Gay Man: The other kind of gay society that I remember well was associated with the gay waiters. There was a large catering service here that catered everything from large parties to trustee lunches and dinners. They seemed to have all these gay men who worked at those catered parties, and they were always really great fun. There were always these great parties afterwards, orgies once in a while; those were really great fun. It was really pretty intense here for a while.
Gareth Fenley: Did we go to the same college?
Gay Man: I think so; I kind of recognize it. It looks familiar.
Elizabeth Wright: Lesbian life was a much more small group, a very intense experience, two- or three-people relationships. We had endless meetings with lots of talk, lots of processing, so everybody could speak, and we could arrive at a consensus. It was a very different kind of life. When you mentioned Wilder, I suddenly had this memory. Wilder used to have study rooms on upper floors that you could sign out for the evening to study. They locked, and for those of us with roommates who were not our lovers, the study rooms were just wonderful. We used to sign out a study room and just spend the entire evening there. Eventually the guy at the main desk would come around and knock on all the doors. Of course, it’s late at night; the lights are off; people would come out of the rooms sort of blinking in the light. My RC at the time was the guy at the desk, so I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable upon being ousted out of the study rooms.
Julie Kaufman: We got a lot of good work done.
Gareth Fenley: Although [Gay Man] and I were here at the same time, the Oberlin I remember was more like Beth and Julie’s Oberlin. I got here in 1979 and one of the very first things that happened after I arrived on campus was the march on Washington in the fall of 1979. Oberlin had at least one busload go to the march. I had come to Oberlin knowing that I was an emerging lesbian; I thought I was a lesbian, but I really did not know for sure. I noticed that the Gay Union was listed in the Viewbook; I think they had a list of student organizations. I came here expecting to come out, as I did, but the march on Washington was a little too soon. I have always regretted I didn’t get on that bus because within about two weeks after the march I was out enough to go.
The way I ended up coming out at Oberlin was kind of weird and personal. I had this medical emergency where I ended up getting put in Allen Memorial Hospital. My roommate read my diary, thinking that by doing so she could get some insight into why I had this medical problem. She read my diary, which I don’t think anyone else has in my life. She read all of my personal journal, where I cried, ‘I’m a lesbian, I’m a lesbian.’ After I got out of the hospital, my roommate came out to me that she herself was bisexual; she wanted to let me know that it was fine for me to be a lesbian. Shortly thereafter, after sort of being outed, I went down to the Gay Union and I joined, and I was very involved with the Gay Union. I remember things like the film series; I remember you, Carl; you must have been the chairperson.
I know that some people perceived the Union as basically a male thing, but that seemed to change from year to year. There was this constant thing; is the Union dominated by lesbians or by gay men? We were always seeking gender balance, and it seemed like some years it was more one, some more the other, and it was always something we were working on…
Elizabeth Wright: The more things change, the more things stay the same.
Gareth Fenley: […] LIPS was a cool group and I had totally forgotten about it. I think that it stopped existing during the time I was at Oberlin. The very first time I ever went to a meeting — I was in a room with other women who called themselves lesbians — it was a meeting of LIPS. God only knows where I got the courage to go into this meeting because I went alone.
Number one, what was neat about it was, it was town and college. The meetings were often held at people’s houses in town. Number two, what was neat about it was, it was not this heavy political discussion and consensus stuff, but it was just more socializing, and people talking about who they were attracted to. It was just gossiping about each other and which professors were gay. It was really a nice time and very low-key, and I really appreciated the sense that there were people who were older than I who were happy to be lesbians and who had some success being out and all.
The first time I ever heard women’s music was at a party that was held by LIPS, and it was a potluck. I didn’t feel that LIPS was something that I could get as personally involved with as the Gay Union because with the Gay Union I could very obviously become a part. I could check out that key and I could sit in the room with the door open. With LIPS it was kind of this little social group of people who all knew each other. Even though they were nice to me, I didn’t know how I could become really an important part of the group. I think that maybe it kind of fell apart because there was no way for new people to get involved to sustain it and when the town people got tired of doing it, it just stopped right there.
Gay Man: We talk a lot about faculty, and I am aware of the need to be cautious since we’re on tape. Many of these faculty are here and still working, but did you network with gay and lesbian faculty at all that you are aware of? Did they kind of reach out to you? Did you reach out to them?
Gareth Fenley: Not at all. At that time the advisor of the Gay Union was John Thompson, and there was never any real clear message about what his sexuality was. I never knew for sure. What I was told was that he was in Psychological Services and he said he would sponsor the Union because nobody else would. I know that he never came to any of our meetings. We never had any contact with him; he must have signed some forms like once a year, but he was certainly no kind of presence. There were not any out gay faculty that I was aware of. But there was a lot of gossip about who was gay.
Gay Man: Well, I had lots of contact with gay faculty.
Gareth Fenley: Really? I didn’t, and believe me, I was searching for them, for a variety of reasons.
Gay Man: I think I met most of them through my job as a waiter. I would meet lots of staff and faculty people, and I met lots of gay faculty and staff and it was really nice. For a student to be invited to somebody’s home for dinner or something is really a great treat. I would get to meet people who were older and were gay and had some experience in the world and could actually drive to Cleveland for dinner. Some of them were actually kind of nice evenings with gay faculty and staff. That was one plus of my whole experience here, to gain some of those long-term friendships.