I was a transfer student and I had to go a week early for orientation. I literally went every single day and pounded on the door of the Gay Union, and nobody was ever there. Then I went up another flight to the women’s collective room. They finally turned up, but for the whole week of orientation, no one was in the Gay Union. So I finally resorted to slipping messages under the door saying, “Where are you people?” But just after orientation, they started moving in, and it was a fabulous experience to walk in here and be safe, be home, see all these wildly flamboyant men from the Conservatory and these gorgeous women. And I said to myself, “Yeah, this is it.” How much fun these people were having, too!
Raymond Harvey: I have to talk about the gay dances. I still remember one of the first ones that was held, and it was here in Wilder. I mean, there was just such fear and trepidation about, “Is anyone going to go to this thing except for a few organ majors from the Con?” And they decorated the place with streamers and what not, and the crowd started pouring in. And it was like there were these sighs of relief when people finally realized this was going to be fun, that this was not going to be some kind of political battle. But in the middle of the dance after things had gotten started and people were having fun, there was another very tense moment when they played the first slow dance — separating the men from the boys.
I want to go back and tell a little story. I’m sure we all have stories to tell, and I think you can learn a lot about feelings through little vignettes, episodes. I want to talk about freshman year. For me, that would be 1968-1969 — at the orientation, thinking how bizarre it was. I admit I didn’t think it was bizarre at the time, but looking back on it I say, “My God, how could I do that?” I was in Burton Hall. All freshman boys were in either Burton or Noah, or maybe some other place, unless you were on a jock scholarship or something like that. I remember one of the first activities we had to do was they got all the freshman boys out of the dorm and got us over to Wilder Bowl and had this kind of pep meeting teaching us school songs. We were taught the `O-Hi-O’ song, and at the end of this session they wanted us all — Oh, I don’t know how many hundreds of boys — to go to the girls’ dorms and serenade them under their windows.
Kristan Knapp: This sounds very familiar to me. Now listen, this story is worse. Two years earlier — 1966 was when I came — the boys did that. Now, I think this was in the first freshman orientation, but it wasn’t that they came over and serenaded us. They came over, and this was like gross. They came over and brought all these posters, something they had gotten from the grocery store, advertizing chicken parts; you know, thighs, and legs. I’m not kidding you! They plastered Dascomb dorm with them. It was closer to the idea of a panty raid, but it was pretty terrifying. I said, “Oh, my God, even at Oberlin they are going to be gross like this?”
Raymond Harvey: There was one other incident I remember from the freshmen year. One of the first activities for both the freshman boys and freshman girls was a performance at Hall Auditorium. As freshman they wanted to make sure you had a date for this performance, and the way they did it — and this will really gross you out — was that, as you walked to Hall and went in the door, girls on one side, boys on the other side, whoever you teamed up with was your date.
Tony Stafford: One of my experiences freshman year concerned the pressure, the power of pressure; I didn’t understand what was going on at all. Now, I didn’t understand how to be a Black male relative to the administration — I didn’t know what was going on financially. So I arrived here in spite of myself and enjoying myself, beginning to feel freedom. I remember, there was this boy I had met in the spring, this boy I just admired from a distance. Finally we had lunch together and we were beginning to open up and we were just talking, and there was a voice that said, “Excuse.” And I turned around and saw there were seven Black women. And they proceeded to say, “What the hell are you doing? What the hell are you doing?” all to me. It was the most terrifying experience in my life. I mean, who were these women? What were they? It was like if you were a Black male, you should be at Afro House; why are you sitting here with a white man? Suddenly I was thrown into the middle of it, thinking this was nothing too bad. “What are you doing?” There was all of this pressure from the Black community, but at the same time in Afro House there was no place for gays; there was no gay voice.
And with that, I was sent home to my parents after my freshman year to find that my cousin, who happened to be an upperclassman at the college, had said, “You need to speak to your son about the choices he is making.” My parents who knew nothing about the college, knew nothing about my sexuality, knew nothing about the race issues that won’t be discussed here, said, “Stop whatever you’re doing and do whatever the other boys are doing.” It was at that point I realized you are truly on your own, truly on your own. When I came back, I decided that I knew I was gay, and I was going to flaunt it in the face of every minority that I could find in the school. I also feel that I didn’t understand the Black women, how they could do this to me. There are many sides to Oberlin. There are many battles fought between individuals. The games that were played, the cock teasing, the baiting that went on for people to find themselves was very tense here — was very real. I developed certain confidences about sexuality; that sexuality is not free of guilt, not free of manipulation. Human sexuality is about the working of the psyche. So the decision to become more and more outwardly gay was not just political. I really felt that there were no other choices left; this is what I have and this is where it stands.
Karen Dennis: I would like to follow up on that if I may. I think it was the last year that I was here, 1975-1976, the Allen Bakke case was before the Supreme Court. He claimed that because of affirmative action guidelines at UC Davis he had been unfairly robbed of a place in the UC Davis medical school. There was a very active anti-Bakke organization on campus of which the Gay Union was a member, and I was a delegate from the Gay Union to that organization. I discovered something very important in the course of being involved in that, which was that we were aware of the fact that for a lot of Black students here at Oberlin, the Gay Union was an alien place and not a safe place. There were a handful of Black men — no Black women — who were involved in Gay Union activities. Of course, a lot of Conservatory students would come to the dances and stuff like that, but there was very little feeling of personal relationships developing, and that had a lot to do with what we had gone through politically in the world, the politics of separatism and nationalism and all that. It was a kind of uneasy truce. Working in the anti-Bakke coalition, being sort of thrown right up into the face of people, we had to learn to talk to each other — people who had not talked to each other all their lives.
I really trembled the day I had to go into the organizational meeting and lay down the line about some homophobic remarks that had been overheard, because I was afraid to say to the Black people in that group, “You cannot talk to us that way; you cannot make jokes about lesbians, and if you do not know from your own experience why you cannot do that, something is wrong.” But I was afraid to have the chutzpa to come up in the face of a Black person and say, “You cannot say that.” They were afraid to come back to me and say the same thing. I thought because we all had the same fears that this was going to become hostile and horrible, instead of which it was a very liberating experience.
Very soon after that happened, the Gay Union brought a film to campus about a man who was the first openly gay minister ordained by the United Congregational Church. For the first time a substantial number of people from Afro House came to a gay-sponsored event. Now, they were not entirely accepting of what happened in the film, but they were brave enough to say, “What concerns me about this is that I’m worried that my kids will be influenced to choose a lifestyle that I don’t think will make them happy.” Before the anti-Bakke coalition, they would not have come to us and said that and said it honestly. Some dialogue happened. It was just ending something. It was like the tension was ending and the breakthroughs of communication between lesbian women and gay men here, and lesbian women and straight women, and gay men and straight men were beginning. Also, the tensions and the breakthroughs in communication between white and Black.