Personal Histories – Christa Rakich (OC 75)

Audio clip:

“We’ve been having this lesbian rap group…”

Christa Rakich (OC 74). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Christa Rakich (OC 74). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Christa Rakich was raised in a “very conservative,” white, middle class, Roman Catholic family in Waterbury, Connecticut. “I was brought up thinking I would marry a man and have a couple of kids and drive a station wagon,” she recalled. “And if it wasn’t going to be that, then I would have most definitely been a nun. And now I can see that the attraction of the nun thing was probably because I was in love with my eighth grade teacher.” At Oberlin, Rakich double majored in organ performance and German.

Oral history conducted by phone, Aug. 13, 2004, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

Just getting to know people [at Oberlin] who were Jewish, and Protestant, and Buddhist, and off the wall atheist—whatever off the wall religion you could think about, I began to feel a little bit looser about identifying with Roman Catholicism. And I was able to find not only goodness in other traditions, but also goodness in other people that I would have previously thought of as kind of clinically “not good”…

There was a kind of gay culture at Oberlin in the Conservatory that had a lot to do with being able to make fun of oneself. Seeing the irony in life. And I was very drawn to that. It not only seemed like an okay thing to me, it seemed like a preferable thing to me…I can remember a conversation where one male student was approaching another male student in a practice room, and my friend Kevin said, “Oh, well I’m not gay.” And my other friend Jim said, “Oh honey you’re not gay and my name’s [famous organist] Marie-Claire Alain”…

Some of the guys in the organ department were just incredibly talented and there were some people with amazing falsetto voices. And some of these guys would just sing these enormously high descants at full volume [at their church jobs], I mean just blaring it out above a full congregation, I mean really turning heads. And in the environment of a religious ceremony, it was really quite outrageous behavior [laughs]. And yet, musically completely successful. Really nothing that people could complain about, but there were kind of gestures like that that would happen every once in a while that I think were really much of the gay identity at Oberlin, at least in the Conservatory.

[Organ major] George Lamphere [was a] curious mix…He was a wonderful, wonderful musician…He was the first guy I knew who wore makeup—oh, just a little blush, you know. And he loved doing drag. So he was really one of the more outrageous queens. He loved the persona of being an outrageous queen. He lived in French House, and went by Georgette, and everyone called him Georgette…And if I was dating some guy, he would tell me, “Oh he’s all wrong for you honey, he’s all wrong for you.” And I would think it was because George wanted him for himself. But, in fact, he turned out to be right. In fact, he was right about me, and he was always kind of trying to nudge me in the direction of, “You should check her out, did you ever think about mmm mmm mmm”… You know, whatever it was, if I felt ashamed of it or embarrassed by it, or anything, George was the person I could talk to…

And I can remember one year [at an organ major “mock recital”]—you know that wooden railing that’s all around the organ loft in Warner Concert Hall? Well, people were hiding behind the railing, and at a given moment, this Lawrence Welk champagne music would start up and people would start blowing bubbles over the wooden railing, so it would look like champagne bubbles floating down onto the stage…And when they had the old Holtcamp organ, it was possible to actually turn the console sideways so you could see the players. So George went out wearing a cape and a tuxedo, and bright red socks, and he played the Chopin A Major Polonaise and he had a candelabra on the organ console a la Liberace, and he started out playing [singing first few bars], and then the next part [that] goes [singing the rest] he played with his feet. And every time he played something like that with his feet, he would lift his fingers up in the air and sort of wiggle his fingers…

On one end of the spectrum, there was the culture of the flaming queen, you know there were people who would go screaming through the Con lounge with their hands in the air just all atwitter about something, and then there were a whole other group of people who were very much more kind of subdued, cautious, maybe a little scared…

Christa Rakich (OC 75) discussing fingerings in a Bach organ piece with Doug Pike in the Conservatory Lounge. From the 1973 Hi-O-Hi. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Christa Rakich (OC 75) discussing fingerings in a Bach organ piece with Doug Pike in the Conservatory Lounge. From the 1973 Hi-O-Hi. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.


I think the Conservatory students, at that time anyway, thought of themselves as non-political. They were interested in practicing, they were certainly interested in having sex, but they were even more interested in their careers and in not doing anything that would possibly jeopardize their careers. Whereas I think that the gay people I knew in the college, and that I met through the Gay Union, were much more interested in questions like, how can we get gays to be more widely accepted on this campus. And we would do things like sponsor dances, and just be more public and serious…

It was at the first [Gay Union] meeting that [I attended that] I walked out president of the Gay Union, because they were so tentative about how they were going to organize themselves and everything was so loose. And in my brash way, I had—they were having this rotating chairpersonship—and I said, well somebody should really take this on for a longer period of time and just be responsible for clearly defined things and then be willing to assign responsibilities to others. And I had such a clear image of how this should run, that someone said, “Why don’t you do it?”… There were quite a few people in the Gay Union who thought of themselves as bisexual or questioning, so the idea that I was possibly bisexual or possibly questioning or possibly gay was a total non-issue. People talked a lot about a continuum—everybody being at least a little bit gay…

If I had to think of one adjective to describe [the Gay Union], it would be fledgling. It just seemed very tentative, and very, “Oh what can we do, what should we do?” We had a place in Wilder Hall to meet, we could set up dances, and then from there it was well, what else was it that we wanted to do?

There was subgroup of women coming to the meetings, and they came up to me and said, “We’ve been having this lesbian rap group on Saturday afternoon, and we’d like to continue that.” And I said, [gasps] “lesbian rap group? Oh my god, you cant have that. Well have to call it ‘bisexual women’s discussion group,’ or ‘bisexual or questioning women’s discussion group,’ yeah let’s call it that.” We called it that and advertised it that week in the flyer that got put on the dining room table, and where they’d been having like three or four women showing up to this weekly lesbian rap group, at the bisexual or questioning women’s discussion group, all of the sudden there were like twenty or thirty people there. So I suspect that I was not the only person who wasn’t really willing to identify wholeheartedly as gay, but at the same time just wanted that door open just another inch maybe—not too much further, but an inch more would be okay…

There were certain faculty members that we kind of thought were probably gay, but you would never be so bold as to ask, and they certainly weren’t going to tell. So one of the things that we sort of yearned for was having older adults established people whose lives we could kind of look at and see as normal or acceptable or even desirable. And there wasn’t a lot of that to be found in the seventies at Oberlin.

Some of the blacks on campus were quite militant about white attitudes towards blacks. And there was some suspicion that the gay movement was just a white plot to prevent black people from having children. [Some of my food service coworkers] just hated the existence of the Gay Union and would try not to get any black people to join the Gay Union because it was all a white plot, but I would try to convince them that it was not the case, but they were pretty much dead-end discussions…

I think [Oberlin] prepared me really, really well, in ways that I wouldn’t have expected or anticipated. I think that it, whereas I had been brought up in a situation where the questions were asked for me and the questions were given to me, [Oberlin] kind of brought me to a point where I could ask the questions and if I didn’t know the answer, I could come up with one… I’m so glad I went there. It’s been thirty years, and I still have a lot of loyalty to the place.