Elizabeth Wright: We both had roommates that we were very close to, and the four of us were very close, particularly in our junior and senior years.
Julie Kaufman: In fact, when talking about the eating at South Hall, it wasn’t as wild a style as described last night with the gay men. We had our own little group that used to congregate every evening, and we also used to bring fancy things every now and then.
Gay Man: I remember a few things that your memories have sparked. I remember my first visit to the Gay Union; I was kind of scared. I knew that I wanted to come to this place. I’ll tell the story I told last night. I came here to visit Oberlin as a prospective student, and the first thing I did was visit the Con lounge. There was a very large overweight Black man wearing a dress and a bright bandanna dancing to some disco tapes in the Con lounge. That was really an incredible sight for me. He was singing and dancing and just having a good time. I thought, ‘This is just a festive, fun-looking place.’ That kind of sealed it for me that I was coming to Oberlin. I lived in South Hall, which in the Con is known as the gay dorm. In the dorm the first floor was all men and it was probably about eighty percent gay men; it was really rather nice. It used to be really kind of campy and fun there.
I remember my first visit to the Gay Union rather vividly because South Hall tended not to be very political at all. It was a Conservatory gay-men crowd and tended not to think much about politics. We would have lots of fun, but politics was never something that was terribly important. We all were just kind of gay and just kind of comfortable with each other. We had family issues back and forth, but everybody just seemed to focus on having a lot of fun and dancing and sex and all those good things, and so people were just totally easier. I remember thinking I would go and see what the Gay Union was all about. I remember walking up to Wilder and walking around the room about eighteen times on that little circular thing (hallway). I was really scared to death thinking, ‘What if somebody sees me walking by the door?’ and ‘What are people going to think?’ I also was thinking about how difficult it was actually to put the label `gay’ on one’s sex, even in such a supportive environment as this. It was kind of easy to be gay, but it was hard to call yourself that.
The Gay Union was okay, and I remember going to rap groups which were especially helpful. There was a real crush here to come out. At least among the gay men community, it was really important that you came out to your parents for some reason, so everybody in your peer group would urge you to tell your parents. It was just something really important to do, and it seems if you hadn’t come out yet by the time of your spring break or your fall break, they would pressure you to do so. This was the time you had to do it, and everyone was very supportive, and they were calling you at home with, ‘Did you tell your parents yet?’ and all this stuff. And there was a really intense pressure to come out to your parents for some reason every time a break was coming up. They would say, ‘Are you going to do it now? Let’s go; let’s get with the program here.’
Carl was talking about the gay dances, but a really important part of gay social life here was the disco in the basement of Wilder Hall. It was really crucial, and what I remember most about it was that there tended to be virtually no straight people there; you were either a gay man or a Black, and they really divided it right down the middle of the disco. The side towards the DJ was almost all Black, and the other side near the bar was almost all gay. That was the way it ended up. Virtually every Saturday night it was a very big social event in the gay community in the disco. There was a gay bar in Cleveland, but nobody went to Cleveland. You didn’t need to; we had our little party right here in Oberlin. There was a whole kind of ritual about it; you stood by which post according to what kind of things you were into for the night. If it were sexual acts then you could kind of choose among people depending on where they were standing in the place.
Gay Man: By 1981 or 1982 it was basically a gay bar every Saturday night; there was nothing else that went on. Straight young twenty-year-old men were just scared to death to walk in there, and if they did they would quickly realize what was going on. You would see them hightail it out of there very quickly. That was also a place where people who were questioning could come safely because they knew it was all gay. They could pretend to walk in there by accident and hang around for a little bit, so it was a kind of real popular place to meet and congregate.
I remember a lot about the Conservatory because that was a real focus for a lot of gay and lesbian activity. What I remember most vividly and most interestingly was how people used to just cruise for sex in the Conservatory. If you were looking to have sex, the Conservatory had all those little windows, and about ten or ten-thirty or so it kind of turned into the witching hour. Almost every night you could kind of walk around and you could look at people and knock on doors. Lots of people were picked up by cruising the Con lounge around ten o’clock and cruising the practice rooms. It was pretty wild; it was really something else.
Gareth Fenley: All the women are looking at each other with funny looks.
Elizabeth Wright: You guys, you guys, that is pretty different.
Gareth Fenley: Tell us about the drag scene.
Gay Man: Oh, well, the drag scene here was more campy than it was really drag. Everybody had a drag name, but very few people got in drag to go anywhere. One of the fun parts of life here was that there must have been thirty or forty men who were into the drag scene — thirty or forty men, of which I was one, who had a kind of dragging camp society basically where everybody had a separate drag name and records were kept.
Carl Ratner: Now this was a secret, wasn’t it?
Gay Man: Oh, no, we would call each other by this in class, in the dining halls — I mean everybody — and I don’t think anyone used my male name here except my professors for probably three out of four years. Everybody called each other by these names.
Carl Ratner: When you were talking about this last night I said to myself, ‘This sounds almost like a secret society.’
Gay Man: Well, it was, and I thought a lot about why we did that. You know, we were just so outrageous. You would see twenty men walking along, clogging along; we tended to wear clogs. You see twenty men walking from South Hall to get their mail; just this big group screaming and camping it up and calling each other by their drag names and embarrassing everybody they could on their way over here. This happened on a daily basis. I think a lot of it was really self-protection; it was about pushing your limits as gay people. It was a newly emerging gay awareness that was happening in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It started to be a political movement; then it was about how far we could push it before we would get pushed down; how far could you go?
Carl Ratner: I have to say I don’t think it really started that way because, as you said last night, I think Bruce Brown ‘73 was really the motivating force behind the whole thing. When I first got here and was involved in the Gay Union, there was a very small number of people in the Gay Union. I think things really changed over the five years I was here. There were other people, especially in the Conservatory, who were sleeping with each other, but were not willing to be identified as gay people. There were a lot of other people in the Conservatory who were homosexually oriented, but who were not sleeping with anyone. They were not willing to go near homosexually identified people. And when Bruce started giving everyone names and slapping name-tags on people, ‘Hello, my name is Frieda,’ it was definitely a political act on the part of Bruce, a political and social act. It wasn’t necessarily, ‘I embrace you as a sister’ so much as, ‘Come out. There is no point in trying to pull the wool over your eyes or mine, Mary. Give it up.’