Professor of Sociology, Oberlin College
A year or so ago Oberlin was described as a “Queer Mecca” by an alumnus quoted in Newsweek. “Half a Mecca, maybe,” I told a local reporter pursuing a follow-up story, a thinly veiled Sodom on Plum Creek. This volume of reminiscences recorded at a meeting of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) alumni in October, 1991, gives insight into 60 years of campus LGB life. Much history transpired between the earlier decades, when one alumnus reported “there wasn’t any” open gay life, to the present times of relative tolerance and openness as well as an institutionalized presence.
The Oberlin Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Alumni organization and the Alumni Office are to be applauded for organizing the sessions and this publication. College campuses provide a relatively safe space to come out, and have been a major site of LGB organizing. Oberlin College has been an important focus of both in the American heartland. Thus, this kind of documentation can be a significant source of history of the national as well as the local movement.
The participants, meeting in graduation year clusters, were asked to talk about gay life at Oberlin when they were here. Certain subjects dominated the discussions – individual experience and campus life, organizations and networks, academics and administration, and the national scene.
One gets a sense of the intellectual excitement of certain periods, e.g., early 1970s, and the strong and reassuring impact of large numbers of “out” upperclassmen on first-year students.
Coming out and being out vary for each generation, for men and women, for people of color and whites. Before 1969, the portrayals speak of a situation akin to a large closet. Concerns were less about coming out than they were about coping with confusion, aloneness, or even finding a cure.
After Stonewall, liberation was the issue. How startling for others it must have been to have the speaking pervert on campus, as many came out. The classroom was one venue where this was explored, in courses such as Human Sexuality, Self Concept, and various EXCO classes. Women’s Studies courses provided an important locale for exploration of lesbian issues. Women report coming out as a part of their involvement with feminist organizing. Later generations of men speak of a more individual process and a much earlier time of coming out, often before reaching Oberlin.
The national dimensions of the LGB movement and experience are reflected on campus in organizing around the Marches on Washington, AIDS, and the countermovement initiatives, for example those led by Anita Bryant in the late 70s. Oberlin was apparently an important venue for organizing the second March on Washington, as well as coping with the financial problems of the first. The AIDS epidemic had an impact from the beginning as campus groups struggled first to understand and then to cope with it through education and behavior changes, and then later through the loss of loved and respected alumni. Overall, national processes receive more attention in the accounts of life after Oberlin.
Another recurrent theme is the tension between the individual and various communities. Lesbians and bisexual women reported consciously resisting community expectations to participate in activities and alter their appearance and dress. Women and students of color felt pulled between their gender or racial community and their sexuality community, and this was not experienced and sometimes not understood by their white gay friends. Struggles over inclusion are reflected in the name changes of the central student organization, initially called the Gay Union, then Lesbian Gay Union, and now Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (and debating the addition of transgendered). The emergence and continuation of the student color organization, Zami, points to another dimension of inclusion and representation.
The LGBU is mentioned repeatedly. It even played a role in coming out stories. Alums in their first year told poignant tales of viewing the LGBU office as a symbol, perhaps of a public statement of identity, and of approaching the office door in Wilder with excitement and dread, not being able to enter, and circling the hallway again and again to get up courage. Changes in the LGBU, for example, in programmatic focus from film series to conferences to discussion groups, and in its relations to other campus organizations and networks received comment, especially LIPS and Lesbians be Loud. Enigmatic references to mysterious and glamorous lesbian cliques piqued my curiosity.
Finally, certain events and instances of discrimination figure as defining moments in the experience of alumni. The 1983 hanging of the anti-gay effigy and moving letter of support by Acting President Powell, as well as the struggle over the sexual orientation clause in the Anti-Discrimination statement in the early-mid 1980s are detailed.
The series of discussions has certain limits. They are shaped by the representativeness of participants – the time at Oberlin, what they participated in and knew about, and the communities they were part of. For instance, there is an evident underrepresentation of alumni of color. The clustering of graduation years does not correspond to historical periods. Memory is a key, and it often fails us.
Certain events were not mentioned, such as the struggle over the inclusion of LGBU in the committee list in the Admissions viewbook, the organizing and march in response to graffiti and the racist banner in 1988, not to mention the formation of the first institutional committee to deal with lesbian, gay bisexual issues in 1989. We could also benefit from documentation of the evolution of faculty and administrative responses to students and alumni around these issues. Obviously, we need more of these alumni personal histories.
Thanks to the participants. We can all look forward to further contributions from our alumni as we reflect on our queer history.