Personal Histories – Bill Hood (OC Professor of Art History)

Interview with Retiring Professor of Art History, Bill Hood
By Leslie Myers (85)

Photo courtesy of Oberlin Lambda Alumni.

Photo courtesy of Oberlin Lambda Alumni.

Leslie: Tell me about your early years at Oberlin.

Bill: I came to Oberlin in the fall of 1974, following graduate school in New York and three years of dissertation research in Rome. I was closeted, though the first year at Oberlin did a lot to alleviate my fears of negative consequences, especially in the professional sphere. I just wasn’t ready. Here I had the good fortune to live across the hall from two art history graduate students (there was a master’s program then), Gail Feigenbaum and Paul Ettesvold. Paul was one of the funniest, most self-assured, and happily flamboyant gay men I have ever met. He was a real inspiration to me; and Gail’s warm-hearted, cheerful acceptance of gay men and lesbians gave me the self-confidence that I needed to come out. Later that fall, I started a relationship with another faculty member, gradually became more politically active, and have been out ever since.

In the mid-1970’s, the activities among gay students seemed to be mostly social, not political. The drag ball was going on, though not at the magnitude of today’s event. I lament the overall lack of support for any young new faculty at that time, queer or otherwise, though this has improved enormously over the years.

As I came out and became surer of myself, I began to feel like an older brother to lesbian and gay students. (In the early ’70s we didn’t yet have the term “LGBT.” Few people believed that there could really be such a thing as truly “bisexual” people, and I don’t remember ever hearing a discussion of transgender issues. Also, I belong to the generation that finds it very, very difficult to use the word “queer,” because for me it is a term loaded with danger, recrimination, and shame.) I realized that I could support them in a way that no one had supported me when I was young, and I sort of reached out to them. Some took me as a mentor, and a few even came out during conversations in my living room. Word got around that I was someone students could talk to, that I would keep their confidences and never be shocked.

Leslie: What do you know about the inception of OLA?

Bill: OLA was conceived in the early 1980’s, with the first meeting at the home of Clayton Koppes and Bill Norris. I don’t recall whose idea it was, but Norm Robertson and Andy Cemelli, (later honored by a grant and a prize in their names), as well as other students and alums, were there. Also instrumental in the founding was Midge Brittingham; the crucial support of the Alumni Office and her passion for the cause of OLA were critical in getting the OK from the Alumni Association.

At the time, the political climate on campus fostered serious divisions among LGBT students, as they were known by then. There were several reasons for this, I think. For one, lesbians’ politics had come from the broader community of ideas born from the women’s movement (despite less than ideal acceptance from straight women there). I would say that the women’s goals were far more nuanced and comprehensive by comparison with what male students were seeking to achieve. The role models for young gay men had empowered themselves in the years immediately following Stonewall, and were creating a body of new gay art, literature, drama, and music. While the lesbians had their eyes on the gendered Realpolitik of economics and access to power, young gay men were creating a variety of cheerfully hedonistic cultures that are with us still. Thus young gay men’s politics, as opposed to lesbian politics, had a lot to do with claiming their individual rights to untethered sexual expression and – ironically — to the freedom to express their love for each other publicly. Additionally, there were enormous class and racial divisions among segments of the queer student body at Oberlin, which further divided them and made it difficult to bring clearly focused queer issues into a broader campus dialogue. It was a huge problem. Some of the alumni who helped to start the OLA wanted to help students understand that these divisions weakened them in local politics. Don’t forget that AIDS was virtually unknown on American campuses until 1982 or ’83 at the very earliest and was several years away from becoming a galvanizing force for unity. Many faculty, staff, and alums felt that these student factions all needed to recognize that queerness should be their primary issue. To tell you the truth, though, I am not sure that they ever have.

Leslie: What else was happening in the queer community at Oberlin at that time?

Bill: In the late 1980’s, if I remember the date correctly, Bill Norris, who’s a sociologist, published a report called “The Two Oberlins.” He based it on a careful survey of attitudes towards LGBT issues and people held by everyone at Oberlin: students, faculty, and staff. It appeared in a scholarly journal, and I think I’m correct in saying that it was the first professional, scholarly study of queer issues in any American academic community. He summarized the findings in a speech to the General Faculty and called for the College to establish a regular Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Concerns. Its purpose was to canvass and address the needs of LGBT faculty and staff, to alert the College to these needs, to work with student organizations, and to promote Queer Studies. In particular, we wanted to reach out to lesbian faculty and staff, who at the time were not very visible by comparison with the men. The General Faculty received Bill’s speech with the thundering silence of profound embarrassment. There were no questions. There was no discussion. The motion to form the LGBT Concerns Committee passed very quickly and without audible dissent.

Leslie: What are some other things that have happened in your “Queer life at Oberlin?”

Bill: I was the only faculty member I know to have been “fired” by a group of students because of my attitudes towards homosexuality. I was the faculty advisor for the Oberlin Christian Fellowship, and one of their men had come out with my support. When the larger organization became aware of this, they sent someone to test my theological orthodoxy. She asked me a bunch of questions such as, “Do you believe in homosexuality?” I told her that I didn’t “believe in” homosexuality any more than I “believe in” the sun’s rising. Both are phenomena of nature. For that reason neither homosexuality nor the sun’s rising requires me to make an act of faith in order to accommodate it into my life. For that reason as well, I continued, neither homosexuality nor the sun’s rising has any inherent moral content at all. It quickly became clear to me that this student did not have the theological equipment necessary to understand the answers I was giving her. So it was also obvious that what she was going to report to the OCF would be a very garbled version of what I had actually said. To get us both out of a tight spot I volunteered to write a statement that would express in my own words what I believed about homosexuality and the Bible. Of course I knew that the OCF students would regard it as seriously heretical, and they did. Within a day or two, they dismissed me as their faculty advisor. But the whole experience had served my purpose, which was to force some Oberlin students to take seriously the reality of homosexual experience, on the one hand, and to try to integrate it into their beliefs as Christians. The fact that they couldn’t do that spoke volumes about the level of their theological sophistication and the skill with which they had forbidden their faith to penetrate their minds. Unfortunately, most of them still seemed to think that you had to cash in your brain to be a Christian. You don’t.

A related incident occurred some time in the 1990s, when an Oberlin Religion professor was among the authors of an article on homosexuality and the Bible that appeared in a distinguished conservative theological journal called First Things. It argued that the Bible puts into serious doubt any Christian validation of same-sex love. People at Oberlin got wind of the piece through an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, and all hell broke loose among the students. Some of us – I think it was the LGBT Committee – decided to respond by holding a kind of open forum, or speak-in, in Wilder Main. Several faculty and staff members, not all of them gay, read statements reflecting on the article from the viewpoint of their own experience. I was one of them. Afterwards the Minister of First Church asked me to have coffee. I did, and he talked me into giving a series of talks to his congregation about what it means to me to be a gay Christian. I forget how many Sundays I spoke, but I do know that I was terrified on every single one of them. After all, First Church is where the Brahmins of Oberlin address their Higher Power, and the audience was full of very, very distinguished senior members of the Oberlin faculty. But I did it, and felt very well received. First Church subsequently voted to become an Open and Accepting Community, welcoming all Queer people.

Leslie: What are your thoughts about homophobia in Oberlin and beyond?

Bill: When I first came to Oberlin, in the active 1970’s, being gay was only one mode of being transgressive; in certain circles of students, it was already cool. For the most part, the Oberlin faculty are middle-class, knee-jerk liberals. Homophobia has always been a non-issue among them because to make it an issue would require them to talk about it, and they just aren’t going to do that, any more than they are going to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity. Among students, however, homophobia, largely from the wider world, can be a fatal illness, with a lot of subsequent depression attributable to it. Despite what one might think about the consequences of all the openness in these days, such as Queer as Folk, internalized homophobia would not be a big deal here, But my sense is that it still is, though less than twenty or even ten years ago. A gay student once told me that it’s easy to be out at Oberlin, but not always easy to come out.

Being gay on the Oberlin faculty has been one of the great plus marks in my life, with many great and lasting friendships.

Leslie: What do you plan for your retirement?

Bill: Retirement for me means that I do not have to make any immediate decisions. Therefore, I have no plans for the first year after I retire in December.

Leslie: Thank you very much for talking to me.

Bill: It has been my pleasure.