Unwilling to realize that I knew exactly what was going on, I myself was in a very serious state of denial, a personal denial. Although I knew I was gay, I was into denying that anybody else could be gay or anybody else could be interested in me. I was simply admitting to myself that I was interested in other guys, but they weren’t interested in me. That there might actually be an opportunity to do something was something I wasn’t able to deal with at the time. So I certainly was aware that there were gay people, and there were gay people who were having sex and so on. Certainly, with the strict social regulations we had at the time, where girls were locked in their dorms after nine o’clock or whenever it was, it was much easier to have gay sex than to have straight sex. The men’s dorms were open all the time. You could go in anybody’s room. Nobody would ever say anything about it, and so it was really a nice setup for gay men. Of course, the prejudice was so enormous that when men did that kind of thing, you had to do it like the next door neighbor late at night when everyone was asleep.
That’s about all I know about gay life at Oberlin, and certainly there was no gay student union, and there were no organized activities. The college had a sex education program that dealt with all the issues of straight sexuality. All of those things were done and it was very valuable, but the only trouble was that there was never even the slightest mention of homosexuality or any implication that any Oberlin student would ever be interested in any information on such a subject. I hope that by now, if they have sex education programs, they do admit that there are gay people in the world and that they might want information on their sexuality.
Devon Clare: I was here from 1960 through 1964, and I think I was pretty unconscious about most things going on and unconscious about myself, too. I guess when I was in high school I had a terrible crush on a woman French teacher and thought I might be lesbian. But I guess at Oberlin I forgot all about that — although at times I did have warm feelings about some of my roommates. I never acted on them or thought about them more than that. I did, however, decide that one of my friend’s sisters was ‘cute.’ I had never thought about a peer that way before. There wasn’t a women’s movement around, and I really needed that to come out. I didn’t find out about the women’s movement until after I left, about 1969 or 1970. I had to see other women falling in love with women to realize that was what I wanted.
When I was at Oberlin, I didn’t hear much talk about people being gay or lesbian, although there was talk about one of my psychology professors. People used to snicker about her. I don’t know if that was true or not. So I spent much too much time studying at Oberlin. I didn’t know what was going on in the world around me, but I guess I assumed they were straight and tried to act straight. I did have a crush on this male librarian, and I wonder today whether he was a gay guy. He didn’t seem to be interested in doing anything sexual with me, and I guess I wonder about that. But I wish the women’s movement had come sooner; then I wouldn’t have gotten married. I might have found out that I really liked women better. Not too much was going on between 1960 and 1964. Yet, it did seem that the college kind of pushed heterosexuality by having us freshman arrange ourselves around the dining room table — `boy-girl-boy-girl-boy-girl’ – ‘gracious living’ they called it.
Tom Copeland: Isn’t that the truth! I remember another thing that happened. I went to a psychiatrist while I was here after deciding that if anybody could cure me, it would be a psychiatrist. He was on campus, I think, two days a week, and he said that he couldn’t help me, but that if I really wanted to pursue this I could go to Cleveland and he gave me the names of two psychiatrists in Cleveland. They might as well have been in Timbuktu; he didn’t seem too encouraging.
Devon Clare: About being cured?
Tom Copeland: About being cured.
Devon Clare: Good.
Tom Copeland: He also advised me not to analyze myself, because I could really screw myself up that way. That’s as far as counseling went.
Bobbi Keppel: When I think about being here, so much of what was going on in my life was about politics. My father was losing his job in Washington; the McCarthy era. In fact, he lost it while I was in England for my junior year. And I was very active in the Civil Rights movement. I had a Black roommate my freshman year, who’s still a good friend of mine. And I spent my vacations when I was in the States in Washington, DC, so I was out petitioning and picketing and doing all that stuff. I guess that was good practice for coming out as a bisexual, because when I go on marches now it seems like, “Oh yeah, I’ve done this type of stuff most of my life,” but I certainly wasn’t involved in that kind of thing when I was here. I remember being really shocked about the laws in England, and then realizing I didn’t even know what the laws were in the United States. No one was talking about it, and I had no idea. In fact, I didn’t know for a long time what the laws were in this country. They were horrendous, but it was such a political time, because it was the McCarthy era, that I really wasn’t tuned in about much beyond that — and, of course, Black issues coming from Washington.
Allan Spear: You know, I think that in itself is an interesting story; it is not necessarily part of the gay and lesbian story at Oberlin, but there is this historical stereotype of college students in the 1950s as the Silent Generation, and it certainly was not true at Oberlin. My experiences were not exactly parallel to yours, Bobbi, but they certainly did involve political activism, and I certainly learned a lot of the sort of political involvement that I was later to expand on. In the 1950s I first got involved in Civil Rights activities here, too. I joined the student NAACP. We went out and picketed one of the barber shops that didn’t cut the hair of Black people. We also did some protesting at the beer bar downtown, because there were reports that the beer bar discriminated racially. We sent some people in there to protest.
My second semester junior year, I went on the exchange program that Oberlin had with Black southern colleges. I spent my second semester junior year at Fisk in Nashville, TN. That was really an important experience for me, but not academically, because Fisk was so much weaker than Oberlin academically that I was just able to slide through without doing much work — just learning what it was like to live in the `Jim Crow’ south and to live virtually in an all-Black environment.
I came back from that junior year on fire. I wanted to become involved in Civil Rights and change the system. I found my senior year that Oberlin was offering a course in what was then called Negro History. I think Oberlin was probably one of the very first predominantly white colleges or universities in the country that offered a specific course in what would later become African-American History. I took that course and went on to graduate school to study African-American History. I did my dissertation on that; in fact, it was interesting when I got to graduate school at Yale, I met with my advisor and told him what I wanted to work on and what my interests were. His response was, “Oh, you Oberlin people. You are all interested in that.”