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

Peter Gray ’60
Peter Gray ’60
PHOTO: FRANK WOJCIECHOWSKI

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.

James Saslow ’69
James Saslow ’69
PHOTO: FRANK WOJCIECHOWSKI

Some alumni recall homophobia as a pervasive part of Princeton’s culture, though none spoke of violence or threats. “I got teased by members of my eating club,” says Saslow. “It was all these tired stereotypes. ‘Oh, you artists and artistic people must be gay.’ And those were such silly stereotypes that I resisted even listening to people talk that way.”

Not surprisingly, many alumni felt social pressure to form heterosexual relationships. “It was expected you would date women,” says Dan Pugh ’63. “And in fact I did date women, and found those relationships to be fairly shallow and unimportant.” Less than a year after finishing at Princeton, Bill Nussbaum ’62 got engaged to a woman he had gone to high school with. “She was there for my graduation,” he remembers. The alum from the Class of ’67 says he tried to minimize the number of women he dated, while also remaining responsive to roommates who wanted to set him up. He ended up dating two or three women. “All of that was just torture from my point of view,” he says. “I was completely aware of the unfairness of that to these women.”

AMID THIS CULTURE of questioning, covering, and fear, one might think that gay life found no outlets at all. And yet, here and there, it did. Some gay students searched for companionship off campus. Several alums told me that there was at least one bathroom in Firestone Library that was known as a gay cruising spot — although no one I talked to found it to be of much use in meeting partners. Saslow says that the bathroom was on the library’s C floor, “so far down, I guess, that no one went there much.” “I never actually saw anyone doing anything,” he added, “but everyone knew that there was this place where, at the least, gay longings were acknowledged — though the sordidness and the blunt sexual tone weren’t very inviting.”

Awareness of gay life crept to the surface in other ways as well. “I remember coming back on campus from Nassau Street in the dark one evening,” says Massad. “And I saw, at the far end of the big park-like area, two very shadowy figures, and they were both smoking. And I saw them get close to each other and disappear behind a tree. And I thought, ‘This is two guys, and this is how it’s done.’” To Massad, it was a “fairly scary image”: a sinister and unappealing glimpse at what his life would be like if he chose to act on being gay.

Some inklings of gay life came from graduate students or — not always appropriately — professors. “There were professors who were known to take interest in students,” recalls Bruce Dunning ’62. Years after graduation, Saslow found out that one professor (“a soft-spoken Southern-gentleman ‘bachelor,’ who liked to pat me on the head and stroke my hair” and who lived “with a ‘roommate,’ another unmarried man”) used to host “gay parties” with mostly grad students at his house — “not orgies, just openly socializing as gay people, which they couldn’t do elsewhere on campus.”

And, of course, many of the alumni I spoke to had crushes, including crushes they couldn’t act on. Massad developed a friendship with a fellow member of his eating club, a relationship that “deepened and became a very powerful part of my life,” he recalls. “I was aware in that friendship of how much I desired him, and desired to be desired by him.” Another alum remembers, “I developed an enormous crush on somebody the first year I was there, which would not abate and really embarrassed me to death, because that was hopeless. And yet here it is. ... This was something that was not ­supposed to happen.”

Some of the sexual relationships Iheard of ended quickly, or barely started at all. The ’67 alum recalls a few incidents, including one that took place his senior year, when a student who was dining with him at his eating club whispered into his ear, just before dessert: “Would you like to go and have a homosexual experience?” They went back to his room, and did, indeed, have a homosexual experience. But at the end of the evening when he made some comment about meeting up later, his date replied, “No, no, no, this can never happen again. This was only because I was drunk.”

A few alumni had more success finding partners. Bauer had an ongoing sexual relationship with someone who was a year behind him. It was not a full-fledged romance; “we were buddies,” Bauer says. Still, it lasted until Bauer graduated — at which point they lost contact. “I think,” says Bauer, “we were both too embarrassed to keep in touch.”

MANY OF THE MEN I SPOKE WITH gradually realized in the years after college just how many other gay people there had been at Princeton. Nussbaum recalls being in a gay bar in the Midwest a year after he graduated and seeing a fellow member of his eating club. (They didn’t talk.) At his 10th reunion, Bellinzoni “hooked up with someone who I did not know as an undergraduate. ... He wound up staying with me, and we had a very enjoyable weekend together.” Bellinzoni also learned years later that a classmate he’d had a crush on was gay. They reconnected, and Bellinzoni told him how he’d felt in college. (“He was flattered,” he recalls.) Fifteen years after graduation, Saslow and Massad — who had been friends but were not out to each other as undergrads — reconnected when Massad read a piece by Saslow in the gay newspaper The Advocate.

By that time, AIDS was beginning to ravage the gay community, and, partly in response, the gay-rights movement was becoming more assertive. In the mid-1980s, Limoges, who estimates that he eventually lost 85 acquaintances — including some close friends — to AIDS, decided to start a group for gay alumni. He used money he inherited from his father to launch the organization, which came to be known as the Fund For Reunion. “The time I guess was right,” says Limoges, “and people kind of joined on.”

Dick Limoges ’60
Dick Limoges ’60
PHOTO: FRANK WOJCIECHOWSKI

Not surprisingly, the alumni I spoke with have a wide range of feelings about Princeton. Some love the place and come back frequently for Reunions. Others have more ­complicated emotions. “I was not generally happy at Prince­ton. It’s very sad in a way. Because people come away from Prince­ton with lifelong friendships and ties that bind,” Ihlenfeld says. “And I really don’t have that.” “In some ways, I miss not having had a stronger social experience in the college years,” says Pugh. “But when I look back on it, I don’t blame that on Princeton, but on the whole cultural situation in the country.” Saslow says of his college social life: “I feel like it was four years of missed opportunities.”

When I asked LGBT alumni how they felt about Prince­ton, many began by saying how much they had valued the academics. Some were quicker to speak about a professor who had inspired them, or an academic field they had fallen in love with, than they were to talk about the friendships they had formed. I suspect that if you asked a group of straight alums the same questions, you would hear very different answers.

“I guess I buried myself in my work,” says Bauer. “I didn’t learn a whole lot about people.” Massad, an artist, spoke about the tremendous impact the University had on him intellectually. “It made me feel that I could do more than I ever believed I could do,” he says. He met a lifelong mentor there. And yet, from a social perspective, Princeton proved to be a difficult place. “I had very mixed feelings about my Princeton experience,” he says.

At his 50th reunion last year, Bruce Dunning became class president. The fact that he was gay, he says, was a non-issue for his classmates. Dunning previously had put together the class’s 50th-reunion yearbook. Of the 400 people who contributed entries about themselves, approximately a dozen acknowledged being gay.

PETER GRAY DID NOT ATTEND a Princeton reunion for 50 years. But in 2010, he finally did, bringing with him his partner of six years. Among the people he saw was someone he had kept in touch with intermittently but had seen only a handful of times since graduation: the friend he had wrestled with sophomore year, some five decades before.

In the wake of their wrestling match, the two had fallen in love. “I emphasize ‘fall in love’ because it was an emotional thing,” Gray tells me. “We literally did fall in love with each other.” The following year, they moved in together, and remained roommates until graduation. “It was pretty ideal,” Gray says. “We fought, we loved, we had sex. We did just about everything we could think of to do.”

Both Gray and his partner were in eating clubs and had other friends. Did anyone guess the true nature of their relationship? I asked. “I suppose some people suspected,” Gray says. “I don’t know. I couldn’t really get into the minds of other people on this subject.” As for the existence of other gay people, Gray describes himself and his partner as living in a sort of gay bubble. “I was not aware that anyone else in the world was gay, besides my roommate and me,” he says. “I was not aware of anyone I thought consciously was homosexual in those days. We just lived our life.”

But the bubble Gray and his partner had created for themselves could not last forever. Eventually, their four years at Princeton were up. “He went his way, and I went mine,” says Gray. “And that was a very difficult time for me. Because this was the love of my life, I thought.” Gray entered the Navy, which had paid for his Princeton education through an ROTC scholarship. It wasn’t until 1973, 13 years after graduation, that he fell in love again.

Gray’s experience wasn’t typical of his era at Princeton. Of all the alumni I talked to, he was the only one to describe what we might now recognize as a complete romantic relationship. Indeed, listening to Gray’s story, I found myself in awe of the courage it would have taken to pursue such a relationship in the late 1950s — especially since four decades later, even at a very different, more open Princeton, I myself could not find the courage to come out. And yet, his story was representative in some ways, too: Nearly every alum I contacted spent part of his college years engaged in the same enterprise as Gray did: grappling — somehow, at some level — with being gay.

Toward the end of our conversation, Doug Bauer told me that he hoped, through this article, his fellow Princetonians might learn that their school “wasn’t as straight as they thought it was.” That seemed to me a perfect way to describe the alternative history of Princeton I had been hearing from him and his contemporaries. They might have been years away from having sex, or falling in love, or, in the case of Alice Miller, transitioning to the gender they were meant to be. They might not have had a vocabulary to describe their feelings. But in the end, who they were was inescapable. And it was inescapably part of their years at Princeton.

Richard Just ’01 is Washington editor for Newsweek and The Daily Beast.