Essay written Sept., 2004.
Although I was born in France, following my father’s death from cancer, my mother returned with me to her hometown in Ohio. As a result I grew up in a small rust belt Midwest town during a time (the 1950s) when one did not acknowledge that one was gay. Nevertheless, I knew that I was “different” and probably knew that I was homosexual by my early teens. Unfortunately though, I had no one to talk to about this and to make matters worse I was an only child…
The word “sex” was never mentioned at home although I remember hearing my grandfather calling certain persons “perverts” and “pansies.” I am fairly sure that he guessed I was gay and I am equally sure it embarrassed him. Plainly, it was horrible growing up in this type of environment, knowing no other gay men (or women) and trying to navigate my way between being true to myself and at the same time trying not to “offend” or be out to others.
I hated high school, where some classmates called me queer and I often feared I would be beat up. As a result, I tried to blend into the wallpaper and I concentrated on my studies and art. The thought of going off to college was like a dream—like being paroled from prison, a chance to escape to someplace where I could begin the process of being myself. I had no preconceptions of Oberlin other than I hoped there would be other gay men there.
Living in a dorm situation (I was one of four freshmen men assigned to Oberlin’s first co-ed dorm, French House) offered me the first time to be in close, that is daily living contact, with other people of my own age. Freshman and sophomore years, I found myself attracted to any number of men, classmates, but generally I did not act on these impulses. Much as in high school, I feared the retribution and scorn of my peers and in all honesty, I really didn’t know how people got together for intimate contact. I wanted to fit in but at the same time, I wanted to be myself and this caused me quite an internal conflict.
At this time, students (or the students I knew) really did not talk about homosexuality. Other than the world political situation (Vietnam) the big deal at the time was Oberlin’s policy of co-ed dorms and allowing “cohabitation.” It’s important to remember that these were the days when the old Oberlin rule about “at least three-feet on the floor” during male-female visits were being revisited and openly ridiculed. In my sophomore year (1970-71), Life magazine came to do a feature about Rob Singler and Cindy Stewart, who lived in the room next to mine. Gay rights really hadn’t hit Oberlin as far as I recall… Apparently there was a gay and lesbian organization at Oberlin in the early 1970s (in the Student Union) but I was not aware of it! Hard to believe but true…
Oberlin societal perceptions at the time were that most male Conservatory students were gay and openly so. I have to admit that in my personal experience, it seemed as if this stereotype held true. Most of the men who appeared as “gay” or who openly acknowledged themselves also happened to be “Connies.” As I mentioned above, I felt conflicted about announcing my own sexuality and I imagine that many of my freshman/sophomore year classmates thought I was heterosexual but just very shy. In fact, they may have thought I was gay but people almost never spoke about gay or lesbian issues. Transgendering was virtually unthinkable. Politics was the big issue.
As far as people who were “out,” I knew of several conservatory students, ironically organ majors (that always brought a laugh). George Lamphere, in particular, was notorious. He came very close to the stereotype of the “Screaming Queen”—literally screaming in falsetto in the hallways to and from the bathroom (think Joanne Whorley on “Laugh-In”). This was in sophomore year in French House. He would also dress in drag on occasion and hold “High Masses” in his room—burning incense and playing church organ music at full volume on his stereo. It got to be way too much and I often wondered if that was typical for a gay man, then why was I so quiet and un-flamboyant? While George was funny on some level and I respected his confident “accept me as I am” attitude, in general he was much too obnoxious for my shy and basically introverted personality.
I finally came out around at the end of my sophomore year. I had been spending quite a bit of time with a very bright, interesting and sophisticated heterosexual woman who was mildly interested in me, and so I got up the nerve to her my story. Her response was a blasé “oh…another man who loves men.” Telling her allowed me to realize that I could talk about myself to another person and very likely be accepted. This was the first of many such personal talks with close friends.
In truth, during my Oberlin years (1969 to 1973), I never developed any openly gay friends and sadly this says quite a bit about the general atmosphere of Oberlin at the time as well as my personality (and/or just bad luck). I suspected a few men of being gay, and time has proven me right. By my junior year and having come out to my friends, I had adopted what I felt was a “gay” manner of dress—tight bellbottoms, blue suede clogs or Dr. Scholl’s sandals, lots of beads and jewelry and a great mane of curly shoulder length hair that I was particularly proud of. Although I remained quiet and a political non-activist throughout my Oberlin years, my dress should have been a big tip-off to my sexual orientation…
I had only one same-sex experience at Oberlin—with a fellow art student. It was a terrifying moment—clumsy but nevertheless full of meaning. Despite the basic lack of passion, it was a necessary rite of passage. Instinctively, I knew that it was probably a one-time thing and so it was. The other person was fighting his homosexual impulses (and told me he was) and was obviously not comfortable admitting that he was being intimate with another man. Only once again did I ask someone if he was interested in getting together but I had apparently misread his signals; he avoided me from that moment on.
By my nature and especially at this important time of my life (coming to terms with myself), I was not one to be a leader in the gay community. As do many gays and lesbians, I felt as if I was the only person in the world with these inclinations and in fact, all my close friends were heterosexual. But, gay or straight, I was happy to have these friends’ support and acceptance. I suppose if I made any contribution at all it was that my friendship with heterosexual students helped them to form a healthier view of homosexuality…Oberlin, by fostering the growth of the student’s identity, creativity, intellect, and sense of the greater world, did much to help me learn about and accept who I am…I will always look on Oberlin with the knowledge of its importance in my life, especially in helping to define my values and for its contribution to my varied interests, especially in the arts.