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Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Andy Cemelli: How did you experience racism or differences to the extent you were lesbian or Asian?

Anne Beth Mitrakul: I didn’t think about it. Rachel and I were so focused on each other and very unaware of what was going on outside and not aware that people really knew until we told them.

Andy Cemelli: You’re just such a beautiful couple, though. I just saw you guys outside and it was so wonderful.

Anne Beth Mitrakul: We had this big thing in the middle of our sophomore year when we decided to officially tell our house director and she was like, “Yeah, uh huh, what about it?”

Beth DeSombre: The campus visiting thing was actually pretty constructive before I got here, because when I visited I stayed with a dorm host and she was Asian. She was in the Asian American Alliance and was majoring in East Asian Studies. Somebody else in my class, who was a man, visited and was hosted by a gay man. His parents said to my parents, “This is ridiculous! Can you believe he went to Oberlin and was put in a room with a gay man?” My parents passed this on to me; I wasn’t out to them at this point. I didn’t come out to them until I wasn’t financially dependent upon them anymore. It started me educating them and started me feeling the need to be out more because they were going on about how horrible it was and how bad an experience it was for poor Eric to be housed with a gay man who went to Gay Union meetings. I said to my parents, “You know, when I went to Oberlin I was housed with an Asian woman who went to Asian American Alliance meetings and studied East Asian Studies and was taking a Chinese class. Am I supposed to draw from that some horrible experience?” So, in a sense, even before I got here it politicized me to talk to my parents and say, “There is something wrong with this type of thinking.” Of course, it should be all right that a dorm host is a gay man and is not going to go attack this poor prospective living there any more than my host is going to try to get me to be Asian and take me to Chinese class and tie me up.

Wendy Stander: I wanted to get back to the issues of race. I remember that in 1984 one of the things that the Gay Union did as part of the conference in the spring was to bring Barbara Smith, a black lesbian feminist. I don’t know if anybody remembers that but we had ten different organizations contributing funds to do that. We went to Abusua and I don’t even remember whether they gave us funding for that. We went to the Asian Alliance, the Latino group, and a number of other groups and came up with enough money to do it. I think that the first thing she said during the talk was that it was great to bring the community together like that. She had never been sponsored by ten groups at any place. I remember hearing afterwards that in order to cut down on attendance, Abusua called an emergency meeting so that people from the communities of color could not attend. I do not know whether that was true or not, but that is something I heard. I understand that the second time Barbara Smith came to campus that Abusua did help to sponsor her. The point is, however, that during my time at Oberlin, there was a schism between the African American community and the gay, lesbian and bisexual community. Even though the Gay Union had an African American woman co-chair (Dayna Brown ‘84) and brought Barbara Smith to campus who spoke on coalition building, the Union was overwhelmingly white, and I don’t recall any consciousness about the racism which is so prevalent in the gay, lesbian and bisexual community.

OCLGBU page from the 1990 Hi-O-Hi.

OCLGBU page from the 1990 Hi-O-Hi.

At the same time, my impression as a white lesbian, was that while there were individual exceptions, the African American leadership on campus, in particular, harbored a great deal of homophobia. One instance of homophobia happened in my senior year during our appearance at a meeting to set our budget for the following year. Our proposed budget included funding to expand our periodical selection and specifically stated that we wanted to subscribe to magazines that would appeal to gay people of color. The African American male on the committee quizzed us about the specific titles we wanted to acquire. While our overall funding nearly doubled the next year, our periodical category got slashed.

Nori Mandell: I don’t know how much of this is my own memory and how much is actual conversation, but I remember arguments about whether I could go to see Barbara. I’m not sure but I remember crying a little because I wanted so badly to go see her. I knew that it was important to have space for women of color, away from white women. But I wasn’t sure if I was `of color’ or not, and didn’t want to upset anyone.

[…]

Beth DeSombre: When I was here one of the things that happened was a lesbian denounced the Union. This was in part in response to the perception that: a) the Union was dominated by men; and b) it wasn’t doing anything for lesbian awareness on campus. So lesbians would be bouncing around putting flyers up and stickers saying, `A lesbian was here’ and doing a lot more political stuff. I remember one of the difficulties of being political. For a while we were having meetings every other week, on alternate weeks; they were political meetings and social meetings. In the social meeting, we would buy a jug of wine. I remember driving to Johnny’s so many times, until they discovered I wasn’t twenty-one. I remember at the political meetings there would be attendance of maybe ten people, but at the social meetings, it would be three times that.

Another thing I remember from my days at Oberlin was a group of people who would attend Gay Union meetings that I think turned some people off in the sense that they thought it was a clique but it wasn’t a clique. It was just that those were the only people who ever went. I always had the feeling that there were probably a large number of gay men and women — I think probably more gay men — that had nothing to do with the Union. The women at least had the Women’s Center or the Women’s Collective, and the men just formed sort of social cliques. There was the Conservatory clique, the Art Department clique, the Black clique. They were active only as social units, and they would never get involved in anything political. I resented that because they would come to the Gay Union dances and they would actually reap the benefits of the work of a few people. I can actually look at certain people in this room who wound up getting patted on the back and didn’t do a whole lot of work for it.

[…]

Andrew Deppe: I was not involved in any lesbian and gay political anything while I was here. I just want to thank you guys for what you did do on campus in that way because it made it easier for everyone else in terms of just creating a more conducive environment. It made it easier for me to be an out gay man in the freeze movement and in the Central American solidarity stuff. In a way, I think that is what it is all about too; to make it okay for people to be out in whatever it happens they are doing. The gay and lesbian political stuff that was going on really helped enable that, I think, even socially. The social crowds, as you were saying, were different cells; the art history cool people, for example. Being lesbian or gay was made okay in those groups, I think, too, by the example of people who were out.