Essay written July, 2004.
My Oberlin story from the early 1960’s is about how typical it was then to deny one’s nontraditional sexual orientation, and to attempt to be straight.
I grew up in a white middle class farm town lodged between the suburbs and the steel mills of Cleveland. I was the leader in a high school class of 39. I was and still am surrounded by a large friendly extended family. My father and his twin brother married sisters and our families lived next door to each other. My sister and I have three double cousins. All of the above with my grandparents operated a greenhouse farm.
Although I was popular and got strokes for good grades and musical ability my school years were filled with shame and alienation. I endured name-calling for not being a competitive athlete. I attributed the names—sissy and fag—to my lack of athletic libido and prowess, not to someone’s judgment about my sexuality. This was in spite of my growing awareness of being attracted to boys (certainly I was aware by seventh grade). I wrote a number of prayers expressing a wish to be a good husband and father. This was my code for, “Take away this attraction to boys.”
I had two crushes on boys that I managed by being close to their sisters, and this made me feel ashamed because I felt like I was using the girls. I remember feeling pressure to perform as a boy when I was not feeling propelled by sexual feelings. I believe now that I was also responding to a non-verbal message from my mother to be a “good,” meaning non-sexual, boy. My discovery of masturbation was delayed until my years at Oberlin and it more or less coincided with my first sexual experience with a man. I could barely acknowledge some of these problems to myself, let alone talk to some else about them. No wonder I felt alienated.
At Oberlin (1959-1963) I identified myself as a flawed heterosexual, and did not identify at all with my same-sex desires. I spent a lot of energy repressing my sexual orientation and preparing to be a married man. I probably appeared quite sociable while feeling desperately different inside.
From my present perspective I know that my family loved and accepted my great-uncle, a professor at UC Berkley, who was gay, although this was never talked about. I was also aware that one of the most respected teachers in my high school was known by my parents to be a “homosexual”…
I seemed to have internalized a strong message that the only way to be was married. I didn’t perceive a change in this message when I arrived at Oberlin. On one hand there was relief from the pressure to be athletic and there was support for being smart and musical. On the other hand, I assumed that boys dated girls in order to neck kiss and have sex. I can’t say whether this was an assumption I brought to Oberlin or one I acquired there. Either way it was the result of internal musing rather than social intercourse. I was not open about my sexuality and I was not aware of any gay students at all. The only two gay classmates that I know now have come out in the last 5 years at about the same time that I did.
I developed a close trusting friendship with a classmate that culminated in mutual masturbation, hardly a hard-core sexual experience. I was terrified! I sought counseling. I went secretly and ashamedly to the county mental health clinic in Elyria. My parents were not aware, nor were any other classmates. The sad outcome of the experience was that I misunderstood my friend’s response to my fear and I became even further isolated. I thought he was saying that he was straight and this little activity was no big deal and that I had gone off the deep end by seeking therapy, so I pulled away from the friendship. Years later I was shocked to see that he had died of AIDS and was survived by a male partner.
Classmates said things like, “Professor A is a homo, you know.” I couldn’t tell, except that I thought A was a little effeminate. I enjoyed his class but of course, I didn’t identify myself as a homo, so I didn’t spend energy trying to find out more about him. Only now I remember that many of the poets he taught about were gay. And people said, “Professor B is a homo, even though he is married.” I think that he may have tried to put the make on me ever so gently once, and I reacted in total denial, saying to myself, no, he is only sitting so close to me and chatting because he wants to be friendly.
As my prayers and internal messages might have prompted you to guess, I married my best friend from high school and we grew up together for 33 years. Someone said that the love and respect you have for someone sometimes overcomes the way you are wired. Struggling with my sexual orientation was part of the growing up. We ended up with a very good marriage, including the sexual part. When my wife died six years ago, I felt those same expectations all over again from high school and college of having to perform as a heterosexual, but this time I was different. It was a priority not to have to keep my sexual orientation a secret. I told my sons, my family, my friends and my colleagues in the work place (academic, church and synagogue) that I was coming out as a gay man. My children and that large extended family have been with me all the way.
I’m an active supporter of the Triangle Foundation, a watchdog agency for GLBT issues in Michigan. As an organist for a United Methodist Church I use my leverage as an out gay man to work for changes in that organization’s Social Principles and Book of Discipline. My picture appeared with an article on the front page of the Detroit Free Press protesting the United Methodist Church’s policies. My Oberlin education put a value on working for social change. It has taken me about forty years to find the right cause.