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There was certainly a strong tradition — that tradition was very much alive here in the 1950s, even in the so-called Silent Generation years. There was a lot going on. I ate at Grey Gables, which was one of the two co-ops, Pyle Inn and Grey Gables. The highlight of every year at Grey Gables was when Pete Seeger came to give a concert, and he would come to Grey Gables for dinner. That would be a great honor, of course, to sit at Pete Seeger’s table and talk to him. Odetta was also very popular. She was a folk singer, and everybody was into her.

Bobbi Keppel: She’s still going. You bet. So is Pete.

Allan Spear: Yes, she is. The political activists centered on co-ops. There was certainly a lot of activism, a lot of interest in politics. I was involved in the 1956 Mock Convention. That was an all-consuming activity, getting ready for that, and preparing for that. So in that sense Oberlin was a good training ground for the kind of things that I would do later on, that would ultimately lead to my involvement in the gay and lesbian rights movement. But it was not certainly specifically gay or lesbian.

Herb Zeman: Civil Rights experiences I had in the Class of 1965 — we had SNCC that was very active. There were a lot of Civil Rights things that people were very active and interested in. I know it got me thinking. It had influence later on when I ended up involved in organizing a gay rights campaign in Palo Alto in 1981. That was an outgrowth of experience, an Oberlin experience. As a child, my father taught me about the injustice in the south. So that Civil Rights background had an effect when I got involved in gay rights — a feeling that this is something you should go out and fight for and do something, not just sit back and let other people do it. Oberlin had that kind of positive influence, even if the issue of gay rights wasn’t being dealt with back when I was there.

Bobbi Keppel: When I think about being here, one of the great things about being in Oberlin was that I met a lot of very bright, very confident people of both sexes. And I think even though I went to a very college-preppie high school in DC, it was definitely a male-dominated school, and the college-prep emphasis was certainly much more for males than for females. A lot of people from my school went to this college. I was rather shocked to walk in and see the same people I’d seen in high school. I think that being in Oberlin with a lot of other very confident female scholars probably, for me, was a good beginning in terms of first being active in the feminist movement and then being active in gay and bisexual liberation. I think it was that and politicalization here, although I had a lot of that at home.


Allan Spear: I’d be interested to hear what all of you have done particularly in terms of gay, lesbian, and bisexual since leaving Oberlin.

Herb Zeman: Certainly my history for quite a while after Oberlin was more of the same. I was trying to find some way of having a satisfying heterosexual life. I never really realized that maybe that wasn’t worthwhile pursuing. It wasn’t really until in my early thirties that it finally dawned on me that even if I had been able to find somebody who wanted to marry me that I wanted to marry and all that kind of stuff, it wouldn’t really be fair to the woman. It made no sense in relationships, and I should enjoy doing what I enjoyed doing. I was helped in that progress by going through a growth training program at Lifespring in 1978. That really got me in touch with my feelings and how people reacted when I was being more honest. Before, I never dared to be honest about my feelings.


That was certainly a period of growth when I was in my thirties. One couldn’t imagine if I could have had that growth instead in my teens and twenties. Part of what held me back was that I had a gay brother who was also a psychotic, so I would associate homosexuality with lunacy. So I said, “I’m not coming out like him,” and I did not want to give in to my gay feelings. It was also the fear that if I were actively gay then my parents would commit me to an insane asylum just like my brother. I had to be up in my thirties with a Ph.D. to find out that this was not very likely to happen, no matter what I did. So I got more confidence in myself, but the interesting question is if there had been a gay rights organization or such activities going on at Oberlin back in the 1960s, like they are in the 1980s, whether that would have made any difference — whether I would have had the nerve to join such an organization and to have grown up twenty years earlier. My answer is that I haven’t a clue, because I have certainly met people in more recent times who were just as closeted, just as frightened, in spite of the very different environment that we have now.

Allan Spear: Commenting on that, I think it’s really important that people of our generation not indulge ourselves too much in the if-onlys and the might-have-beens. If only we had been born twenty years later! Sometimes I guess I feel that way too, because I also did not really come out and start dealing with myself until my early thirties. Often it was tempting to get in the “If only all those wasted years, the years when I was young and more desirable, those were the very years in which I didn’t do anything about my sexuality…” But, at the same time, I think we ought to be really thankful that the movement did come along while we were still alive and still able to benefit from the change in attitudes that it produced and the greater freedom. I fight that myself all the time — the “if only what exists now existed when I was eighteen.” There’s nothing we can do about that. We could have been born in the 1890s, too.

Tom Copeland: I have been unable to regret all that repression that threw me together with my wife, because I really loved her and it was ten very good years. I have got a twenty-year-old son who wouldn’t exist if only things had been different. They were bad, but the results weren’t necessarily all bad.

Bob Diehm: I’m the oldest alumnus in the gay group evidently who is here. I mentioned last night about being gay in Oberlin in the ‘30s. I was really out to myself; I knew all about it, but I didn’t have my first sexual experience until I was twenty-three years old and after I left college. I knew I was gay that day. But we knew who the students were usually, and they knew who we were. I think someone suspected me, because I lived with a group of gay men. We knew who some of the faculty were who were out. There were hardly any out in those days. The ‘30s were like the ‘50s, everything went along smoothly and there were no disruptions. It was the Depression, and people had to dig for what they had financially and they did not have a lot of money. The times were, well, we just had a good time; I mean we had a lot of things in Oberlin that they probably don’t have today which I enjoyed. I even enjoyed going to chapel every noon four days a week. Nowadays students shudder when they think of doing that. And I enjoyed singing the songs in the Oberlin songbook and I find the students nowadays, they’ve never even heard `Ten Thousand Strong.’ They don’t know what it’s like. I think we were like kids in the ‘20s. We had a good time, and we studied, of course. We should have studied a little more than we did; some of us could have. That’s about all I can say about being gay at Oberlin in the ‘30s.