Personal Histories – Rev. Robert Wood (GST 51) (page 1 of 2)

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“Oberlin was very quiet except for the Throne Room…”

Robert Wood (GST 51) in 1950. Courtesy of Robert Wood.

Robert Wood (GST 51) in 1950. Courtesy of Robert Wood.

Robert Wood was born into a Christian family in Youngstown, Ohio. Robert Wood served as an infantryman in the Army, was wounded during the invasion of Italy—for which he was decorated with the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star—and spent twenty-two months recovering in military hospitals. It was also in the Army that Wood had his first sexual experience with another man, though he wasn’t “brought out” into a gay social world until his undergraduate years at the University of Pennsylvania. He was already twenty-five years old when he enrolled at Oberlin’s Graduate School of Theology.

Wood began speaking and writing for gay causes shortly after his ordination. In 1960, his path-breaking book, Christ and the Homosexual was published. Wood retired in 1986 after thirty-five continuous years as a parish pastor, Hailed in the gay press as a “pioneer for gay rights in America,” he is the subject of a forthcoming biography.

Oral history conducted by phone, Mar. 30, 2000, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

When I was at [the University of Pennsylvania], I crossed paths with a group of undergraduates; today we call them fundamentalist rightists evangelical Christians. [I] happened to be in a meeting one time when they started quoting all the negative verses in the scripture about homosexuals, and that sort of frightened me, because I’d grown up in a Christian home and Sunday School and all, and had never confronted those texts. But I realized they were using these texts to bash me and other homosexuals, so I decided that when I went to Seminary, I would learn my Bible as well or more than they did so I could use the scripture to confront them…So that was one motive I had in going to Oberlin Seminary, was to really get grounded in scripture, so I could hold my own in a discussion about what the Bible says about homosexuals…

First I explored the Seminary library. I used the card index, but there was no single book on [homosexuality] and a few that even dared to mention it. It was primarily biological, but there was nothing about a Christian ministry with homosexuals or any historic information of the church’s relationship to homosexuality…I went to the college library and you might find a paragraph under the letter “H” that was very academic and certainly not very enlightened at that time. [The books] considered [homosexuality to be] a disease or an illness, an infliction, a perversion or a sin… I didn’t find anything in print so I decided that I would have to write my own book…

The Seminary was always known as a liberal Seminary…One semester one of my term papers was to write on the story of David and Jonathon and whether or not that was a homosexual experience. The professor Herbert May, who was known as an Old Testament scholar said, “Don’t forget that they were teenagers and who knows what teenagers do!” So he wasn’t surprised or alarmed that the students brought up that issue…Herbert May and Thomas Kepler were both scholars on a liberal standpoint, and I was pleased as a gay man with their interpretations. They certainly weren’t using the text to bash homosexuals. They were looking at it from a historical and theological basis. I felt much more relieved when I found there was another way to interpret the texts as opposed to how I read them at Penn…I [now] feel I’m well grounded on scripture, and I still write now and then on gay marriage particularly…

These years that I was at Oberlin, ’48, ’49, ’50, first part of ’51, Harry Truman was still president and Senator Joe McCarthy was just coming to power…He was outing what he called “pinkos and homos” and it was really a very frightening time in America for people in the Federal Government and Hollywood…If a gay man got arrested and was convicted, depending on what state, he could [be forced to] have a lobotomy, which was a horrible procedure and certainly not a cure, and left most of them as vegetables…

It was very closeted then. There was one other [gay] Seminary student…[who arrived] a year after I was there, but again it was in some ways frustrating because I kept saying, “Once I’m ordained and I graduate, I’ll try to find a church somewhere where I can be a little more open.” And that’s one reason I went to Manhattan since I knew there were a lot of gay places in Manhattan. I found a church and I found my lover there. But at Oberlin it was very quiet and many of my Seminary friends were talking about their girlfriends and some of them were married…

Non-gay people [at Oberlin] didn’t know I was gay so they didn’t know they were talking about me [when they made anti-gay statements]…Same way as when I was in the military listening to all those awful queer jokes which were very negative and derogatory, but the G.I.’s, my buddies, didn’t know they were talking about me…The term faggot was a popular put-down, the word “pansy” was another popular word at that time, particularly applied to Conservatory students…

Sometime in my second year I met an undergraduate who was in the Conservatory. His name was John Challener…[He] was a piano major and later became a rather well known concert pianist and went to Julliard after Oberlin, and we later met in Manhattan…I would go read magazines [at the undergraduate library] and one day I spotted Jack. He was doing the same thing, and so we traded looks with each other and recognized the signs…

I don’t know whether he spoke the first words or I spoke the first words, but it wasn’t really difficult to tell, to recognize each other, that we were both gay men without being terribly obvious, and I was happy to meet him because I heard that there were some gay undergraduates on campus…When I was in Philadelphia during my last year, I told some friends that I had been accepted into Oberlin and the gay fellows I knew at Penn said, “Oh, isn’t that where they have a Conservatory of Music?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s one of the undergraduate schools.” And he said, “Oh, I hear it’s full of queers!” So that was my introduction and I kept my eyes open when I got there to see if it was true…

In those days Jack was what we used to call a very “obvious fairy.” Later, when we met in Manhattan, he had calmed down a bit and was in a permanent relationship with another man, but in those days Jack was quite obvious and so were his roommates. He didn’t care who knew and I figure the Administration must had been aware of it but there was never any reprise or anything…I think I only went to bed with him one time but we remained friends after that…

Jack was a resident [of the Throne Room] and his roommates were also Conservatory students…Everyone was very quiet and under-cover [on campus] except for the Throne Room, [where] Conservatory students would let their hair down from time to time…We called it the Throne Room because it was always occupied by the queens on campus, so that’s how it got the title! It was on [the top floor of] a men’s dormitory [Burton]—at that time all the men and women had separate dorms…At that time it was the biggest men’s [room] on campus…They decorated the room with lovely drapes and flowers on the center table and always had a bowl of candy or something in the room and were quite swishy about it…In the Seminary our rooms were pretty austere and there wasn’t much chance to really decorate it…The Throne Room was always very appealing.

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