Personal Histories – Thomas Tibbetts (OC 59)

Audio clip:


“The producer called me into his office…”

Thomas Tibbets (OC 59). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Thomas Tibbets (OC 59). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Thomas Tibbetts was born and raised in the college town of Marietta, Ohio. Neither his father, who manufactured furniture, nor his mother, who was involved in local politics, attended college, but they both expected Tibbetts and his brother to get an education and “achieve.” At Oberlin, while he spent his free time involved with music and theater, he majored in economics. “[My parents] were terrified that I was going to try to become a professional musician,” he recalled, “so they were so pleased when I came to much of the same conclusion that economics or business might be a more comfortable route to take.”

Oral history conducted by phone, Apr. 26, 2005, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

In general, it was the village idiot expectation [of homosexuals] in the kind of environment I grew up in…Gay people were [considered to be] mentally deranged queers who wanted to corrupt young children…That was the baseline I started from. Fortunately, I knew a couple of my contemporaries in high school who lived in rather wild families and knew a great deal more than I did and sort of brought me out to what went on in metropolitan areas, and what a gay bar was, and [who] the gay people in history were, and I began to get that thing largely by word of mouth when I was in high school…

I think [my relatively easy acceptance of my sexuality] had a lot to do with my friend that I was talking about. He made me feel very comfortable, because he was so assertive, and he was extremely popular in high school. We all had girlfriends. We could put on a show. Also, I had become totally disenchanted with fundamentalist religion. Being a church organist, I had begun playing in lots of different churches, and found my home in the local Unitarian Church, which will pull the rug out from under a Southern Baptist pretty quick. So on a social level and on an intellectual level…I had pretty good support for having an independent idea of what I was, and how that was going to play out…

I was pretty sure that I was going to be something other than heterosexual…I had enough homosexual experience when I was in high school to know that I wasn’t probably going to turn my back on that, whatever else came along. But at the same time I was very active in my church, and I knew gay people that had wives and children and were in the closet, and I thought that might be what I would do…I had experiences, several years in my later teens, with church groups which turned out to be very cruisy, fertile playing fields for gay people. Now I take it with some amusement, then I thought it was shocking and hypocritical and all that kind of thing. Since I’ve stayed in the church business, although that was not my main career, I’ve come to think of churches, liturgical churches, as great places to meet gay people.

In my family situation, I had to be very careful, and I was highly supervised, so I wasn’t running around sticking my nose in the college pubs. But I would run into [gay college students]…and they’d chat me up and start talking about the code words: music and art…You knew this was another gay person and this is what you could talk about… “Nelly” and “campy,” words like that, and “musical” itself was a code word…“Gay” was being used back then, even when I was in high school. And you could say it so that those who were not in on the euphemism it would pass over their head…

I’ve never been burdened with guilt about anything. And my parent’s own hypocrisy was self-evident even when I was 15 years old. So it was a game for me: guess what you don’t know. I had a concern about being caught, which would lead to embarrassment for my family. But that wasn’t a personal sense of moral failure. It was just fear of exposure, and certainly in the fifties in that part of the country, it was a legitimate fear…

[Oberlin] felt like a monastery…It was the lack of a party atmosphere, it was the lack of sororities, fraternities…It was pretty stark. An entertaining evening was to go to a physics lecture or something like that…The weather there was not exactly uplifting either…

I grew up in a very conservative, Republican, semi-rural area, with Baptists and Presbyterians. And Oberlin [was] just about as liberal as you can get then and now…I think that carried over into feeling about homosexuals as long as you didn’t embarrass everybody in front of God and the public. I felt very little homophobia…And there were very notable, very well-placed homosexuals in the institution…

I had come to think that every light-footed, effeminate, lisping male musician was certainly queer. Now being a more enlightened person, I know that that is absolutely not true, and that you can get yourself into embarrassing situations if you make that assumption, which I did a few times. That was part of my education…

When I was on Cape Cod, probably my second or third summer doing that, the producer, Hayton Bowyers, called me into his office, and said that he wanted to know what I knew about all this homosexual activity that he’d been hearing about. And the first thing I thought was, am I going to get the third degree about myself? But I very shortly discovered that suddenly I was supposed to become his inside dope and confidant and whistle-blower, which was not my preferred role…But he wanted names an names and chapter and verse, and soon I had to tell him that I didn’t have any information…I think he wanted to tell him that it was not true so he could forget about it.