In attendance: Douglas Brewster ‘77, Karen Dennis ‘78, Raymond Harvey ‘73, Kristan Knapp ‘70, Frankie Mann ‘76, Steven McQuillin ‘75, Tony Stafford ‘76, Lee Stern ‘77, John Wiecking ‘77
Frankie Mann: I was not out at Oberlin, but I thought that I had died and gone to heaven. (Laughter) You know, I’d thought a lot about being gay and I was sort of a theoretical bisexual. (Laughter) “I’m Frankie Mann and I’m a theoretical bisexual.” (Laughter) In other words, I thought about it a lot but had never acted on it, and coming to Oberlin in 1972, it seemed like an actually astonishing place with lots of seemingly out gay men and gay women.
Kristan Knapp: In 1970, the women’s movement happened; I mean, I graduated from Oberlin and went on a Venceremes Brigade to Cuba. And I learned about feminism, I learned about lesbians, and I learned about political organizations. I mean, SDS was here, but there were all kinds of other political groups. I even met Angela Davis’ sister. All this happened the summer after I left Oberlin, and then I was involved in the women’s movement and the lesbian movement in Oregon — all these people moving to the west coast creating an idea of a whole new way to live, a whole new society. It was like everything was opening up in my life, and I’m sure it happened here too, but it was right after I left.
Karen Dennis: I’m from 1978 and I came here in 1975 as a transfer student. I just remember that same kind of ferment that there was. By the time I got here the gay liberation and all the other splinter groups, all the other interest groups, had already merged to form what was called the Gay Union.
Raymond Harvey: But, you see, when I came — and I was here for five years ending in 1973, so I came in the fall of 1968 — the difference in what was happening so quickly year to year from when I arrived and when I left was astounding. I was saying to someone last night that in my freshman year there were no coed dorms. The next year came the beginning of that and the whole idea of there being any sort of a Gay Union. The surface was just being scratched. There was a great amount of fear and trepidation — someone finally had the courage to try to hold a gay dance and was hoping that somebody would show up. The thing about it is, I think, with any sort of movement, that it is the people who are the most out-front, the most flamboyant; they become the visible ones, and thank God they have the courage to get something started. And then, of course, everyone else jumps on the bandwagon and realizes that it is a great idea that they should be for. But there were many just flaming types who decided, “We need to do this here.”
Tony Stafford: […] I’m a typical case; I’d known for a long time, since I was about ten, that I was homosexual. I had no idea of politics; I had no idea of the long-term; I only knew my immediate dilemma, and at Oberlin I found non-judgment, which has set me reeling in my life at present. And yes, we can intellectually turn you on to information, books, etc., but the experience, the real experience of being with people who were open and sharing, set up a certain expectation of life that has proved, especially in these last few years with the AIDS epidemic, very difficult to maintain.
So I must say now looking back at my years at Oberlin and what is happening here, what was happening was very heavy. It was one of the few places where these experiences were happening, so I think we must be very careful about how we say the world is changing very fast. The world is changing very fast in certain places, but in the rest it isn’t, and it seems to me now the people who were just going to be stupid were just becoming more stupid. I left in 1977 to take a year off to go to New York, and when I came back to finish my degree I was shocked at how, in the course of one year, the school had become more conservative and reticent and hesitant towards the support of gays and lesbians. I was quite hurt and quite upset and quite disoriented by the fact that so many things were totally false.
Frankie Mann: At the same time, and with the same class, I feel that so much of the freedom and cushion that I got was thanks to people who were slightly older than me that really shoved that window open. I do think we were honestly a different generation, because of at least four factors, one of which was that there was so much going on, in terms of race stuff going on, feminist stuff going on, there was a war, and the gay movement. There was a hell of a lot going on and it really was a major point in American history. It seems to me, Kristan, that we were offered choices; it was a polarization in a way. It was as if, “You’re for us or you’re against us — either you’re going to stand up and say you’re against the war or you’re not, and if you’re not, we’re going to be opposed to you, and either you’re going to say you’re for gay liberation or you’re not.” It just seems like we were forced, like you were saying, Tony, we had to choose which side we were going to be on, in order to feel like we were making a contribution in some way.
Kristin Knapp: […] There were a lot of women when I was here that thought it was impossible for women, especially lesbian women, to exist in a heterosexual, a bisexual space. Women-only spaces were incredibly important and there were a lot of women who came along and said that they could not share any emotional or psychic energy with men at all, regardless. There were some lesbians here who constructed a very tightly enclosed society for themselves, to the extent that they would not even socialize with those of us women who were not gay, because they felt that our interactions with gay men compromised us.
Tony Stafford: I think that probably every generation of lesbian women and gay men will always face that back-and-forth tension between wanting to be in the world and needing to find a safe place. I think we’re also realizing that we chose to come to this college, and I know we all had our own reasons, but I think there are some common elements on these lists. One of the things that was high on my list is the fact that there were no fraternities or sororities here; it wasn’t that jock atmosphere. It was a nice little-removed ivory tower, wonderful reputation, small, get-away-from-it-all type thing. I think that choosing to come here instead of going to some other college makes what was happening to us somewhat different than what was happening in other universities in the ‘70s. I know, speaking from being a Conservatory student, talk about an ivory tower! You know, there were times when we didn’t realize there was any other part of the campus.
And when I first started living in one of the language dorms — again very small friendships, small space; you could be yourself, you were accepted, and yet you could be completely apolitical, you didn’t have to know anything. I mean, I was notorious in my years here for never reading a newspaper, and I was proud of it. I felt that as a good musician I shouldn’t know what’s going on with Carter. And so you really could be your own person and find your own ways without outside pressures, and I think that for many of us, that ability to do it at our own time and our own pace helped shape the kind of people we became.
Frankie Mann: I was also a Conservatory student. I came to Oberlin — I got full scholarships to all the schools to which I applied excepting Oberlin, and I chose to go to Oberlin (Laughter) — because, first of all, it wasn’t just a music school where people were totally removed from the world and nailed to a piano since they were six. I came here because I had some very strong political needs, and I was very much against the war. I was also very interested in gay life. Actually I wasn’t a feminist until my freshman year at Oberlin, and it was the Oberlin Conservatory that turned me into a feminist. I grew up living with Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett coming over to a neighbor’s house and visiting. And I thought they were astonishing women, but that stuff didn’t totally resonate with me, though I thought they were great. I came to Oberlin, experienced the sexism among those white straight men professors in the Conservatory, and I turned into a feminist during orientation. My direct professional experience here politicized me. I am very thankful for that horrible experience; it helped shape who I am today.