Personal Histories – Stella Graham (OC 73)

The oldest of four children, Graham was raised primarily in Richmond, Virginia. Her mother was nineteen and her father, a liberal Presbyterian minister, was twenty-four when she was born. As a junior in high school, Graham decided she wanted to be a physical education teacher—“which made my parents absolutely crazy,” Graham recalled. During her senior year, she also began a relationship with a physical education teacher at her high school—a young, married woman who left her husband and followed Graham to Oberlin in 1969.

Oral history conducted by phone, May 3, 2005, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

GrahamNot a lot of people know that Oberlin had a very strong P.E. department…That being my interest, I decided I would apply to Oberlin, and was accepted. [Physical Education] was a freedom for me…The women in the P.E. Department seemed to have a lot more freedom regarding how they viewed the world…I mean, they just seemed like really strong women, and that was even before I was in touch with my own sexual preference.

The sexual revolution was happening more in New York and California. It was not happening in the hills of Virginia. You had sitcoms like the Dick Van Dyke Show and The Partridge Family…The sexual awareness was not part of the American culture at that time. A lot of the people at my high school and a lot of the girls in my class who I was friends with were really only beginning to become aware as themselves as sexual beings…

I had crushes on women from the time I was five years old. Once, when I was thirteen, fourteen, I remember one friend of mine saying there was a word that described that, but she didn’t know what it was. But I sort of got the warning that ‘hmmm, this is not cool.’ So I went under cover for a while, until I met the [P.E.] teacher, when I was a [high school] senior. I was an assistant in the gym a lot, which is how I got to know her, and it was classic falling in love. Her husband was in the Reserves [and] he would go out of town…That was when I started to discover and act on my sexual feelings…There was one level of me that did think this was different, but I didn’t realize how much scorn our love would inspire in other people. I had to learn the shame. I had to learn the self-homophobia, which I only carried minimally…But I just learned you don’t tell anybody about it…I pretty much kept my own council about most things…When I met [the P.E. teacher], she filled the need of someone to talk to, to confide in…

In the fall of ’69, I went to get an apartment so I went to Oberlin Psychological Services [to get special permission] and I said, “I’m a homosexual, and my girlfriend has moved here and I want to live off campus with her. If we could get married we would, [but] we can’t.” This was just sort of amazing. I mean, here I am, I’m eighteen years old, I’m going to Psych Services and saying, this is who I am and this is what I want…I really never had a sense of being judged at all at Oberlin. We lived in an apartment complex on College Avenue, and my girlfriend found a job in one of the surrounding cities as a P.E. teacher…We had friends there and we were accepted…I think there was a lot of acceptance for “women who were joined at the hip.” People who had problems with it didn’t socialize with us.

It was really a time that, as a whole, people on the edge were starting to talk about sexuality. That was starting to happen at Oberlin, too. It was new to experiment. It was much, much different than what it must be like for most gays and lesbians today…[Now] it’s so much more part of the vocabulary. When I first got to Oberlin, I didn’t even know the word. “Lesbian, dyke, queer, fag”—these were words that no one ever said. [At that time], sexuality was so much more repressed…and everything was really changing, in the whole nation…

In the very beginning of 1970, I was listening to late night radio and I heard a woman talking who said she was a lesbian and she was with an organization called Daughters of Bilitis. And I came to. It was the first time in my life I had ever heard somebody talking about people like me…It was the first lesbian I had ever heard! The only other lesbian I knew was Carol, my partner…They may have given [the woman’s address] on the show…and I wrote to her and she wrote back…Daughters of Bilitis was a national organization and they pushed a journal called The Ladder. She sent me a copy of that and it was such a freeing experience, to finally know there was someone else. Not only was there one other person, but there were apparently several others…I was not aware of the word lesbian before…This is the first time I was exposed to any of this and it was incredible!…

My freshman year, second semester, was when Kent State happened, and that really politicized a lot of us. It really increased our awareness of our political voices, of saying that the war in Vietnam is not okay [and] the treatment of people protesting at Kent State is not okay…It was an incredible time to go to Oberlin. It was like there was a waking-up in America. My partner was not political at all, not interested in any of that—she was just a “good ole girl.” She was from the Midwest and [was] back in a place that felt very similar to how she grew up…That relationship ended after two years and she stayed in the Elyria/Amherst area…That’s when I became a lot more politically involved at Oberlin…

I got involved with Professors Maureen Miller and Dave Miller who became very interested in human sexuality. There was a whole movement at that time that was just beginning about sexual awareness…I became involved with them as a trainer. They were running these workshops for people in the “helping” professions—ministers, counselors, medical professionals—helping people start talking about sexuality. Not just gay/lesbian stuff, but masturbating [and] talking about Giovanni and sexual parts…It really was a sexual revolution! People were going, “I’ve got a body. It’s fine, it’s sexual, it’s wonderful. I want to talk about it.”…One of the parts of the sexuality forums were movie machines playing porno movies with music going in the background…This would last for two hours…This would go halfway through the third of the week…By this time you were so bombarded with these images that people would talk about anything, and that was the point of it…

And it was just hugely exciting for me to be able to be there saying, “Hey, I’m a lesbian and I love women, and I’m okay.” It was the time of the “I’m okay, you’re okay” movement…This was the first time I started talking about being a lesbian. I went from not talking about it because my partner was a teacher and she would have been at risk if anybody found out…to [the point where] you couldn’t shut me up about it. That was in 1972…

There were a number of gay men as well…There were people who [spoke about] bisexual experiences, but I was the only lesbian involved in this…It was very heady. I had this incredible sense of power that here I was, somebody that other people kind of went [gasp] “Oh my gosh,” and that they were astounded that I could talk about it. And I got a lot of strokes for being a lesbian and being out…from the people who went to these workshops, from students, although there were probably some that thought I was very strange…Also, this was Oberlin. People were doing really different things. When I was freshman before I moved off-campus, Jerry would go to the convenient store and sell snacks on the floor—you know, Jerry of “Ben and Jerry.”

About that time [1972], women were pushing to get a Women’s Collective as one of the dorm options. I applied for and got the dorm resident position for that. I was senior resident in the house, and I think there were twenty or nineteen women. We had a few more women than were actually on the college role…We were turning these little closets into rooms. We would have house meetings every week…We [also] regularly had dances. We would make runs to the local convenience store and buy 3.2 beer.

I identified very much as a feminist. If you were a feminist, you didn’t need to be a lesbian, but I did believe that if you were a lesbian you needed to be a feminist, and that certainly is naïve. But where I stood in that little community in Oberlin, it seemed like most lesbians were feminists…There were no lesbian organizations on campus, but the Women’s Collective was as good as it got…Of the women were there, a number of the women had sexual experiences with other women at some point. Either when they were there, before they were there, or after they were there, but for the most part by no means were even half the women there lesbians…There was a [lesbian couple] at the Women’s Collective, one of whom is now married to a man and has children, but the other woman stayed with women…I did not hear a lot of debate [about lesbianism]. It was like “these are new times—whatever you are is powerful.” It would have been very “un-PC” to criticize someone for being a lesbian. More likely you could be criticized for not being, or for not trying it, for not at least be open minded about the possibility of it…

The college newspaper failed to publish some articles about women. A group of us were enraged by that, and we published an alternative newspaper—it was what the Review wouldn’t print. There was a press in town that used to be associated with the Weathermen and SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], and I worked part-time there…We went right behind the Oberlin Review staff as they dropped off the Review, and as they dropped theirs off we took theirs and put ours in their place. It was just incredible—we all felt just so amazingly powerful by being able to pull this off…[The newspaper, The Review Rip-Off, included a re-print of the Radicalesbians’ May 1970 article, “The Woman-identified Woman”]…

We did find out that there was a lesbian bar in Akron. There’s actually a gay and lesbian bar…I think the Inferno’s Den, maybe, was the lesbian bar…I have pictures of women in leather pants and shades in this dark bar at night…It was mostly just the camaraderie of going with the women from Oberlin…It was rebellious, it was scintillating: “Here we were at a lesbian bar, being the very hip, savvy adults that we were.”

The Internship for Homosexual Concerns began during my last year at Oberlin…I don’t remember how in the world it came about, my impetus to start this, but I went to the people in Psychological Services about offering this. Being the senior resident at the Women’s Collective, being involved in Women’s Studies, being involved in the Sexuality Forum, I got to know the people in Sex Services and [in] the Administration. I used to cut [President Bob] Fuller’s hair sitting outside in the Quad. I cut the Dean of Women’s Students hair…It was a time when a lot of boundaries were being crossed. There was actually a possibility of having that position created.