Personal Histories – François Clemmons (OC 67)

François Clemmons (OC 67). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

François Clemmons (OC 67). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Francois Clemmons was raised in Youngstown, Ohio, in a predominantly black community. His father worked in the steel mills and his mother sang in the local Baptist Church, an important institution for the family and the “biggest influence” on Clemmons’ musical life. Clemmons was attracted to Oberlin because of its civil rights history, and enrolled as a voice major in the Conservatory. Click here for information about his career after Oberlin. Clemmons shares his memories of Glover Parham (OC 67), a fellow voice major and close friend at Oberlin. The valedictorian of his high school class, Parham would later pursue a career in music and serve on the Oberlin Lambda Alumni steering committee. He died in 1995.

Oral history conducted by phone, Aug. 23, 2000, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

Oberlin was thought of as liberal and thought of as a place where a black kid could go to school and get a good education, and [it] had a history with the Underground Railroad…And many people talked to me about that, and I liked that very much…I met Dr. [Martin Luther] King while I was at Oberlin, at one of the graduations, and that was definitely one of the most influential moments in my whole life…And that’s the kind of thing I expected more of while I was at Oberlin…

[Oberlin was also] where I recognized that there was discrimination among gay people—much to my surprise. There were certain clubs that didn’t want black kids in there, if you went into Cleveland for example…There were times when I felt that the white gays stayed away from the black gays at Oberlin while I was there. We were so in and out of the closet, we really weren’t free, and we really weren’t always communicating on a level of how we felt as gay people in this culture, in this society. We very, very seldom sat down and talked like that. So sometimes I felt closer to black students who had had the same kind of background as I had had. In other words, growing up in a black ghetto, where your neighbors were black, your minister was black, your doctor was black, the apothecary was black…Coming to Oberlin was quite a cultural shock…

My family had a fundamentalist Christian background, which meant that any sex before marriage was considered fornication—and they meant it when they said it…Homosexuality was absolutely anathema. Nobody in his right mind wanted to be gay, and I did not want to be either. I knew my parents disapproved of homosexuality, which was another one of the reasons I tried to keep the closet doors closed for so long, ‘cause I wanted to please my parents. And then my minister, and the community people I spent time with, all of them made it very clear that homosexuality was a sin. Also weak-minded—they gave the impression that nobody with a strong mind or strong morals could be gay. Great artists were not gay—that’s what they said. Great thinkers were not gay. So there were so many reasons to want to be straight. And to live a moral life…meant you were celibate until you got married…

I did not have a sexual encounter until my sophomore year…It became an affair [and] lasted off and on for the rest of my Oberlin undergraduate years. He was my primary sexual contact…There was no sense that I had to be committed to him, [and] there were a couple of other contacts, but there was always this tremendous surreptitiousness about it…

The first openly gay people I met were at Oberlin…I met [Glover Parham] in the Conservatory [as a freshman]…He was erudite in his ways; he always seemed to know so damn much. And I always felt like a disciple. I know that sounds silly; we were practically the same age, but there were so many things that he seemed to introduce me to. And they were wonderful things…We read some of [James Baldwin’s] books, The Fire Next Time and I think it was Glover that suggested I read Giovanni’s Room…So we talked an awful lot about writers like James Baldwin who had traveled all over the world, who had been involved in the civil rights struggle with Dr. King on the front lines, [and] that this great man was gay. ‘Cause I really thought gay people could not be very bright or brilliant or geniuses or anything like that, or artistic leaders of their community…And Glover knew about [Langston Hughes] and his poetry and the Harlem Renaissance. That’s where I first heard about the Harlem Renaissance and all of the writers that ultimately turned out to be gay…

Glover Parham (OC 67). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Glover Parham (OC 67). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Glover and I were never lovers…but we were close friends in that we resonated on a very similar, on a very close level. He was a baritone and I was a tenor, so we enjoyed singing a lot of duets together…He fell in love with me, and he wanted to have an affair. And I didn’t think it was right for us. I really felt more like brothers. He was the type of person that was very intense, very compelling personality, and I thoroughly loved being with him…He came to visit my family in Youngstown, Ohio, which was a disaster. My parents recognized…that he was gay. And there were some words that were spoken…What it boiled down to is both of us left. And that was the beginning of a rocky, rocky road with [my family]…

And I also went to visit his family, down in Fairfield, Alabama, outside of Birmingham…His father was a doctor and his mother was an educated woman—I think she taught school…And his parents were much more accepting and treated me like a son…They really treated me like family…And that’s the kind of person Glover was. Once he opened his arms and his heart to me, his whole family did…His family was the dream family I had hoped for. Because I’m sure his mother knew he was gay and everyone thought we were lovers, but we weren’t…We were literally best friends…

I began to open my mind to the possibilities of just human growth for a gay person, because secretly I knew all this time that I was gay, but I wasn’t out of the closet. And I did all these things to try to throw people off my trail. I dated occasionally, and I said the proper things about women. Because there was a certain amount of terror associated with being gay. And so watching this person like Glover who didn’t give a damn, he appeared not to give a damn about what other people thought, and he had his family’s support, made him appear very strong in my sight. And so I admired him tremendously. Tremendously…

There were times that he spoke in a very articulate manner about his sexual choice…I remember once he was talking to a bunch of the kids [at Oberlin]. And somebody stated that there was a very sensitive situation and only really a woman would understand the feelings around that incident. And Glover spoke up and said, “I can’t imagine anyone having any more feelings than I have.” [laughs]…I mean, that was going against a stereotype. Men were supposed to be unfeeling and butch and strong, and aloof and laidback, and here was this passionate guy, very articulate, saying I feel that situation just like a woman. Everybody was kind of stunned…

Those who were my classmates and hung around with us sort of knew I was gay, but they were very nonjudgmental… The black students really kind of accepted me as a friend of Glover’s…and they knew he was gay. So my being around with him gave me a certain kind of approval…I didn’t feel estranged from them at all…I came out more and more with my close friends as I went from my sophomore to junior to senior year…

[Oberlin’s black community] was very close-knit. I think we crossed lines between the College and the Conservatory…Some of us were involved in the civil rights struggle at the time. Some of our white friends helped us and were supportive also… There was a liberal, open community that went into Cleveland and protested at Woolworth’s, for example, we went to Elyria, Lorain on certain days. We knew when Dr. King was coming to the area…We didn’t have all-black tables in those days. Like years later, there were kids who came in and insisted on a kind of superficial separation. And I didn’t feel that…

There were some bars [in Cleveland] that we would drive to that were lesbians as well as gay men there…And it was interesting, because I didn’t know any lesbians before that…In those days you were always afraid the police were going to raid them. There was always that feeling. They were a little bit like dives, you know, they were not cutting edge discos yet, and there was always this partial feeling of surreptitiousness, that you were sneaking off of Oberlin’s campus to go to a gay bar. That you were doing something that people would disapprove of, or had disapproved of. And that if you were caught there might have been repercussions…And I was always praying that the police would come in and ask for ID. I didn’t want any scandal. My family would have been mortified had I been arrested… Only one or two were white only…I went because it was a lark, it was fun, Glover was going, among some of the other kids. There were sometimes other “closet queens,” as they were called, we would go to the bars together…Some of them had girlfriends as well as me. I had girlfriends. I had several.

I think that [older people] had some power over us as young [gay] people, in terms of us denying us recommendations, I thought faculty and staff would be prejudiced against us…It was not an open life choice, and I subsequently got married. And I specifically married to please my parents…I was so profoundly unable to make a decision against their wishes, in that area, because I thought I was a sinner and I’d go to hell. And I didn’t wanted to die and go to hell, so I thought that taking my parent’s advice was the only course to have a happy, healthy life. But they were wrong. Very wrong…