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.