Personal Histories – Bobbi Keppel (OC 55)

Audio clip:


“I got a very positive introduction to queer culture…”

Bobbi Keppel was one of two children raised by educated, agnostic, “somewhat oddball” parents outside of Washington, D.C. Her father, a politically progressive government worker, was blacklisted and suspended from his job while Keppel was a student at Oberlin—a victim of the McCarthy era. “Ironically,” Keppel recalled, “the regulation under which he was fired covered people who have tendencies toward subversion, alleged tendencies towards subversion, or are homosexual.” Her mother also worked for the government, but left the family for an overseas job when Keppel was in high school. Today, Keppel is an outspoken bisexual activist and author.

Oral history conducted by phone, Aug. 17, 2004, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

I never doubted that I was heterosexual. I never heard anything much about queer folks. I think the whole time I was at Oberlin, if I heard two comments about somebody being “pansies,” they were called them then, gay men; that’s probably the most I ever heard…

Just generally, Oberlin was very focused on having us be good students and work hard and be creative and all that, but not when it came to sex. And it was very, very hard for students to figure out how to practice safer sex. And the issue then, of course, was pregnancy…So I would say it’s sort of a mixed message. That on the one hand be curious, and be creative, and all that stuff, and on the other hand-—this place’s motto is “learning and labor,” right? So the emphasis is on working hard, and for no other reason, they probably wouldn’t want us to be distracted by sex.

[My junior year, at University College in London,] there were a lot of homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks that were made, which really flabbergasted me. And people made cracks that included something about Oscar Wilde’s name, which was their way of saying “queer.” But I went with a couple of my classmates from Oberlin down to the French Riviera for Christmas vacation, to stay with a woman who was a friend of one of their parents. And she had a number of artist friends who were gay men and lesbians…These people were mostly expatriates from England, because at that time the sodomy law was twenty years in jail. And these folks didn’t want to risk that. So they moved to the Riviera after the war and they just stayed there.

And so my hostess there took me around introduced me to people, and then I went back for about six weeks in the summer and stayed with her without the other two guys from Oberlin. And I got more into that culture and spent more time with her friends…Some of them were really, really marvelous artists, and the woman I was staying with was very, very knowledgeable about art…So the message was very clear to me, without hardly anything being said, that these were great folks and you’re lucky to know them. And she told me that they were queer early on, but after that it wasn’t really a subject of discussion. The subject was art. So there’s nothing like having somebody just model that this was perfectly normal acceptable behavior to make my brain sort of go, “hmmm” [laughs], that at least in France this is perfectly normal, acceptable behavior…

[At Oberlin,] we were still in the mental illness era…It was in the first course I took, and it was Dr. Cole, who was the department head at that time, who taught [the introductory Psychology class]. And we didn’t spend any time to speak of on [homosexuality]. It was just one of those things that was mentioned as essentially a mental illness.

So I’d say my friends in France did a good job of undoing that [laughing]. But I still didn’t associate that with me, I really did not have same sex attractions that I’m aware of… I feel that my life has been so enriched by being bisexual that sometimes I wonder if Oberlin had been a friendly place for queer folks, is this something that would have changed for me?…I look at my daughter who’s bisexual too, and think well, “Wow she knew when she when she was five years old.” It’s like a whole different life.