Personal Histories – Frank Burton (pseudonym; OC 49)

Frank Burton was drafted into the Army a year after arriving at Oberlin. He returned to the Oberlin campus in 1946 and graduated in 1949.

Oral history conducted by phone, Nov. 23, 2004, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

I have all these memories of my mother sighting somebody she heard about that was “this way” or “that way,” and “oh my God,” it was a major catastrophe. Well you’d never want to appear in that guise in front of her…

Back then, you simply did not make known your sexual proclivities. You just had to play a role; that was all there was to it. And you were always in danger, not so much of getting hurt, but of placing yourself in some sort of social jeopardy…It was a different mindset back then, and people felt trapped…There was no such thing as “coming out.” I mean, you’d destroy your family, yourself, and everybody if you came out back then. Unless you were a flaming queen, so to speak, and made a living off of it, you know, as some people did in the movies and on the stage and so forth…

I just felt like, I wish I had more freedom. It’s like the song in Annie Get Your Gun, “Doin’ What Comes Naturally.” It was just natural for me. As a kid, my earliest memories of sexual encounters were…having sex with [other boys]…For many years, I wished I had been out and out homosexual, because that’s where I had the most deep, meaningful feelings to me. But, on the other hand I wouldn’t have had children…Often times, getting married is about “this is what’s expected of you”…

[There was] no gay culture in the Army at all. The consequences were dire—a dishonorable discharge being the least of which. You could end up in the stockades. In fact, I knew a guy in the Army who did end up in the stockades.

Back in those days, I think a lot of people felt the tension and so forth of leading sort of a double existence drank a lot…We trying to act one part and we were something else, you see. Back in those days, I was a heavy drinker, for years. And most of the people I knew were. This is one of the things in the Army, we would find somebody that we felt compatible with, you’d go out and drink yourself silly and you’d end up in a room together…

[Relationships were] the furthest thing from most people’s minds back in those days…You just couldn’t have lasting relationships for the most part. Women could do it much better. In fact, even when I was growing up, I’m talking fifty, sixty years ago, seventy years ago, I can remember women living together. They’d just say “old maids” or whatever. But you get two men living together, holy cow. It’s just a different mindset…

You’d have friends that were in the know…There were never groups. Everybody was in fear of being stereotyped, you know, so you tried somehow to fit in the mold…[Gay groups] probably evolved out of, what would you say, the actual studies…And I wasn’t a good student back in those days…I was always sort of scurrying along. And I was, for that age group, just a wild thing. I used to go out and get drunk all the time, and carried on with a wild crowd…

I remember one of the football players [at Presti’s]…got a pitcher of beer and he chug-a-lugged it. And I’ve never seen anything like it. He chug-a-lugged the whole damn thing. He stood there for a second, and then it was like releasing a fire hydrant. He shot across the room, and he threw up the whole mess, and then, like you see in a cartoon, stiff as a board, he just went over backwards. If he hadn’t been unconscious, it probably would have broken his neck or something…

One tended to be very careful back then, ‘cause you didn’t know when it was going to backfire. Not only that, I knew a guy at Oberlin who was thrown out because another guy reported him for being queer, and they tossed him out of school…I couldn’t believe it…This is in Burton Hall, and the guy reported that this guy who I knew, and I knew he was gay, said that he had approached him in the lavatory. Now I have no idea whether he did or didn’t. But the fact of the matter was that he was called in and told to get out of school…With [my] closest friends we did [talk about it]. We all thought it was a travesty…