Personal Histories – Bill Vance (OC 56)

Bill Vance (OC 56). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Bill Vance (OC 56). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Born and raised in the backwoods of South Dakota, Vance was the seventh of nine children. His father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a teacher, and his mother as a housewife. “We thought we were the perfect family,” he recalls, “even though we were wearing Wheatie boards and patches in our shoes.” Church was a central part of his life as a teenager, and it was his minister, along with an English teacher, that suggested Oberlin, where Vance enrolled on full scholarship.

Oral history conducted in San Francisco, Oct. 24, 2005, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

In high school, I was focused more on all the things I did. I was a super active person, edit[ing] the newspaper and [acting in] drama and playing in the orchestra, and I was the most academic and aesthetic person in my class. And admired by all the teachers…There was a way that in my level of academic performance, I was superior to anyone else in my class…The very fact that I also felt myself different in my other feelings and attractions [toward men] to some extent just blended together with the feeling that I was somehow different [in general]…[I was] completely confused. The term gay, of course, didn’t exist in our vocabulary at the time. There were cocksuckers and queers. And this was just a part of the high school lingo…

But it changed when I went to Oberlin, chiefly in the direction of anxiety…[At Oberlin,] everyone was superior, [and my attractions] began to be defined as a separate aspect of my personality…In fact, I know now that I deliberately requested a single room my freshman year as self-protection…We all lived in such intense relationship with each other…There were long bull sessions every night and constant talking, and doing things together and comparing what we were doing; there was always the danger of self-exposure.

And so long as I remained religious, of course, it was something I was praying against, and agonizing over at night, and actually it was just the sheer agony of it and the religious worry about it that finally turned me against religion…By the end of freshman year, I was through with religion—churches—and then by taking the required course in religion which they had in those days, [I became] far more skeptical…I remember going into the men’s room [in the Theology building], and at this time there was a lot of gay graffiti, and there was “for blow tap toe” written on [the stall]…And in fact, a couple of times I was in there, there was a tapping toe. And this was, I thought, there’s some kind of activity going on. But that scared me. I’d get out of the booth and run away…

It’s what was edited out in our education at Oberlin, that even in Freddie Artz’s class, taking a whole year of Western intellectual history without any sense that there was an interesting homosexual dimension to it, that you should even think about such things when you get Michelangelo and Shakespeare and so on, seems bizarre now, that this was not even an acknowledged thing…I took a required psychology course and can’t remember any particular dealing with gay psychology…“Deviant psychology” is what they would have called it…I ended up as a specialist in American literature, and in the past years of teaching American literature, dealing with the Calamus poems of Whitman was just a natural part of what you had in your curriculum…

[Any mention of homosexuality was] very, very rare, and always with a negative connotation…So that, I think really characterizes the period, of the real invisibility—the historical and literary invisibility of what it was that we felt ourselves attracted to. And that of course made it much more difficult, when there was no historical or public affirmation of people who felt the way we do.