Personal Histories – Leslie Myers (OC 85)

Audio clip:

Oral history conducted at Oberlin College, Oct. 6 2007, by Catherine Janis. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted. A huge thanks to Ray Lockman for transcribing.

myersWithin the first few weeks of when I came [to Oberlin], there were two really huge political events that occurred. One was that a cross was burned on the lawn of—I think it was a staff person, not a faculty member, and I was think it was a black staff person… And at the same time, there was a hanging of an effigy off of probably the steps of Wilder, as I recall, and it said something like, “Exterminate the queers.”…And those two things happened within maybe a week of each other, and that really polarized the campus.

There were all these meetings and discussions. “What is this about?” and “Are we safe here?” that the campus just electrified around these events. This would’ve been the fall of ’81…

I think that kind of helped with that whole process of saying, “We have got to organize around some of these things.” Because even though there was a Gay Union, it was still really, in some ways, a difficult time for queer people and, in general, anyone who was different. I know that the faculty at that time were very closeted. You kind of knew Clayton Koppes was gay but you really didn’t know. It was never ever discussed… You would never talk about anything queer in class. We were pretty safe as students just milling around doing our thing, but certainly academically, you never discussed it…You didn’t talk to your professors about queerness or your personal life or anything. You reserved that for your friends. So it was still a bit of an atmosphere of you watched out who you talked to a little bit. And that whole thing really galvanized a lot of the campus at that time. It may have been the beginning of some of the changes in some of the wording of the antidiscrimination policies…

I don’t know that I really took it personally, like people were after me. I wasn’t really out. I was kind of starting meeting a few people that were queer. I had never known anyone who was queer… I never felt like, okay someone’s going to go after me because I’m feminist or I’m queer or I’m a leftist or whatever I am. I never felt unsafe. This was more political outrage—how could this happen, especially on this campus? It kind of smacked of that whole Nazi exterminate the queer thing, and how many students on this campus are Jewish, not to mention queer? …

I ended up [at Oberlin] from a very small town in Massachusetts, of 700 people, and came to Oberlin at the age of 17 in the fall of 1981. I actually was really intimidated when I first came here. It seemed like everybody had been traveling around the world, spoke 10 languages, and I was very intimidated, and I had this idea that I was going to study science and I thought I’m never going to survive. Everybody’s really smart and I’m really out of my league.

My first semester, I was placed in Third World dorm, which I thought, “this will be really cool. There will be all kinds of students and I’ll learn some stuff.” And they hated me. This was at a time politically when there was a lot of separatism in communities of color and they did not want me [a white woman] in there, and they were very cruel to me, actually, and I didn’t have that nice freshman bonding with all your buddies in the dorm thing. They hated me. And luckily I was able to find some friends outside of that, but my first semester was quite difficult…

When I first came here, I spent a lot of time hanging around with this women’s center and there were a whole bunch of upperclasswomen there that I idolized. I thought they were so cool and they knew everything. Feminism was well into the Second Wave here and it felt really strong and these women, to me, were so impressive. They also happened to be queer, but at that particular time, that wasn’t really part of where the discussions were going. A lot of it was about the feminist stuff…

I started hanging out around the women’s center. I thought, “I’m a feminist. I can do that.” And all these big scary senior women would be like, “You’re such a dyke. You should come out.” And I was like, “Shut up. What do you know?” I just wasn’t going there. I had too much on my mind. I was really overwhelmed with the whole thing of being here and trying to deal with my dorm life. But I hung around a lot and it didn’t rake me very long—a couple of months—and I started thinking, not a bad idea maybe. So it only took me really a couple months of being here to decide that maybe being queer wasn’t the worst idea in the world. But I was pretty stressed out that first semester. Eventually that resolved itself, but I was really stressed out…

It didn’t help at that time, in particular, with the communities of color, there were very strict gender identity ideas, and I wasn’t really doing a very good job of being a good femme-y thing and I think it was clear to them—I don’t think it was clear to me—that I stuck out because of gender issues…

There was a woman—not only was she a senior, but she for some reason was a few years older than other seniors… I had the worst total crush on her. At first I thought it’s just because she’s a really cool feminist and I admire her and I really want to be like that and I want to know what she knows. And then at some point, I was like, no, I want to sleep with her. This is really not just about politics.

I sort of followed her around…Thankfully she kind of ignored me. I was just a little pup, I’m sure, in her mind… You could totally fall in love with someone and have all this massive fantasy life and politically decide, okay now I’m a lesbian, but…in some ways it was good to not deal with reality for many months, to come along with that politically and become comfortable with it. It wasn’t until that summer that I actually got involved with this woman—somebody else, not her. And that was good… I told my mother. My mother teaches women’s studies and has lesbian friends, and she kind of went, “Yeah, I can see that.” It was really kind of a non-issue. So I really wasn’t too concerned about it being a huge issue…

Sometime in the…beginning of my second semester here, this woman who eventually became my roommate and eventually came out herself, she was sitting in Wilder, and I came by and I talked to her, and I started to tell her this whole long story about how I had this crush on this person. And I was making it like it was a man and telling this whole story… And then I started to leave, and then I walked back and was like, “Wait. It’s a woman.” And she was like, “I knew that…” I don’t think people were too surprised. All these women at the women’s center were going, like, “You’re such a dyke. Just come out already…”

My roommate, who I’m still close friends with now…was coming out a little bit kind of around that same time and nobody in [our coop] Keep cared. We lived there, we ate there, and it was very sort of Oberlin co-op. Groovy. And it was great for me. I felt like I was completely at home there and by the time my second year started, I totally lived in this campus and this was my home and I was fine… At that point being fairly out and enjoying the campus and realizing that I could survive here academically didn’t hurt…

I think for me, in those early days here at Oberlin, having those older role models of those very together…, political, bright, savvy women was so important… Some years later, after I left here, I was in Boston…and this woman came up to me, and I really had no idea who she was… She said, “When you were in your last year at Oberlin, I was in my first year at Oberlin, and you didn’t know me, but I thought that you were so together and you knew everything…” And I’m thinking, “Are you out of your mind?” I just couldn’t imagine that someone had visualized me in the way that I had visualized these upperclasswomen when I was first starting, and you realize that that is a cycle…and how important it is for those that come behind that the older students here are willing to be role models…

I had friends that were gay men, but for the large part, there was a much greater split between lesbians and gay men than there is now, and we didn’t even have the word “queer.” There was no unifying term. We were lesbians, you’re gay men, and bisexual people were kind of peripheral in most of our minds… There was barely a connection between gay men and lesbians. There was, to some degree, but the community was still very separate, and gay people of color were a rarity. They were in their own worlds dealing with the issues of their multiple identities and were not, at that time, unfortunately, whether through their own preference or through maybe the racism of everybody else, were generally really not part of the gay larger community, with several exceptions. But for the most part, it feels very different [now].

I was never a trans person and I am not now, but I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch to being on kind of one end of the gender spectrum from the point of view of most women in society. Trans wasn’t even in our consciousness back then. We were having a hard enough time going from Gay Union to Lesbian Gay Union to Lesbian Gay Bi. That was such a huge issue during the early 80’s…

I look around the campus now, and I look at the MRC, and I see all these queer students of color, and transgendered students of color, and that…coalition stuff was really, really not happening back in those days of the early 80’s. So much of the whole gay and lesbian thing was just getting started and they weren’t even dealing with their racism. We were barely dealing with the fact that the lesbians felt that there was a lot of sexism in the gay movement and that many of the lesbians were more comfortable as so-called “feminists.” They were much more comfortable in the feminist world and feeling like there was too much sexism in the gay world, and the gay world was all about men…We had no MRC, the faculty were all in the closet, you could lose your job. There was still all that stuff that was too scary. I think that they just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. There was a lot of room for change…

For me, as much of what happened at Oberlin that was important was the non-academics, and the solidification of a queer identity—we didn’t call it queer back then—but that whole solidification so that by the time I left here, it wasn’t an issue anymore. When you first come out, your whole thoughts are preoccupied by queer and this and that, and by the time I left, it was part of who I am without becoming the only thing that could preoccupy my every thought.