John was a marvel, not only helping me to fully accept myself, but, even more grace-filled, teaching me to love and treasure myself as the wonderful gay man I was created to be. He spoke to me about the possibility in my life precisely because I was gay, and precisely because I would have to come to terms with living in a hostile world. He explained that such a journey inward toward self-love was something straight people simply didn’t have to undertake, and, although it would be difficult to regain this self-love, such work would fill my life with something very special. This was an amazing thing for me to hear, and had a tremendous effect on the next four years of my life both at Oberlin and in England, where I spent my junior year. My work with John was the work of exodus and liberation from a terrible place of bondage; John helped me leave Egypt, and got me to a place wherein I knew that I had no choice but to live my life with full authenticity and integrity as an out gay man. There simply were no other options for me.
Well, in the early ‘60s this was an outrageous public statement of one’s being. Oberlin in the ‘60s considered itself to be a hotbed of radicalism. Protests, sit-ins, demonstrations of all kinds, radical publications, more drugs than anyone could possibly take, storming the Board of Trustees meetings demanding academic freedom — these were the norm. The Civil Rights movement and SDS were wonderfully active on campus. There were no rights at all for lesbian and gay people. I have always, since I was a little boy, had a powerful commitment to justice. I threw myself into the movements on campus, but was very aware that somehow they didn’t speak to me fully. I realized that the problem was that I was not in the movement as a gay man, but, rather, as a man, and that, in fact, the homophobia and heterosexism were so rampant in these so-called radical movements, that I found myself withdrawing because of the lying and hypocrisy and arrogant self-deception which I saw everywhere. I decided that my work was to simply live in all the truth and honesty of my identity as a gay man. I also lost sixty-five pounds of self-hatred.
This was a wonderful time for me — some of the best years of my life, in fact. I found that people either really loved and respected me for my integrity, or they really despised me because they didn’t want to have to deal with their own hatred — particularly when they saw themselves as so radical. There were gay and lesbian people, too, who hated me because they were also dealing with their hatred, only theirs was the hatred of the internalized oppressor. Gradually, though, a sense of gay community was formed. My out presence began to chip away at the behind-the-hands secretive conversations among gay men in the Conservatory lounge, and my brothers began to talk openly and with less fear.
Gay men began to not really care what others thought quite so much anymore. Certainly, this was a small group. Fear did, in fact, run high among the majority of gay men. But, slowly, a community did begin to form. I must say here that I am painfully aware as I write this that I can only write about gay men during this time in Oberlin’s history. Lesbians were not at all visible. There were some women who were rumored to be lesbian — some of whom were, in fact, lesbian as I have come to find out in later years — but there really was no support at all for lesbians. Life was indeed very hard for lesbians in the ‘60s in Oberlin. I apologize to my lesbian sisters for my biased history, but it is the only history I have.
Anyway, my outness became something which made me a celebrity on campus. People would whisper as I walked by, pointing me out to other students, faculty, staff, and even parents when they came to visit their sons and daughters. “See him? That’s Roger. He’s gay, and he doesn’t care who knows. Isn’t that weird?” Or, at least, something to that effect. My apartment became a place of safety for my gay brothers on campus. Men would knock on my door in emotional distress, anxiety, and pain in order to talk to someone with whom they did not have to hide the truth. I became a trusted ear, a sought out companion and confidant. I also became the one who gay men came to in order to explore their sexuality. My outness made me a safe mark, I guess. That was hard for me. Somehow, some of my brothers who were questioning their sexual identity thought that they could use me for their experiments. That made me feel very objectified, and, because I was still, in many ways, exploring my own sexual needs, I allowed myself to be used. That part was not very pleasant, although as I look back I can say that the exploration and adventure were an important part of my formation as the gay man I am today.
There was also the problem of guilt by association. Many of the gay men on campus, particularly in the Conservatory, would avoid me because it was important for them to maintain the anonymity of their closets. They were afraid that being seen with me would automatically implicate them in my honesty. This hurt me a great deal. Some of the men I liked best were the very ones who avoided me, or who were nasty to me behind my back. But, that was salved by the men who loved me for my outness, the women who took me to their hearts and souls also because of my outness, the faculty who dealt with me respectfully, although sometimes distantly and with some nervousness.
There was a tradition in Oberlin, at that time, that during the senior year, any student could sign out a room in Wilder and give what was called a `Senior Perspective’ sometime during the second semester of the senior year. I had been in London for my junior year, and after living in an urban society which was more accepting of me as a gay man than that which I had experienced at Oberlin, I decided that I would give a senior perspective entitled, “Is He or Isn’t He?” The title was taken from a commercial in the mid-’60s for Clairol hair color in which the voice-over said “Does she or doesn’t she…only her hairdresser knows for sure.” My senior perspective was essentially my view of what it had been like to live in the rampant homophobia and heterosexism in Oberlin. I spoke about the self-deception of the Oberlin community regarding its radicalism, and how that radicalism was really only for straight students.
I exposed Oberlin for what it really was in terms of its homophobic response to gay men and lesbians on the campus during the ‘60s. I spoke of my deep pain in the face of such hostility. This was an outrageous thing to do. Now, I was not only out, but I was also making pro-gay, anti-straight political statements. Oberlin’s first self-avowed political queer! It was only 1968. I can honestly say that this was an important watershed experience for the Oberlin community. During the following years, as I kept in touch with my friends, I found out that gay and lesbian students were beginning to come together in tighter solidarity, walking hand-in-hand through town unafraid — or, at least, with enough diminishment of fear to be able to be confrontational in their authenticity.
As for me, in the ensuing years after graduation, it was my time at Oberlin, living as I did, which led me to be so active in the Gay Liberation movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I was so fortunate to be at the Stonewall Bar the night of the raid, and it was my life at Oberlin which empowered me to know how to enter into that wonderful beginning. I became completely enmeshed in the East Coast Gay Liberation Front, in all its violence, its strength, its love and its passion for justice. I have continued over these past twenty-three years to confront the world in various ways — through my politics in the streets, through my music, through my counseling of gay and lesbian adult incest survivors as one who is himself an incest survivor, through my ministry and preaching, through my work in the HIV/AIDS community as one who is HIV+, and even through my presence on the Oberlin Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Alumni Steering Group. I am so honored and privileged to be part of this alumni work.
I feel like a person who unknowingly dropped a seed in fertile soil — not even expecting anything to grow, because he was not even aware of planting the seed. I don’t think I was even aware that the soil was indeed fertile. My heart is filled with the beauty of the unlooked-for flowers in the garden. I am so humbled by that. Think of it! A reunion of lesbian, gay and bisexual alumni in 1991, when twenty-three years ago gay and lesbian people were telling me that I could not give my senior perspective because that would force everyone out of the closet. Think of it!
I am so sorry that I cannot be with you. Know that my thoughts are with you all; my heart is in Oberlin tonight. Not even knowing most of you, I can say that I love you all because we are here, because we are lesbian, gay, and bisexual people living in the tension and struggle for justice, because our presence here this weekend is, in a hostile world, a dazzling testament to our unashamed and unabashed love for ourselves and our sisters and brothers, and for our rightful place in the world. As a favor to me, turn to the person next to you on either side, and hug them, and say hello. Of such stuff is community made.