Current Issue

Apr. 3, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 10


Hidden lives

Amid questioning, covering, and fear, gay students in the ’50s and ’60s found friendship and even love

By Richard Just ’01
Published in the April 3, 2013, issue

Peter Gray ’60
Peter Gray ’60

Midway through his sophomore year, Peter Gray ’60 got lucky in his choice of friends. He had found himself growing closer to one of his classmates. “We just enjoyed each other’s company,” Gray remembers. “He had a good sense of humor. A rather sardonic sense of humor, as a matter of fact. ... He was funny and he was lively and active, and just fun to be with.” Gray was attracted to men, but at the time, he recalls, he had no “cultural vocabulary” to describe these ­feelings.

Then, one day, he found himself having a wrestling match with his new friend. What happened next was dramatically out of step with Princeton’s self-image. It was also a shock to Gray himself. “I was as surprised as I could possibly be. I ­didn’t know it could come to this,” he says. “At least from my point of view, it was just a budding friendship ... and then all of a sudden it was a whole lot more than that.” It was more than sex; it was a full-fledged relationship.

Gray was one of 16 LGBT alumni from the classes of the 1950s and ’60s — 15 gay men and one transgender woman — who agreed to speak to me over the past few months about their experiences at Princeton. In advance of Princeton’s first LGBT alumni conference, April 11–13, I wanted to talk to gay alumni who came of age before the beginning of the modern gay-rights movement — and whose generational history often is overlooked as that movement marches forward.

If you went to Princeton during their era and you’re not gay, there’s a good chance that the gay lives of your classmates would have been invisible to you during your college years. And if you’ve dwelled on the subject in the decades since graduation, you may have found yourself thinking that their sexual orientations must have been so circumscribed, so repressed, that being gay could not possibly have played much of a role in their Princeton experience.

All of this is half-true. The inner and outer gay lives of Princetonians during the 1950s and ’60s were indeed circumscribed. But they were far from nonexistent. Virtually all the alumni I spoke to pointed to some way in which their sexual orientation or gender identity had played a role in their college lives — often privately, sometimes ­semi-publicly. They were, after all, doing the same thing done by college students in every era: struggling to figure out who they really were. Along the way they were searching for — and sometimes finding — sex and friendship. And occasionally even love.

FOR THE ALUMNI I INTERVIEWED, the toughest challenge during our conversations often came in trying to explain what it had meant to be gay at a time when they had no language to describe such a thing. During the 1950s and ’60s, the existence of gay people at Princeton wasn’t only invisible and inconceivable to many straight people. It was also invisible and inconceivable to many gay students ­themselves.

At Princeton, “there wasn’t any such concept as gay,” recalls Dick Limoges ’60. “You couldn’t even talk about it because there wasn’t even a vocabulary for it, at least it seemed to me.” Arthur Bellinzoni ’57 puts it this way: “I just assumed that I was part of this odd group of people who were not attracted to women, and that’s the way it was. And I didn’t really think of what would happen beyond Princeton. ... I had no sense of what it really meant to be gay, in the way that people understand that today.” Says Daniel Massad ’69: “I had no understanding of myself as being gay when I entered Princeton. I didn’t have that terminology.”

Even if they had found the words to describe what they were going through, many would have had no one with whom to talk about it. Many gay Princetonians simply didn’t know any other gay people — or at least they thought they didn’t. “I had really no good context in which to place the things that I was feeling,” recalls Charles Ihlenfeld ’59. “I was very aware of keeping all this stuff to myself. And I did.”

“Princeton was a fairly frightening place for me to be dealing with all this,” says Massad. “I was pretty terrified of talking to anybody about my feelings, my desires, the shape of my desires, even close friends. I was afraid of rejection, afraid of some kind of public shame that might accrue. I was afraid of it getting back to my parents in Oklahoma.”

“Gayness at the time, at least in my experience, was viewed as what some strange people in Greenwich Village did. Certainly not Princetonians,” says a member of the Class of ’67 who asked not to be identified. “I viewed myself as homosexual. Knew that I didn’t have a drop of attraction to women. But I presumed that was developmental, and eventually I would grow into heterosexuality.”

And yet, while the alums I spoke to might not have thought about their sexual orientation the way they talk or think about it now, their experience at Princeton invariably was colored by it. Some mentioned a feeling of always being on guard during college — a sense that at any moment someone might identify them for what they really were. “I was constantly defensive and hiding,” recalls Doug Bauer ’64. Says the alum from the Class of ’67, “I was terrorized at every moment. I was very self-conscious about the way I held myself physically. ... I would not walk across campus once without wondering whether someone thought the way I was walking was gay.” James Saslow ’69 recalls that Princeton students had a “fascination with still trying to live an outdated social fantasy. ... That’s what I thought I was supposed to be doing. And I wasn’t very good at that.”

Both Saslow and the ’67 alum said the school’s relatively macho culture was something they valued about Princeton at the time because it held out the promise of helping them become something they were not. In high school, Saslow says, his peers gave him a hard time for having too many female friends. And so he consciously chose an all-male school because he thought it would prevent him from falling back on female friendship. “On the one hand, as I say, I didn’t really fit in. But on the other hand, I wanted to. I still thought this romantic vision of what a Princetonian was, was of some value.” The ’67 alum puts it this way: “I got some real pride, some really deep pride, in feeling I finally have learned at Princeton how to move in a way that people wouldn’t wonder. And that gave me an enormous amount of comfort, relief, and absolutely no question, better self-esteem. At least I felt I could hide it.”

Alice Miller ’66, the sole transgender alum with whom I spoke, recalls similar feelings. Alice (who went by “Lyman” in college) did not come out as transgender, or begin her male-to-female transition, until decades after Princeton. And because she is attracted to women, she did not experience some of the challenges faced by the gay alumni I interviewed. Yet she, too, spoke about being drawn to Princeton because of its masculine culture. “In hindsight,” she says, “I’ve recognized that one of the elements that made me go to Princeton was that it was an all-male school in those days.” Looking back, she believes she was hoping that Princeton somehow could force her to conform to male norms. After graduation, Miller joined the CIA — in part, she thinks, for the same reason.

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8 Responses to Hidden lives

Jeff Richards '74 *77 *78 Says:

2013-04-03 13:54:58

With all due respect, I find this analysis of gay life at Princeton extraordinarily superficial, woodenly schematic and naive to the point of bordering on historical fiction, which at the same time does a fundamental disservice to GLBT Princetonians and which continues a tradition of Princeton historiography that is reminiscent of the falsification of Princeton's history with blacks. The story ignores, among other things, the anti-feminist subculture of Princeton throughout many decades, or at least until the end of the 1970s, it ignores how Princeton, like most all male schools and universities in America and Britain, has historically cultivated an elitist WASP homosocial culture, and it ignores as well the sexual harassment of male undergraduates by male faculty members. It also presents a view of Princeton as though nobody knew where the major cruising spots on campus were located. I remember clearly how my classmate Arthur Eisenbach was ridiculed when he founded the first gay alliance at Princeton. I remember conversations with the retired dean of the faculty, J. Douglas Brown '19 *28, who retired in 1969, about homosexuality at Princeton - he was a family friend and mentor - and he shrugged his shoulders and said to me, well, we more or less let homosexual faculty members know, they can take it to New Brunswick or to New York, but hands-off the boys in Princeton. So please, if you are going to write a history of LGBT people at Princeton, please do better research.

Kenell Touryan *62 Says:

2013-04-03 14:38:03

If heterosexuals are called straight, does it mean that LGBTs are crooked? The only experience I had at the Grad School in Princeton was with a couple of sex-obsessed gays who would go around grabbing the genitals of their classmates! Are there any moral imperatives for sexual behavior?

Harry M. Rosenberg *62 Says:

2013-04-05 12:17:18

Congratulations to PAW and Richard Just for getting the word out, even if fragmentary. Everyone has a slightly different take on their gay experience at Princeton. I am inspired to organize an LGBT program as part of the annual reunions of my undergraduate alma mater, the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). The more we are out, the better, in print and in person.

Kevin Hepler '76 Says:

2013-04-08 09:27:57

Definitely the article is a start, but a very skewed one. Like the post-graduation lives of those who do not return for Reunions, it is unlikely we'll ever know a complete picture that would include those Princeton students whose lives were not as quiet or content as the ones in this article. Agreeing with Jeff Richards, the naive remarks about the C-level in Firestone could only be enhanced by the simple fact that in the 1970s everyone knew the irony of Humphrey's book, "Tearoom Trade," which just happened to be shelved there. April 11, the Every Voice gathering on campus will go a long way toward letting the light into those closets.

James M. Saslow '69 Says:

2013-04-15 09:32:27

Jeff Richards '74 is correct that Richard Just's article is not a complete history of homosexuality at Princeton, but it wasn't meant to be. As the subhead says, it's mainly about the personal experiences of students from the 1950s and '60s, and of course only those whom he could contact to interview -- and it's still not easy to find gay alums from that era, given that they never told anyone on campus at the time. As for the implication that we were naive because the library toilet was a known cruising place, I think I made it clear in my own interview that although I knew it was there, it was dangerous and sleazy, like much of the gay world at that time, and thus actually off-putting rather than enticing. That was a major reason so many of us took so long to enter that world -- which was just what the powers that be at that time wanted. And as for not talking about faculty harassment of students, again, the article could only report what these specific interviewees said; apparently that didn't happen to any of us, though it may have to others. I agree with the suggestion that a fully researched, historically grounded account of homosexuality at Princeton would be very valuable; in fact it was discussed as a possible project at the April 11-13 reunion. The full story would go back at least as far as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Booth Tarkington, who wrote about the old PU and its WASP aristocracy, including the legendary "Princeton rub." And of course it would put sexual mores in the context of attitudes about women and other minorities in those far-off days. But that's too much to ask of a magazine article, particularly one obviously focused on telling individual stories. When it comes to enlightening people about the history and experience of sexuality, so long silenced, all avenues are useful.

Alice Lyman Miller '66 Says:

2013-04-15 12:55:26

I agree with James Saslow above. I note that the critical comments on Just's article posted here come from alumni of the '70s, while the positive ones come from alumni of the '60s. I think this split reflects the changing social context between those decades. The post-Stonewall '70s saw the rise of public gay (a word not in circulation earlier, as far as I know) activism, in part thanks to the later '60s' questioning of and agitation on a variety of political, social and cultural fronts. Those of us in the '50s and '60s frequently dealt with being gay or (like me) trans (another term that began circulation later) by self-repression. We simply didn't have a vocabulary to describe our selves positively legitimately, much less advance our cause until the movements of the late '60s crystallized one.

Alice Lyman Miller '66 Says:

2013-04-15 13:48:52

I neglected to mention another watershed change that differentiated the '50s and '60s from the '70s and after at Princeton: the admission of women, which began to dilute the hyper-masculine culture that pervaded student life.

Dick Limoges '60 Says:

2013-04-16 09:28:36

Responding to Jeff Richards, I agree with Jim Saslow that this article never was meant to be a complete history of homosexuality or an "analysis of gay life at Princeton" as Richards labels it. Rather, when I was asked if I might be interviewed, I was told it was to be a collection of vignettes about how things were on campus at different times, as lived by 16 specific people. In that I believe it succeeded. The campus that I described, from 1956 to 1960, was a very different place and, along with the rest of the culture of the times, hostile to homosexuals. (That was the only word available since the word "gay" was not in common use.) Please remember that, in 1953, Eisenhower had signed Executive Order 10450, for the first time prohibiting gays and lesbians from working in the federal government, and J. Edgar Hoover made it clear he equated homosexuals with Communists and spies (pinkos), and were to be objects of surveillance because they were a threat to the government. In 1952 Whittaker Chambers had published his book "Witness" admitting he was homosexual and a Communist, and in 1956 Alger Hiss, his fellow spy, spoke at an eating club on campus, which started the shit-storm all over again: Nixon, McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Hoover and all the other hunters of deviance. Being invisible was only good sense. In the late '50s the iconic gay man was Liberace, the most successful and fla! mboyant entertainer of the day. He was the quintessential sissy "screaming queen" who defined most people's idea of gay men. No role model he. In mid-century, homosexuality was defined as something one did; furtive, sordid, sleazy quick acts of lust, rather than of passion or love. It was not a term that defined who one is. Such adventures took place in Trenton, New Brunswick, Philadelphia or New York rather than on the campus, which only confirmed the secrecy and anonymity these acts required. One could not acknowledge them, often even to oneself. Jordan Roth put the question beautifully when he spoke at "Every Voice" as he asked "What are the desires that define me?" To say that one was a homosexual in the 50's was also to proclaim at the same time that one was 1. mentally ill by definition, 2. a criminal by law, and 3. a sinner according to church doctrine, to say nothing about being a social outcast. Few people indeed would admit to this identity or claim it proudly. Stonewall was 13 years in the future, and not even a dream. Perhaps Jeff Richards is accurate about his time a Princeton, 20 years later; I cannot know. I do think his experiences cannot be extrapolated backwards to the time he was born. I would make the same observation about Kevin Hepler's comments; they too pertain to the era Jeff Richards cites. As for harassment by faculty, that was never an issue that was raised or mentioned in any way among my fellow students. Other issues he raises may well be the topic of a future scholarly article concerning all these matters.
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