Carl Ratner: […] Shortly after the 1979 march Joyce Hunter and Steve, whose name I forget, approached us at Oberlin and said, ‘We would like to have a conference at Oberlin to discuss and to create a national organization connecting all the grassroots organizations that sprung up to get people to the march.’ I’m from Memphis and I had heard that the first organization there had appeared in order to send people to the march, and we had the conference in the spring of 1980.
Gareth Fenley: Why did they approach Oberlin?
Carl Ratner: I think for a variety of reasons. One is Oberlin’s history of being more tolerant, and also because of its central location in the country. They wanted someplace in the heartland, and where better than Oberlin? They didn’t want it to be an East Coast thing. That way people would feel comfortable coming from all over. As it turns out, there were these ferocious debates as you said, especially about the man-boy-love delegates. I remember saying, ‘Gosh, I was having sex when I was fifteen,’ and I had very mixed feelings about that whole debate.
I should mention that during my time here Oberlin was very much involved in the creation of the Ohio Gay Rights Coalition, which involved people from all over the state. It was basically people in Columbus who wanted to start the organization in order to get some grass-roots emotional and financial support for their lobbying efforts and again enlist Oberlin to sort of help put that together. Originally it was called the Ohio Gay Rights Effort, OGRE, but then it was felt that that was too confrontational, so we changed the name.
Gay Man: Your thing about the drag just reminded me about a pageant that we did for the last two years I was here in 1981 or 1982. Yeah, we did a Miss America thing. I don’t remember the first year, but my senior year we decided to make it a theme. All of us had to come in different kinds of nun’s drag, but you couldn’t just go out and buy a nun’s thing. You actually had to have something made or you had to be creative. I remember somebody came in a Carmelite nun’s evening gown. It was a flowing red silk, long habit with clogs. It was just wild, and we did this Miss America thing where we set up a little stage; we would all prance around in the nun’s drag. It was just a wild night there and we would drink lots and lots of champagne. I forget what happened after that; it was a blast. We did it two years in a row; it was great.
Ellen Orleans: From what you were saying, it seems like it wasn’t a very politicized group.
Carl Ratner: Not at all, it was just a group of gay men that had lots of fun. This was before AIDS.
Gay Man: That’s right; we were the last generation before AIDS. That’s right; the next year it was out in the news. It seems AIDS really politicized gay men. I’d be interested to know whether it politicized them here at Oberlin. I’m not sure what happened after that. I do remember three or four kind of bad experiences of being gay here and I haven’t thought of these in a long time because I always thought my Oberlin experiences were really perfect. I remember one was with you, Carl. We were at a gay dance that was at Barnard or French house and we were walking back towards south campus. I remember we had some guys from Zeke throw stones at us and we had to run. Do you remember that?
Carl Ratner: As you say it, it comes back as a very vague memory. It was the only time it happened to me. I remember that the athletes from Zeke were actually throwing rocks at us because they saw us at a gay dance. We had to kind of hurry on, and that felt kind of scary to us.
Gay Man: The other two things that happened were; I remember that it was really okay to be gay here or lesbian, as long as you were also kind of politically left. Those two things were kind of hand in hand. I remember getting in two kinds of horrendous fights with people because I was a Republican here and fairly conservative. I remember one of them. I slept with a man who found out that I was a Republican, and would never even talk to me again. We had been very intimate the night before, and the next day he wouldn’t even talk to me. For the next two years this happened when we were on campus together. I felt that was really kind of wrong and strange. The other, this was in 1980 and Reagan was running for President.
Gareth Fenley: I wanted to say something about AIDS, which we just mentioned. I actually made the very first presentation at Oberlin about AIDS to my knowledge. I spent winter term of 1983 at the Center for Disease Control as an intern. My internship really had nothing to do with AIDS, but the fact that I was in CDC, I ended up hearing or reading something about this new disease, a disease that had been newly identified as this new syndrome. When I returned to campus in the spring of 1983, there were some people who were talking about AIDS, and they wanted some information. We had some kind of a gay pride week. I was a member of the Gay Union at the time, saying we really should have something about AIDS. I said I could do it because I had some of the information, so I volunteered to present this session. It was advertised that we would have information about AIDS and it was held here in Wilder.
There was one of the men from the Gay Union who helped me plan this. There was one other man who came to the meeting. I remember at that time that the kind of information that I had to present was a lot of real technical language about T-cells. At that time they had not identified HIV, of course, so T-cells and syndromes and a lot of it is really medical gobbledygook. I remember that the man who came, the one that I did not know beforehand, wanted to know how do you get it and how do you keep from getting it. At that time I had no idea, and so I had no practical information at all to tell about AIDS. So I said, ‘Well, it seems like the best way to not get it is to not live in New York and San Francisco.’ I said, ‘It seems that if you have sex with a lot of men you are more likely to get it, and if you have sex with men from those cities you are more likely to get it.’ I assume I said something like that, but I remember I was really fumbling. We didn’t know anything about safe sex. We didn’t know anything about how it was transmitted or how it was caused.
Ellen Orleans: I wasn’t out while I was at Oberlin, but I was somewhat aware of the lesbian scene. With those pre-stages before you are out, you are into major denial. I think I distanced myself a lot. I always associated lesbianism with feminism and a lot of politics, and what they called progressive and liberal ideas. I think that is because feminism was, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a natural woman’s-face then turning to a lesbian’s-face kind of thing. I guess Mallory closed because it seemed somewhat to do with the whole idea of lesbian and gay men merging, which is sort of similar to the bisexual movement, which is politicized. It’s very interesting how Oberlin is reflecting what is going on in other parts of the country.