Personal Histories – Allan Spear (OC 58)

Personal Histories – Allan Spear (OC 58)

Audio clip:


“Oberlin was a very strange place…”

Raised in a Jewish family in Michigan City, Indiana, Allan Spear’s father was a traveling salesman and his mother a housewife. Spear and his brother were the first from his family to attend college. At Oberlin, Spear majored in history and became “fired up” about the civil rights movement, joining the campus NAACP and spending a semester during his junior year at Fisk University, a predominantly black school in Nashville. Influenced by the social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, in 1974 Spear “came out” as the first openly gay male legislator in the nation. He served for many years in the Minnesota Senate, ultimately as President, and was the chief Senate author of Minnesota’s 1993 GLBT rights bill.

Oral history conducted by phone, Aug. 18, 2004, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

[My father] tried to get me interested in these quote “manly” pursuits, but I never took to them, and I was always much more interested in watching my mother cook in the kitchen…My parents had hopes that I was going to be going to a little more of a “rah rah” kind of university where I might get into a fraternity and learn to be a little more properly socialized than I was, and start dating girls and do all that kind of thing. And so I went to Northwestern my freshman year…But I decided I didn’t want to spend four years in a big ten university [and looked into Oberlin]…

Then my father said he had been talking to some business associate of his who had a son at Oberlin. And he had told him that Oberlin was a very strange place. [He asked], “Why in the world do I want to go there? They don’t have fraternities, it isn’t a normal college, they have really weird kids and all they do is sit around and talk about intellectual things.” And I said, “Well I like all that. That’s exactly why I want to go there.”…And I said, “I’m not like everybody else.” And this was kind of the fateful line…So that kind of left with silence. And then, later on, my father says, “Well I have to ask you something. When you said you’re different from everybody else, you wanna be different from everybody else; are you a homosexual?” And I said, “No.”…So they thought I was going to this really weird place that was going to turn me into a homosexual…

I certainly knew that I was attracted to men…I was aware certainly of what my interests were…The word homosexual was a very scary one. Yes, I knew I was a homosexual, and yes, I thought that to myself, but of course when I was asked point blank by my father I said no…

I think that there were a number of cross-currents [in thought about homosexuality at Oberlin]—somewhat contradictory with one another but all negative. On the one hand, homosexuals were perceived as ridiculous, frivolous people with effeminate manners: the fairy image. On the other hand, they were also perceived as threatening. Stay away from them as they may hit on you: the predator image. The identification of homosexuals with the Conservatory also illustrates the perception that you talk about in relationship with [Professor] Freddie Artz. Artistic people were seen as more likely to be homosexual. There was a sense that the Conservatory was a hot-bed of “them,” quote unquote…The guys I knew in the Conservatory who were straight often made special efforts to prove that they were not gay by talking a lot about women and dating…

[I] never checked [books with homosexual themes] out [at Oberlin], because I didn’t want it under my name…I would just look at it in the library and then put it back. What you found at that point [were] the old classics, Kraft-Ebbing and sort of these old European doctors who wrote these books about these case studies of people with strange sexual fetishes of this sort. And homosexuality was kind of in there with it. There was always the sense that it was an abnormal sexual psychology, up there with foot fetishes and people who like to have sex with nuns and corpses…The early exceptions to that, at least that I ran across, were the Kinsey Report and Donald Webster Cory’s The Homosexual in America.

At that time, other than the coops, you went in for dinner at a particular time, men had to wear a jacket and tie for dinner, and you stood there in the foyer of these very stuffy houses, you know the girl’s dormitories, Baldwin and Talcott and these places. And then you were led in by the house mother, and then there was a prayer and then dinner was served. And I found that very stuffy. And it just wasn’t a style that I was at all used to.

There were a lot of jokes about Freddie Artz and his apparent relationship with Donald Love. In retrospect, Professor Artz was a classic queen who made no attempts to conceal his effeminate manners and his elegant “bachelor” lifestyle. He had no office on campus and his office hours were in his living room where students literally sat at his feet while he presided from his overstuffed chair. I knew Professor Artz well and took his classes, but certainly would never have discussed anything personal with him. As for Psych services, no I did not use them at Oberlin. I was still trying to deny my “problem.” But in my first year of graduate school, just after leaving Oberlin, I did go to Health Services at Yale and see a psychiatrist in hopes of getting cured…

In light of the fact that I later became a gay activist and became sort of a prominent out politician, maybe it’s surprising that I was so completely closeted when I was in college, but I guess that’s just an indication of how things changed between the mid 50s and the early 70s…[Oberlin] didn’t prepare me to be “out,” [but] it prepared me for liberal politics, for liberation movements I guess you could say, in the broader sense of the word.

I certainly became involved for example, in the civil rights movement as a student at Oberlin, with my semester at Fisk and all, and that certainly did have an impact [on] how I later viewed myself when I came out as gay in a political context. Because I went through the sixties being involved in the civil rights movement, being involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, and becoming a political activist—certainly Oberlin fed into and contributed to that. And it was out of that that I think I began asking questions about myself and began to relate my activism to growing awareness of my own homosexuality, and the fact that this was not a pathology, but it was a minority status. The recognition—the ability to recognize being gay as being a member of an oppressed minority, which I finally came around to by, maybe 1972, that certainly was, to some degree a result of the experiences that I had had in the movements of the 1960s.

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