeton Review of Colleges that “Oberlin is a great school for queers” and quietly dog-earing the page. (I wasn’t “out” in high school.) I was surprised to find that, before 1971, Oberlin was not such a queer-magnet. Ann Matter, a lesbian and religion major from the class of ’71, responded to my question about gay college activities with “Gay people in the College? Were there gay people in the College?” Of course there were, but the dances later that year made them visible. The dances, however subtle, were a quiet step out.
I took a similar step when I submitted this paper for peer editing in my journalism class. I had to close my eyes as I uploaded it, and sat tensely as I awaited my classmates’ comments. A warm hush crept round the room before EJ said, “Harmony, what I really like about this essay is that it’s as much your story as theirs.” The others nodded, smiling supportively. I finally let out my breath. I would never have dared to share this truth in my rural, North Carolina high school; but here in Oberlin, I had found a safe space. It was the same space that Pat Clawson had found, or maybe formed, with Gay Lib and the dances over thirty years ago. As Bob Fuller said, “the main thing to remember is that the dance happened and that they happened again.” In a way, they are still happening. I hold my own, personal “dances” each day at Oberlin, as I step closer to who I really am.
(Details of the atmosphere in the first paragraph come from an email from Bill Pfeiffer in which he describes the gay lib dances he remembers. Description of the people comes from a conversation I had with Patrick Clawson, another eyewitness. Details of the fight in the second paragraph from the article “Violent fight forces dance, rat to close” and from eyewitness Patrick Clawson.)
Clawson, Patrick. Telephone Interview. 17 November 2007.
Clawson, Patrick. “The False Fear of Homosexuality.” 8 Oct 1971. Oberlin Review. 16 November 2007. [http://www.oberlinlgbt.org/historical-documents/false-fear/]
Fuller, Ann. Telephone Interview. 13 November 2007.
Fuller, Robert. Telephone Interview. 16 November 2007.
Goldstein, Steven. “Violent Fight Forces Dance, Rat to Close.” 12 Oct 1971. Oberlin Review. 14 November 2007. [http://www.oberlinlgbt.org/historical-documents/fight/]
Langeler, George. Telephone Interview. 13 November 2007.
Matter, Ann. Email Interview. 11 November 2007.
Pfeiffer, Bill. Email Interview. 15 November 2007.
Plaster, Joey. “Oberlin College LBGT Community History Project.” 20 November 2007. [http://www.oberlinlgbt.org/behind-the-masks/earlymid-1970s/1970s-1/]
A HUGE thanks to Joey Plaster for his absolutely amazing website, the Oberlin College LBGT Community History Project, and for his help in revising this essay.