Personal Histories – John Poynter (OC 51)

Essay written October 2014.

In early September of 1948, I traveled by train from South Dakota to Cleveland, took the bus to Oberlin, and was billeted at the Men’s Building, third floor. Few freshmen had yet arrived, the first person I met had also arrived early, it was Raymond W Donnell from California, both of us heading for the Conservatory, he to study cello, I the piano. We had a polite speaking relationship, saw each other intermittently during the orientation period. I think that my thoughts were dominated by fear, fear of letting down my family, fear of competition with other students, all sorts of fears of inferiority, the source of which was probably deeply repressed sexuality, which, due to ignorance, would have never understood to be the cause. When I did confess to myself what I was in the world, it was always the confession heard over and over again, “you are the only one in the world like you.”

Over my pubic years, I had had some experimental encounters, my friends were all straight (no term used in those days), I was the sexually active one, the few encounters were hardly emotionally satisfying. There was no vocabulary to describe who we were, other than some few pejorative terms that described actions of people who were not like who you were. The culture I had grown up in, my family, my little town, my whole society were co-conspirators in the silence to keep young people from ever knowing what their emotional dispositions, rooted in their hormonal make-up, were telling them. I learned the word “gay” from a single fabulous sexual encounter with a friend during a college break in the spring of my sophomore year. With that did not come respectability or self-acceptance. But the emotional stuff had started to confuse my young mind, I wanted desperately to meet all sorts of parental expectations in the face of not only the old fears, but new fears that threatened to loosen the tight securities of belonging to the culture of denial and the insanity promoted by the savagely pessimistic religious tradition that I grew up with.

Freshmen were required take a course in sexuality offered of course by the faculty in PE, for the males there were straight males as basically uninformed as the rest of the college community. The faculty fellow teaching the course was an old man who was essentially embarrassed talking about sex at all, supported by charts that showed and explained female and male genitalia, lots of whispering and chuckling was had by all. All of this gave rise to the gossip mills and all the students I knew feasted on the gossip morsels that they heard. It was through the grapevine we learned that four other freshman at various times during that year had committed suicide, there were never any acknowledgments or responses by the college itself whether there was any truth to these rumors. The Organ Department of the Conservatory became more or less notorious for male students “like that”, and as we know, a large number of men and women who study this great instrument always seem to get the message early that it is acceptable to be who you are, and there are many who come to know early on that they are gay. I never got any message from anyone that I was OK as a gay person (and we did not yet use the word ‘gay’, let alone ‘lesbian’, most people did not know the word).

The Conservatory was very difficult, my work was average, but motivated and terrorized by stage fright, I transferred to Arts and Sciences at the beginning of my second year. By mid-term I had found my forté in the study of the German language and literature. I lived off-campus at 123 Forest Street at the home of Mrs. Esther Bliss Taylor, widowed in the summer of 1948, who rented rooms on the second floor to college men, a rather plain Victorian place still standing and last I knew was owned by a member of the Conservatory faculty. Her son Edwin, a freshman, lived on the third floor, her 102-year-old mother Mrs. Bliss and she lived on the first floor. At the beginning of my third year at Oberlin, Raymond Donnell moved into the room next to me. Four of us, Edwin, Alex Heingartner, Raymond and I made up a rather close knit little group, we would take study breaks together and chat. By the middle of that fall semester of 1950, I had developed a disastrous crush on Raymond Donnell. It worsened at the beginning of the second semester, and weakened all of my health, probably the source of appendicitis that resulted in an emergency surgery at the campus hospital, by mid-term it was time to leave Oberlin.

When I left Oberlin in the spring of 1951, Raymond Donnell was on my mind, he never communicated with me, I have tried many times to find out what happened to him, always to meet a dead-end. Edwin Taylor and Alex Heingartner and I all became college professors, Edwin and I are to this day warm friends.

It took me years to come out, I should have never married a woman and yet, I have a wonderful daughter who lives with her family in Copenhagen. In 1965 I met the man who would become my partner, we have made a good life, we are both going strong after nearly forty-nine years together, we live in San Francisco, married each other publicly in 2008 at the Harvey Milk Plaza at the intersection of Castro and Market Streets under the gay pride flag. Looking back in gratitude, I would never have suspected that my life that I now lead as a gay person could considered commonplace. I remember Oberlin as a place where I was educated, I learned to study in Oberlin and to love scholarship and teaching, it was also the place where my horrific struggle to begin coming out began.