In attendance: Devon Clare ‘64, Thomas Copeland ‘66, Robert Diehm ‘37, Barbara Keppel ‘55, Allan Spear ‘58, Herbert Zeman ‘65
Statements from Roger-Michael Goodman ‘68, [Luke Warmer, pseudonym, ‘52], and Judith Klavans ‘68 who could not attend the reunion.
Allan Spear: Well, I think if I were to talk about gay and lesbian life at Oberlin as I remember it in the 1950s, I’d stop right now, because as far as I was aware there wasn’t any, at least in the sense of any organized or communal life. I suspect that many people who were at Oberlin in the 1950s were pretty much as I was, with certainly an idea of what I was, but without any clear-cut identity of it, so I was not in a situation when I was at Oberlin of talking about, thinking about, or even identifying to myself that I was gay. It just wasn’t something that I was even vaguely ready for. There was certainly talk. People talked about who was gay and who wasn’t gay. I don’t think the word `gay’ was used. I think it was more likely for somebody to say, “He’s queer,” and that’s one of the reasons, by the way, that I have not gotten used to this positive use of the word `queer’ these days by some gay and lesbian activists. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to use that word without very, very unpleasant memories of how it was used in a derogatory way when I was growing up and I was coming of age.
When I listened last night to Bob Diehm, my first reaction was that not much changed between the ‘30s and the ‘50s because what he said about his memories in the mid-1930s would pretty much apply to most of what I remember from the 1950s; what existed was basically talk about who was gay and much of it centered on the Conservatory. “Everybody knows about them; that place is full of queers.” And then there would be more specific talk about who was and who wasn’t.
I remember, I was a history major and I had a number of courses with Freddy Artz. He did not have an office. He held his office hours at home, and so when you went to see Professor Artz about your paper or whatever, you went to his house. He lived just behind Carnegie Library on North Professor Street, in a beautiful house, filled with wonderful works of art that he had collected during, he would always tell you, his forty-second trip to Europe, which he had made the summer before. You went there and you would literally sit at Professor Artz’ feet; I mean he would sit on a throne in his very ornate living room, and you would sit on the ottoman in front of him. You were literally sitting at the queen’s feet. And he was very affected, and clearly was by the standards of the day the classic queen, so in that sense he lived a flamboyant kind of life. I don’t think he was out in the sense we would think of that word today, and certainly his relationship with Don Love was always something of campus gossip or campus rumors, but it was certainly not something he acknowledged, so far as I am aware of, in any public way.
Tom Copeland: I don’t think that I ever heard the term ‘come out’ until after I left Oberlin, and as far as I knew there were only two people that were gay on campus, homosexual I should say. They were me and another fellow who always got paired with me in gym class because we were both fairly uncoordinated. He frightened me because he was out. I don’t even remember his name. I avoided him as much as I could. I was deep in the closet, sometimes even literally in the closet. I was confronted once by the guy who lived next door in Burton Hall, and he said that word had come to him somehow that I was interested in men, not women. I said, “Horseshit!” and that was the end of it — not that he was convinced, but he decided not to pursue it. There was a grain of compassion somewhere. As it turned out, there were other people that were gay. For instance, my rival for my future wife’s hand turned out to be gay. He came visiting us one Christmas and took a walk with her and told her all about it. I found out after she and I were divorced and he and I got together. But alas, I have very little to say about gay life at Oberlin, because it didn’t exist, and the rest of life was very much oppressed by the fear. That’s all I have to say.
Bobbi Keppel: I am now identified as bisexual; but I not only didn’t hear that term while I was at Oberlin, I don’t think I had ever heard anybody talking about homosexuality or bisexuality while I was at Oberlin — with maybe one exception my senior year. I think somebody said something about some guy in our class being gay; I suppose we didn’t use ‘gay’ in those days and I can’t even remember. I gather that being bisexual here now is not terribly visible, so I guess I’m not surprised it wasn’t visible then. Actually all the experience I had with these issues was during my junior year abroad when I went to the University of London and was shocked to discover how homophobic most of the students there were. It was something that the British, who don’t talk about anything, were actually talking about; and comments were being made. I was just appalled. I couldn’t believe that people were like this. I mean, I didn’t know much about it, but I couldn’t imagine being that oppressive.
Then I spent my Christmas holidays and part of my summer vacation down on the Riviera with an expatriate American who was a friend of one of my classmates. She was very much into the art community down on the Riviera; and it was filled with expatriate British, because the laws in England were so oppressive for homosexuals. I met lots of people who were gay and lesbian in an environment which was very, very accepting and open, and I really didn’t think anything about it. It just seemed like, “Well, that’s the norm; that’s fine,” and I spent the rest of the summer up in Copenhagen, Denmark. Things were were pretty open up there, and it was a total contrast to Oberlin, where nothing was ever said. I guess I have to say that my introduction to all this was very positive; and it did happen while I was in college, but it didn’t happen here.
Herb Zeman: I certainly was aware that I was gay while I was at Oberlin. I knew I was gay since I first heard what the word meant when I was twelve years old, but I had the feeling it wasn’t something you ever admitted to anybody. I was pretty secretive about it. I, in fact, spent most of my time at Oberlin developing a heterosexual life to see what that was like, and for the last two years here I had a girl friend, and we did a lot of things together. But I also did have gay experiences and did meet gay people, although there were no organized gay activities or anything like that that I know about. My roommate during the first two years, he’s a friend from Teaneck, NJ, a straight guy, and I did, at least freshman year, do some gay things together.
The second year we were also in a dormitory section of guys who had never gotten around to signing up with anyone else to be in the dormitory, so I think there was at least a majority of gay men in that section, including a fairly obvious gay couple that lived down in the triple at the end of the hall. There was a gay man that lived next door to us who used to have guests come to his room. It was a double room, but he lived in there alone. The first roommate he had, he probably scared away on the first night. So he had the double all by himself.