Essay written April 2000, edited April 2006
Oddly enough—as much of a repressive force as religion has become in our society in recent decades—I think that the church used to provide a safe haven for gays back in the 60s and 70s, so that many gays became ministers and organists. (They just couldn’t be out at work or in the community.)
Further, I think that for a boy to pursue either music or religion as a career option was not seen as a masculine pursuit when I was growing up. To pursue both—by becoming an organist—was probably very much frowned upon by most fathers. So the only boys who studied the organ were gay boys, whose fathers had already given up on them. (Those, at least, were some theories proffered by gay organ students at Oberlin in my day.)
Even in my day, most male organists in Europe were straight. It was just on this side of the Atlantic that they all seemed to be gay…There was only one non-gay male organist in the Conservatory the whole time I was at Oberlin. And the consensus was that he was simply asexual, rather than straight…
We had certain code words…It was almost like being a part of a secret society. And in part for me, that was part of the fun of it actually. Besides the drag names, we just had certain words that meant different things in gay parlance than what they meant in the English language. So in a way it was kind of fun and kind of campy and outrageous for a bunch of gays to be in a large group of straights and to have these conversations and toss these words about with the knowledge that nobody had any idea what we were talking about…
“Needs-a”…was a code word in and of itself that indicated that the person about whom one was speaking was thought to be gay.
Certain gay guys from the Con would walk through the “south bowl”—that area between South Hall and the language houses—at night, screaming the word “douche.” That was another gay code word. Somebody would scream it in the bowl, and it would be echoed back and forth from the windows of South Hall and French House.
Often, one heard the expression, “needs a douche,” indicating that somebody’s attitude was stilted. Also, “needs a douche” meant that the person being discussed needed to come out.
The word, douche, was even used as a cruising code word. One guy would say it in passing to another guy. If the other guy was gay—(most likely a gay from the Conservatory)—he would respond by repeating the word. If that happened, then conversation could continue to determine if there was a mutual sexual interest.
A straight guy, on the other hand, had no idea as to why another man would be saying that word—and would respond with just a quizzical look. That made the attempt at ascertaining somebody else’s gayness a safe endeavor.
One thing one has to keep in mind in exploring the history of gay life at Oberlin—we were not always politically correct. One thing, for example, that has come between an organ major I’ll call “David Hearst” and myself is Hearst’s pronounced racist and misogynous attitudes.
But he was one of the originators of the use of the word, douche, as part of “Oberlin gay speak.” It’s part of our history—whether it’s pretty or not…
In terms of songs, the one that first comes to mind is the “Oberlin Organ Majors’ Theme Song.”…The song is sung to the tune of “Camp Town Races:”
Camp Town ladies sing this song
Do me! Do me!
With a dong that’s 5 miles long
Oh, do me now!
I could come all night.
I could come all day.
Bet my money on a closet case
but somebody sat on it first.
Organists also made up words to organ music—allegedly to help them avoid memory slips during recitals. The following are the words to the theme of
Bach’s Fugue in G minor—(the BIG fugue—from the book of Preludes &
Fugues, NOT the more broadly known “Little Fugue in G minor.”)
This piece is such a bore!
My mother is a whore
and to make it worse
my father drives a hearse
and what’s even worse
I did it with [Miss Hearst].
Hearst was the originator of many songs, including the following, sung to the first few measures of the tune, “Would You Like to Swing on a Star?”
How’d you like to come sit in my face?
It’s a real comfortable place.
Another Hearst song is sung to the first few bars of “Stormy Weather.”
Not a cloud in the sky
and there’s lip stick on my thigh.
Sloppy blow job! Oh yeah!
The following is a Hearst re-write of the words to Bach’s piece for organ and voice, “Sheep May Safely Graze.”
Sheep may safely
Take it up the poop shoot,
And when they shit
It won’t hurt a bit…
The “Queen of the Night F” is the highest note in the Queen of the Night Aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. In the early 18th century, that was the highest note on the piano keyboard. According to Hearst, being able to hit that note and to sustain it was a sure sign of being a “thoroughbred Oberlin queen and a lady of true refinement.” One night, George Lamphere, David Maulsby and I were running through Tappan Square, singing out that note, when we encountered Veronica August. Veronica reported to Hearst that she “had been terrorized the night prior by Lamphere, Mulsby and some 20-foot queen.”…
I do remember one gay dance held in the basement of Burton Hall during freshman orientation. The room was festooned with strings of beads—a row of which separated the party area from the hallway at the bottom of the stairs.
Hearst and I looked out, and saw a bunch of freshmen with their parents, standing on the other side of the beads. We verbalized to one another our wondering what the parents must be thinking. Then we noticed that the few same-sex couples who were dancing together were discreetly doing so at the far end of the room, so that the parents couldn’t see them.
We decided that something had to be done about this, so we emerged, arm-in-arm, through the beads, and kissed one another on the mouth, the minute we were in the midst of the parents. That brought some astonished gasps.
Although I don’t remember having done so—(I was already a practicing alcoholic at Oberlin—hence subject to black-outs)—Hearst says that I walked up to one of the mothers, told her how much I loved her dress, and said, “You simply must send me the pattern!” That comment apparently sent the whole parental entourage scurrying up the stairs…
Some of us had proposed the idea of an official gay house—(just as there was African-American House, Hebrew House, etc.) Everyone thought the idea to be ridiculous, saying that Gay House would be nothing more than a whorehouse. (That’s NOT indicative of a terribly liberal attitude.)
Several people in Gay Lib thought the establishment of a Gay House—(for both Lesbians and Gay Men)—to be a good idea. Some did not, but the majority did. Many gays in French House and in the Conservatory pooh-pooh’d the idea. But all of the straight students to whom I talked about the idea thought it to be totally ridiculous.
The idea—so far as I know—was never presented to the administration.
For one thing—in those days—it might have been difficult to fill the house—as few people were sufficiently uncloseted to be willing to live in a place explicitly designated as Gay House.