Personal Histories – Dennis Rosenbaum (OC 84)

Essay written Aug. 2006

Searching My Soul and Finding My Self
A gay man’s reminiscences of Oberlin in the early 1980’s

RosenbaumRiding down to my tenth cluster reunion with classmates who were a married couple, I remarked that even though it might sound corny, I felt that I had been reborn at Oberlin. The wife assured me that it didn’t sound corny at all, and that she felt the same way. We didn’t pursue the discussion any further, but I’ve often wondered what that discussion would have been like. I’ve no idea what I would have said at the time, but now, I realize that the sense of rebirth really came from a sense of self acceptance that led to greater acceptance by others. And the first step on that journey was learning to accept my homosexuality.

One of the things I remember most about my tour of the campus as a prospective student was seeing “Gay Union” listed on the board in Wilder Hall that listed all of the student organizations. I wondered if that was what I thought it was, but since my father was with me, and he wouldn’t have approved, I didn’t ask. As I was starting to struggle with my own gay identity at the time, I filed that away as useful information to be pursued if I ended up attending Oberlin.

So, when I arrived on campus the following fall for freshmen orientation, I made sure that “Gay Union” was still listed in Wilder, and as soon as my parents were gone, I confirmed that it was indeed an organization for GLBT students. Of course, I still wasn’t ready to go to any meetings. I had eighteen years worth of negative messages to overcome, but even then, it was something of a comfort to know it was there when I was ready to avail myself of it.

My first nudge in that direction came about a month into the semester when the Gay Union decided to hold a dance in Talcott Hall, where, as luck would have it, I happened to be living at the time. This created a bit of an uproar among the freshmen living there, but since Gay Union dances were supposed to be among the best on campus, and as residents we got in for free, most of us decided to go. And in all honesty, many of us were also proving just how “liberal” we really were by attending. It turned out to be a fun dance, and towards the end of the evening, when none of my dorm friends were around, I went over and asked a guy whom I had met during orientation to dance. While we were dancing, he came out to me, and I, somewhat hesitantly, came out to him. A small step, but a first one, nonetheless.

As the semester went by, I began to focus on finding a winter term project. The first several ideas I had didn’t pan out for a variety of reasons. Eventually, I came up with the idea of doing some research on homosexuality. I mentioned the idea to a couple of upper classmen who lived down the hall from me, and was told I should talk to George Langeler. When I met with him, he helped me shape the idea into a viable project, which he sponsored. He gave me a reading list, and helped me choose books from it. We discussed the books I had read, and I created an annotated bibliography (which I still have somewhere in my attic). And I came out to him. I found him to be very supportive, and he really helped me to develop a positive sense of myself as a gay man. And, as an added bonus, I made a lifelong friend.

That experience opened the flood gates for me in a sense. I mentioned to one or two of my friends in the dorm that I was questioning my sexuality, and the next thing I knew, several of my hall mates wanted to talk about, or more accurately, ask questions about homosexuality. We had some interesting discussions, and I helped dispel a few myths. And while a few people were openly hostile about my emerging sexuality, most were at least respectful, if not downright supportive.

Buoyed up by that experience, I decided to come out to my parents. A few of my friends wondered why I wanted to do such a thing, and I never really could articulate what fueled that desire. I just thought it would be a good thing to do. I decided I was going to tell them during spring break of my freshman year. I arrived home to find that my parents’ apartment was infested with gnats, so when I sat down to talk to them, my father kept getting up and swatting bugs on the wall. I had made up a clumsy speech to use as an introduction, and when I got to the part where I asked them not to get irrational, my father got up, swatted the wall, and said, “I have no idea what you’re about to tell me, and I’m not going to make a promise I can’t keep, so why don’t you just come out with it already?” Ironic choice of words, I thought, before I went ahead and took the plunge. Once they got over the shock of my announcement, they assured me that they still loved and supported me.

One of the other things I started doing the spring of my freshman year was attending Gay Union meetings. The time had come at last to go see what the Gay Union was all about. Mostly, I found it to be about community building, which suited me just fine, but frustrated some of the more politically oriented in the GLBT community. Still, I enjoyed helping to plan the gay dances, rather than just attending them, and I especially enjoyed giving presentations about the Gay Union to various dorms, and learning how to be a peer counselor. I particularly appreciated getting the opportunity to meet Brian McNaught when he came to campus. In addition to his intelligence, and his positive sense of self, I really enjoyed hearing about his life as part of a committed couple. It really brought home the sense that I could indeed find a fulfilling relationship.

Unfortunately, I did not find much in the way of relationships while I was at Oberlin. I wasn’t ready for one, in all honesty, as is evidenced by the unfortunate habit I had of developing crushes on people who were totally unavailable. I did occasionally find someone who was mutually interested in me, but those “relationships” (if you want to call them that) really didn’t turn out well, and I wasn’t able to stay friendly with the men in question. Some lessons you just learn the hard way.

After one particularly difficult breakup, I went to Psych. Services to talk to a counselor. The first counselor I saw turned out not to be a good fit for me. He was somewhat confrontational in nature, especially about my sexuality, which didn’t sit well with me. Fortunately, a friend of mine suggested I talk to John Thompson, and I made an appointment to do so. He was a good fit, and once again, I found myself talking to someone who was nurturing and supportive, and who also helped me maintain my positive sense of self. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was the faculty advisor for the Gay Union, and a major straight ally to the GLBT community. He has also remained a lifelong friend.

What I value most about the work I did with John Thompson and George Langeler was the positive effect it had on my self image. I became much more self aware, and much more accepting of myself as a gay man. This self acceptance enabled me to be much more open with others about my sexuality. As a result, I developed a circle of friends which ranged well beyond the GLBT community. It seems the more I accepted myself, the more others accepted me. But more than that, being open about my sexuality seemed to encourage others to be more open about theirs. One result of this was that during my junior year, several of my friends came to me one by one to have chats in which they came out to me. And they all indicated that my openness with my sexuality helped them get over their fears of accepting theirs. This in particular left me feeling that I had indeed found a place in the Oberlin community.

Now, that’s not to say that I never had to deal with any kind of homophobia while I was at Oberlin. I did have occasional difficulties with less tolerant classmates, including one instance where one of my hall mates, upon opening the shower curtain and finding me in the bathroom, immediately closed it. More amused than annoyed, I rustled the curtain on my way out of the bathroom, and whispered, “You’re not worth it.” Still, those incidents were few and far between. And there were plenty of times when someone told me that knowing me had changed how they felt about the GLBT community (for the better, that is). As my college career continued, I began to realize that being open and unashamed about my sexuality won me more friends than enemies, and I took that with me once I left Oberlin. It continues to serve me well in life.

I would have to say that the most important lesson I learned while at Oberlin was that it was okay to be me. Once I accepted my sexuality, I found that others accepted me more readily. I developed a much more positive outlook on life, and felt much happier. And in retrospect, that change in attitude does feel like rebirth. It may sound corny to some, but it is what I remember most fondly about my time at Oberlin.