Personal Histories – Robert Stiefel (OC 63) (page 1 of 2)

Essay written May 2006

Robert Stiefel (OC 63). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Robert Stiefel (OC 63). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

I grew up as an only child in suburbs of Chicago and Detroit. By the time I was in kindergarten I “knew” in some non-verbal way that I was different and that I was profoundly attracted to men. I also knew that somehow I wasn’t allowed to bring this into full consciousness and put it into words, that to speak of it would lose me the love and respect of others. And so I related to heroes in the movies and later on television, especially cowboys and their world of mostly other men in Levi’s and leather.

I fell in love with a classmate in high school. We studied together and even vacationed and fooled around a bit together, upon my initiative. Then he wrote me a letter saying that what we were doing was wrong. We met to talk. I told him I loved him. He said that he knew that. But it was still wrong. We remained friends at a distance. Years later I discovered that he was gay, too. Such a loss.

In the spring of my junior year in high school I visited some colleges and universities. The choice came down to Oberlin and Harvard. I visited Oberlin the weekend the College Choir gave their homecoming spring concert, just back from a national tour. Way high up in the back center of the balcony of Finney Chapel I heard them sing Bach’s Cantata BVW 150, “My soul yearns for you, O Lord.” All the longing and loneliness inside of me surfaced and I wept openly (but wait: does it show that I’m a homo if I cry in public?). Oberlin was to become my college and I was going to sing in that choir. And so it all worked out that way.

Just after graduation from high school, I went to the young and handsome assistant priest at the Episcopal Church of which I was a hyperactive member. I came out to him. He didn’t try to tell me I would grow out of it. He explained the Church’s position (at that time) and seemed to feel sorry that he couldn’t help me.

Oberlin met all of my intellectual and artistic needs, and most of my social needs, too. I majored in German and minored in music history, with a heavy dose of French and art history. I was not merely taught but also mentored by some of the greatest teachers I was ever to encounter. But inside I was still frightened and lonely. No one must even guess that I was different, a “homo” or a “queer.” I had crushes on any number of fellow Obies. Of course I fell in love with two who were perfectly straight. I finally told them in my senior year what they meant to me. For the first time in my life I experienced acceptance as a whole person. Our friendships continued for some years. I recall that each of them said that he felt some sadness that he could not respond to my love in kind.

In addition to singing in the College Choir I got involved with the Oberlin Gilbert and Sullivan Players, beginning in my sophomore year. Perfect set-up for getting to know other gay guys, right? Sure, if I hadn’t been so blinded by fear even as I was torn apart by attraction. But I recall some wonderful moments when I was “out” to hundreds of people at a time, over and over again.

I sang the role of Private Willis in Iolanthe. Willis is a guardsman at the House of Parliament. From his closet-like guard’s booth he observes everything going on yet is not free to get involved. But at the end of the opera he is chosen to be the spouse of the Fairy Queen. She taps him with her wand and he sprouts pink wings and becomes a Fairy Guardsman. Night after night, I knew what it meant for me to come out of that booth and be transformed. For those few moments each night I was at home in my skin. But then off came the costume and it was back to the isolation booth.

But there were some who observed my pain and wanted to help me. Indeed, I had been living in the midst of an active and supportive underground community of gay men and lesbians and for the most part I hadn’t noticed, hadn’t dared to notice. Late in my senior year a classmate came to see me one evening in my room off campus. He told me he was gay, although he had a fiancée and they planned to be married. I listened to his story and lay there on my bed, emotionally frozen. Finally I asked him, “Why are you telling this to me?” And he explained that he had come, indeed been sent, to help me. And he advised me to go and talk with a leading member of the G&S Players who was known for his understanding and compassion and who was also gay. I had long been intimidated by that fellow’s artistic brilliance and developed social skills, so I delayed and delayed and then it was too late to go and see him. We had all graduated.

Something else happened in my senior year that was to change my life forever. One evening, at dinner in French House, I met a very precocious and cute freshman named Mike Lynch. It didn’t take me long to move from an exhilarated crush to a deep sense of love for him. He was handsome, yes, but he was also somehow beautiful inside, a man of soul.

Mike Lynch, later to become Michael just as I was later to become Robert, not Bob, had been raised in Dunn, a small North Carolina town. His father died of alcoholism when Mike was fifteen. His mother discouraged him from expressing his feelings, but Mike found solace in music and mastering the piano. As I had been, he was very active in his high school and community. He was a youth leader at his church, a page at the North Carolina legislature at Raleigh, and spent two summers teaching poor black kids to read and write. All of these – his music, his leadership skills, his teaching ability, his care for others, and his political experience – were to emerge as public virtues in his later life. Before he left Dunn, he spoke to his church pastor about his sexual feelings. He, too, was already trying to sort things out. And he was getting nowhere.

Dunn sent Mike off to Oberlin as somewhat of a town hero. His imposed role as the fair-haired hero was to haunt him throughout his life. Oberlin offered, perhaps, new freedom to find himself. And among others, at Oberlin he met early on a senior with similar interests, another lonely “best little boy in the world.” We began a friendship revolving around art, literature, and music. It was a relationship like I suspect many others were. We were probably falling in love with each other, but neither of us could name it.

One of the ways that Mike and I would “make love” was to go together to the Allen Art Museum and stand and look at things, side by side. This was a safe way of being intimate. We would stand there and we would talk about and enjoy Terbruggen’s “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian,” or we would go and look at Robert Rauschenberg’s three-dimensional shadow box constructions and talk about them. Mike introduced me to “The Little Prince,” which we read together in French. I still have the copy from which we read, sitting side by side.

The next year I began doctoral studies in German and music history at Harvard. Michael and a woman I’ll call Sophie (a very close friend from College Choir) came by bus to visit me in Cambridge that fall. Sophie was in love with me, I was in love with Michael. Michael kept his feelings to himself. Then I visited Oberlin early in 1964 as the Choir was rehearsing for their Russian Tour. One evening the three of us sat talking together in one of the parlors of Talcott. I explained to Sophie that I loved her but not in the way she loved me. I was homosexual (we hadn’t grown into the use of “gay” yet). I wanted to turn to Michael and say to him, “But I love you, love you in every way.” I could not bring myself to do it; I was so afraid he’d reject me. That night Michael did not come out to Sophie and me. Did he have feelings for me or not? What kind of feelings? I didn’t know.

At the end of his sophomore year Michael transferred to Goddard College in Vermont, following his Oberlin mentor, Professor Thomas Whitaker. I visited him there at least once. We stayed in touch and wrote really loving notes to one another, funny notes, really silly things. We gradually lost touch over the years.

During my years as a Resident Tutor in Lowell House at Harvard I earned a Ph.D. in Germanic studies while working as a tutor and as what other colleges might call an assistant academic dean. From 1966 through the summer of 1969 I engaged in an experimental program of “reparative therapy” at Harvard Medical School. I took tests, I had one on one sessions with the psychiatrist and his female assistant, I went to group sessions, and I underwent several months of nearly daily electric shock aversion therapy. The therapy, of course, didn’t have the intended results.

Meanwhile Michael had finished his B.A. at Goddard and moved on to Ph.D. studies in English at the University of Iowa, where he enrolled in a government-sponsored counseling program that aimed to change homosexuals’ orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.

Let’s talk about marriage. While at Harvard I met Jennifer (Harvard ’66) and knew that if I was going to marry any woman, she was the one. I eventually told her I loved her; I told her I was gay but in a treatment program and couldn’t make any predictions about its “success,” and I asked her to marry me. Knowing all of this, she said yes. I finished my degree work and we moved to Philadelphia, where I had been offered a teaching position at suburban Haverford College. We were married in 1969.

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