Personal Histories – Roger Goodman (OC 68) (page 1 of 3)

Audio clips:

“America was in turmoil…”

“We were the best musicians…”

Roger Goodman (OC 68). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Roger Goodman (OC 68). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.


Raised in a middle class, Jewish, suburban family, Roger Goodman remembers a childhood “filled with monstrosity.” His family maintained a respective, “healthy” façade, but Goodman recalls “emotional, physical, [and] sexual abuse, all hidden behind closed doors.” He was aware of his attractions to men from a very early age, but knew enough to keep it a secret; homosexual “was a word of terror,” he recalls. His parents, both members of the Communist Party, nonetheless helped instill a sense of “justice” in Goodman; he remembers watching the McCarthy hearings on television with his family as a seminal moment in his life.
Oral history conducted in Oberlin, OH, Oct. 1 and 4, 1999, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

I grew up with music, which was very important…My only emotional outlet as a child was my piano, and so I became, at least interpretively, a child prodigy…I remember I used to enter piano competitions [and] the judges would always…take notes on each performance and send the notes and remarks and comments to the teachers for the teacher to see. My teacher showed me one of the sets of remarks from one judge. And it said no child of this age should ever be able to express such pain, such sadness, such rage, such depth of emotion. Something is not right here. And I am convinced now as an adult that what I was expressing was not only all of that stuff [that] was happening in my home, but it was about being gay. I knew I was a freak, and that I had to hide at all costs this truth about myself…

Why I chose Oberlin as a place to come I’m not sure; I auditioned at four or five different music schools. I didn’t have to come to Oberlin, but there was something so loving and so embracing about the town, about the architecture, about the committee that listened to my auditions…and I told my parents I don’t want to go to Juilliard School of Music in New York, I want to go to Oberlin College in Ohio…

There was something that drew me here and I didn’t know what that something was. Now I know what that something was, but that’s in retrospect and has to do with my spiritual training. I had to be here because I had to meet and work with [head of Oberlin Psychological Services] John Thomson in a psychotherapeutic relationship in order to come blasting out of my closet after one semester of psychotherapy. I came here as a very frightened, very fat, very socially awkward, highly egocentric and yet frightened Jewish pianist, among all the other frightened, fat, egocentric Jewish pianists, you know. I wasn’t any different than any of the students in the Conservatory my freshman year, I don’t think…

When I first got here I felt isolated. I still carrying around my closet on my back, like a monkey on my back, and I went crazy. I had a small little nervous breakdown and…locked [my roommate] out of the dormitory room. I wouldn’t let him in because I was terrified to go out, because there were all these men around and my parents weren’t around. So my sexual energy started to just get so directed towards the reality of man possibilities instead of the fantasy of man impossibilities…When I got here at Oberlin I knew that my fantasies could become a reality; that’s what made me crazy!…

I told [John Thompson] that I was a homosexual and I didn’t know what to do with this, and he said, “Well if you’re coming to see me because you want me to make you straight then I’m telling you that you should see another therapist because I won’t do that to you.” And he explained to me that I had opportunities…throughout my years prior to Oberlin to dig around inside myself so much, because I had to live a completely interiorized life, that I was finding out truth about myself that most students would never have to even think about because the world was made for heterosexuals. So as a homosexual, I was forced to go deep inside and that his job was to help me bring those truths and that self-knowledge to the surface…[Thompson] was a compassionate man who worked from his heart. And he was the first man who accepted me just as I am. With no judgment of any kind…

He would show me [the work of] Evelyn Hooker…[that showed] homosexuality was not a mental illness. It was her work that started that whole thing with the American Psychiatric Association taking [homosexuality] out of the DSM…And John would come in waving these articles that he had read, showing me the graphs and the statistics and saying, “You see, you are not sick! Believe me, I told you that you are not sick! So does Evelyn Hooker! She tells you that you are not sick!”…I can’t really pinpoint want John did to make me love myself but love me. He loved me! And that enabled me to love myself…He began to teach me that being gay was a beautiful and wonderful thing, and this was a straight psychotherapist in the 1960s, which is outrageous when I think about it. So after one semester I just threw that closet door open and came out like a whirlwind!…

Oberlin at that time was a wildfire word-of-mouth community. So all I needed to do was tell a few people, and they told a few people, and they told a few people…’til everyone on campus knew…People I didn’t even know knew…On Parent’s Weekend…someone in the liberal arts college I had absolutely no contact with and didn’t know…whisper[ed] to their parents, quite enough for me to hear, “That’s Roger Goodman. He’s homosexual and he doesn’t care who knows it!”…

And it was actually quite wonderful because I was considered very exotic and people wanted to know me because they couldn’t figure out why someone would do this…

My circle of friends were the most brilliant students on campus, the most creative, the most dynamic. And we flocked together because we were all those things, but they also swarmed around me because there was something outrageously creative about saying, “I’m gay and I’m happy! And you will deal with me!” So I became kind of a celebrity, which I loved because, you know, I grew up being told I was absolutely nothing and that I would never be anything…And when I got here to Oberlin with all the messages that I would be nothing that I wasn’t smart enough I wasn’t clever enough I wasn’t adept enough I would never be able to do anything that a male was supposed to be able to do, I found that at Oberlin, I was something. And that something was being gay. And for a man in the ‘60s, eighteen years old, nineteen years old, to know that was a marvel…

And I would sit exotically draped over a chair, you know, very Oscar Wilde-y-ish…with my long hair and all my beads and all my scarves…I carried this thing over my shoulder where I kept all my pens and pencils and journals and such things, you know sometimes the jocks on campus would tease me and say, “Hey is that your purse, Goodman?” And I’d say, “I actually just call it my bag.” But no one ever harassed me. They didn’t dare harass me, because my self-identity came from such a strong source of power! An occasional tease from a jock, but usually people kept their distance. They would just cross the sidewalk if I was walking down the sidewalk. Because I felt so empowered by being out in a world where being out was certainly not done.

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