Personal Histories – Robert Durand (OC 34)

Audio clip:


“There was always talk of homosexuals…”

Robert Durand (OC 34). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Robert Durand (OC 34). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.


Born in Washington D.C. and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, Robert Durand studied economics at George Washington University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He transferred to Oberlin his senior year, where he also majored in economics. Durand would later earn an MBA from Harvard, serve in World War II, teach economics courses at Army bases, and work in the advertising field in New York City. He died in New York City in March 2005 and is survived by his male partner.

Oral history conducted in New York City, June 2000, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

I lived in a middle-class neighborhood in North Carolina…It was really white except down the street there were other groups who lived in the area…Asheville was a center for curing of tuberculosis on account of it having dry air—it was good for the lungs. This was the reason my mother took the family to Asheville. My father stayed behind in Washington working [and later died in the 1930s].

As a high school kid, there were a bunch of us in the neighborhood, a gang, and we had homosexual experiences among ourselves and I felt like I was more “gung-ho” than most. This went on for about one summer or more… The sex interlude was not too long, but we went sailing through it [laughs]…I didn’t know the term homosexual and we didn’t have too much of a problem. I think my mother had some ideas about it, but neither of my other two brothers did it and didn’t participate but they knew about it…All the gangs of boys in the neighborhood did it… At first it was lots of fun—we knew we shouldn’t tell any of our parents or other adults about it…We would say “we’re having sex, do you want to join in?” Some of the people said yes and others said no, and that was that…

One didn’t identify as gay…you were just assumed to be “regular”—that means heterosexual. All those who engaged in homosexual activities were just the same…They were “heterosexual,” in general. In a sense, we regarded ourselves in that way.

There were various episodes and activities and then we stopped it because it was frowned upon… We were all beginning to go our separate ways, going to college and moving out, being away from the neighborhood…It was something we could do as kids but after that we had to stop. We finally decided that we’d better stop it and it probably was the wrong thing to do…We liked to do camping trips in Asheville…It was very lovely country, beautiful camping country…and that was the activity that we did more than anything else in high school, and we kept it up afterwards without the sex…

I didn’t have any specific desire [in college] but I was very interested in the same-sex…I had some close friendships, but no sex. I didn’t have very much to do with the girls—I was always very embarrassed around the girls…There were some homosexuals that I knew at school, or they were repudiated to be—that was at Chapel Hill…Those people were just isolated cases who had described their having sex with other guys. They would talk to anybody, almost anybody. They would yack and talk about sex with other guys to no end…I never did anything, I don’t really know why…I think it was because it wasn’t the thing to do…but it peaked my interest all right!…

There weren’t words that people used to describe men who had sex with men…But later there was “pansy”…There were some people who though that it was immoral, [but] most young people had their minds pretty well open…They wouldn’t dream of preaching! [In the 1930s] things began to open up very slowly…But that was only in academic circles or small circles…People began to say more about it and it became more discussed…And this applied to all sex— hetero or homo. So much in the ‘30s was changing; new ideas and attitudes towards sex would not be so strange. They would open up a bit. But only a bit! Nothing at all like we have today where it feels wide-open.

I rationalized [being attracted to men] by having the opinion that all of us were attracted to one another [and that people’s decision to act on their desires] was a matter of degree and a matter of how much repression that was going on. That’s how I felt about it [and] this was accepted by a lot of people whether they did it or not. My belief at the time was that a lot of them did it at one time or another, to some degree…At the later dates I liked the women, and after I had married her I loved her in bed too—some of the best sexual experiences I had!

Now I identify as being homosexual, and the business of being bisexual turns me off…But there are some people who are really bisexual…I would say that they are primarily heterosexual but occasionally homosexual…But those who are occasionally heterosexual but primarily homosexual, that would be me—that’s how I identify…I came to terms with being attracted to men early, and it no longer really worried me. By the time I got married I began to wonder whether I would be any good as a heterosexual with women. After I got married I decided I was okay in that department too, so I didn’t really worry anymore…

Mae West was popular [during my time at Oberlin], but I don’t remember any specific conversations about her. I lived in Oberlin with my great Aunt and my grandmother. They were living together at Oberlin in a house which we shared with a Conservatory student…There were some effeminate men in the Oberlin Conservatory. The guy I roomed with was not effeminate, but he was not a “butch” type at all. He was a musician and decided about his music as his life. And of course they get picked on for that.

Those were the Oberlin days…I saw some of the Mae West movies that she made…and of course it wasn’t the biggest thing in the world but it was very popular at the time. She became famous for having this large following of presumably gay body builders…

Racially, Oberlin welcomed colored people, but there weren’t very many. It was nearly all white…There were some other Europeans occasionally because of faculty…Oberlin had a more relaxed attitude—it was not uptight. The University of North Carolina was progressive too…

At the colleges I didn’t have any [sexual experiences]—not at Oberlin because I was a bit isolated living with relatives in the town and only one other student close, so I wasn’t into it much. At the other schools there was always talk of homosexuals…They would talk about cases that they knew about [and] there were a few cases where people were talking about it and they acknowledged that they had done it, and a few others that they would do it during this period in North Carolina. And their attitude towards it wasn’t much different than mine; they weren’t worrying too much about it.

The Great Depression was a good experience if you could get by. We were able to get by and only spent money on what was necessary, thanks to the men of the family. My father had died earlier in the 30s, and my mother was sick and recovering and taking care of the family. It was strange; people these days who were living at that time during that kind of means. They were terribly poor and didn’t spend money. You had fun and didn’t feel really deprived. I became quite radical. I became a Socialist…