Personal Histories – George Brenner (pseudonym; OC 50)

Audio clip:

“Two gay guys owned this farmhouse and enormous barn…”

George Brenner was the only child of a middle class, white family in New York State. His father was a wholesale jeweler until World War II, when he began manufacturing war items, and his mother, an Oberlin graduate, was active in the Methodist Church and the Foreign Missionary Society. Brenner enrolled at Oberlin in 1944, where he majored in history.

Oral history conducted by phone, Nov. 15, 2004, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

I felt I was the only [homosexual] person in the world, like everybody else did in those days, and kept all my feelings to myself…I did absolutely nothing. And when I went to the Army [in 1946] I still maintained that, because I came from a strong Methodist background. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, you know I didn’t even think of playing around. And it wasn’t until I got back to Oberlin [in 1948] that I discovered a whole gay world had come out. And that was the wonderful revelation for me. And I joined them…

The people that I started hanging around with, and turned out to be really lifelong friends, everyone that I came back to meet and know turned out to be gay…It turned out there were many gay groups at Oberlin at that time. And I turned out to be in a group that was primarily a history group. I majored in history. I had eight or ten close friends that were all in the group and that had all just come out, either after they got back to Oberlin or while they were in the service…I guess that just really confirmed my feeling that I was on the right track, and that the way I felt was not only important, but it was right…

Most professors, at least in the history department, gave Sunday afternoon teas. You know, they would invite basically their favorite students and the wife would pour tea and they’d pass around cookies and things like that…But it was fun. And you really got to know your professors so much more intimately…

Dr. [Frederick] Artz, just before I left, started a gay group that he would invite to teas. And that to me was the most fascinating of all, because then we discussed the literature that was coming out, we discussed trends, we discussed the whole gay world that was coming out of New York City and San Francisco…And actually, the teas were not teas as much as small sherry parties. He would serve out of a crystal bottle in a very tiny glass some sherry, and if you took one sip it was gone—which was very frustrating in those days [laughs]. But you put up with it.

I really didn’t get to know [Artz] until after I graduated, because he was very careful not to get too intimate or intimate at all with any of his students that were still at college. But after I graduated, we became much more friendly [and] developed a very close relationship…And that’s when he really would talk about gay life as he knew it in Oberlin, both before the war and after the war…

The astounding thing for him was, before the war and really all through the war, there was no gay life whatever at Oberlin. It was just nonexistent. But after the war, when the veterans started coming back, who’d come out, they would kind of identify him and be friendly, and he would reciprocate and say “come to tea” [laughs]. So various gay circles developed around professors that were gay, and basically the only one…that I was involved in really was Dr. Artz’s…Everybody was just kind of excited to be able to be yourself, to come out, to have a group that you identified with, where you could really make true friends. Because you could make friends with straight people, but it was never the same…

[Artz] had been out for a long time, and kind of felt lonely, except for his close relationship with [Professor Raymond] Stetson…[Artz] was kind of round and pudgy, and had a wonderful laugh about him. Very sharp. And smoked incessantly. He would light another cigarette before his first one went out [laughs]. And he lived on a diet of chocolate and biscuits [laughs]. It’s amazing he lived as long as he did…He had a wonderful book collection of incunabula and other very interesting things. His living room was really a library, with the walls all covered with bookcases and wonderful books.

It was such a different world than it is today. The only way you could get away from Oberlin and into a gay group was to take a bus to Cleveland. And in Cleveland there was a wonderful bar called the Cadillac. And you would very often find students from Wooster and all around there, because they would try to get away too. Because there was nothing going on in these small college towns. And so the Cadillac kind of filled in a social gap…

It was kind of a chore to take the bus in, and it also meant you almost had to get picked up to spend the night, because the bus left you off, and there wasn’t another bus ‘til the next day. And so you had to really be sure that you met somebody attractive in order to stay on for the whole evening. But it was on the main street, it was a very chic bar I’d say—it wasn’t a hole in the wall. It had neon lights outside, and you walked in, it was very elegant. It was a long bar with tables opposite the bar, kind of along the other wall, and I guess since it was downtown it probably did a good business during the day. But at night, as far as I could tell, it turned completely gay…

Later on, there were other bars that opened up in Cleveland where you did [dance, unlike the Cadillac]. One, I remember was kind of in a warehouse area and it had a whole top floor where people were dancing, which was unbelievable, to me, in those days. But as you walked up the stairs, you had to pull the top of your handkerchief out of your pocket. In those days, everybody wore jackets. So you had a jacket on, and you made sure that you had a handkerchief in your top pocket. As you walked up the stairs, you would pull it out, and they had a little pigeon hole they would look through, and if you didn’t you were not admitted, but if you did the right signal, why the door opened and in you went…But it didn’t last very long, as I remember. I think [the bar] was raided, in spite of their handkerchiefs. ‘Cause people were actually dancing, where in the Cadillac everything was very kind of austere, and there was no fun at all. You just sat there and had a drink…

And the other major event of the year turned out to be Halloween. There was a barn, I can’t remember exactly, I think it was near Canton, Ohio, way out no place. But evidently two gay guys owned a farm house and this enormous barn, and every Halloween they would open it up, and you’d bring your own liquor, your own drinks, and there would be an impromptu band and so on. It was exciting because it was the only time when young gay kids could get up in drag and not worry about being arrested. You know, if you were stopped by the police you had an excuse for being in drag. Or you had an excuse for being in costume. And you could go to this event that pulled in people from all over Ohio, and be anonymous. You would have masks on, and nobody could tell who you were or where you from [laughs]. And you felt so safe, and you felt so alive, and you felt so delighted to be a part of this big organization…It was in the middle of nowhere. I had no idea how I got there. I’m sure I had directions [laughs]. You would plan months ahead of time getting there, and you were determined to make it, because it was such an important event…

Basically [my group of gay friends] took over the top floor of Burton Hall. And I’ve forgotten how many rooms there were; ten probably, ten or twelve rooms on the top floor of Burton. And I think there was only one or two that were straight. It was almost a totally gay floor. And we were all friends, and at night we would leave all the doors open [and] we’d go from room to room, socializing and talking and laughing and carrying on and that kind of thing…I think the top floor of Burton was the gayest area on campus. There were pockets here and there, but nothing like a whole floor…We would certainly throw parties. We’d have something to eat and drink and so on, and you’d say to a friend, “Why don’t you come over tonight.” It was a very informal kind of thing. But they’d say, “Sure,” and they’d be there, and very often bring a friend…

I would say, unfortunately, we were very closet-y. We certainly never let anyone know that we were gay that was not in our circle or at least straight. And we would go, I think, to all kinds of lengths to not to have it known. And even today I have a hard time coming out, being really open about my gayness. And you know, I think it all goes back to your early years.