"Laura Ross," September 20, 1993
by Marc Stein. Copyright © Marc Stein 2009. All rights reserved.
I interviewed "Laura Ross" on 20 Sep. 1993 in her home in the Philadelphia suburbs. Ed Hermance, the long-time owner of Giovanni's Room bookstore in Philadelphia, knew about my project and suggested that I interview her. The bookstore specialized in gay and lesbian materials and Hermance told me that "Ross" had provided him with a loan for the bookstore at a critical juncture. Hermance provided her with my mailing address and she wrote to me in August 1993 to express her willingness to be interviewed. In that letter she noted, "I was in a committed monogamous relationship from 1934 until [my partner's] death in 1986." Before the taped interview began, I asked "Ross" if I should use her real name or a pseudonym; she indicated that I could use her real name. Almost twenty years later, in 2012, I contacted Hermance to ask if he was still in touch with "Ross." A short time later, he informed me that he had telephoned her; she was still living in the same home and was expecting my call. We talked shortly thereafter and I asked whether I could put the 1993 interview transcript online. She indicated that I could, but requested that I now use a pseudonym and disguise her personal identity and location since she "lived alone in the country" and "didn't want any trouble" from her neighbors. This transcript therefore uses pseudonyms and omits revealing geographic references.
"Ross" provided me with the following biographical information:
Year of Birth: 1932
Place of Birth: Pennsylvania
Place of Mother's Birth: Pennsylvania
Mother's Occupation: Housewife
Place of Father's Birth: Pennsylvania
Father's Occupation: Antique dealer and auctioneer
Religious Background: Presbyterian
Class Background: Upper Middle Class
1938-42: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
1944-45: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Marc Stein Interview with "Laura Ross," 20 September 1993. Transcribed by Marc Stein and Nathan Wilson.
MS: I thought I would start off by asking you for some basic biographical information: something about your childhood and your upbringing and your early family years.
LR: Well I grew up in a small town of 3,000, about twenty miles outside of Philadelphia and had a very happy childhood. I was always a tomboy. Hated to be kept in the house. Always wanted to be out playing sports. My sister did the dusting; I did the hedge clipping and the lawn mowing.
MS: Did you have brothers as well?
LR: No. I had no brothers. I just had one sister, who was three and a half years younger than I am.
MS: You were born in 1917?
MS: So you were growing up mostly in the 1920s.
LR: Right. And my frustrations were always worked off by going out behind the barn and chopping wood. So looking back, my proclivities were not awfully feminine from the very beginning.
MS: And did your family pick up on that pretty early?
LR: No, I don't think so. I don't think so. But since my father hadn't a son, he and I got along very well, because I was interested in the sort of things he was interested in. He was a tennis player. Taught me to play tennis. I loved to play tennis. Put a tent in the back orchard. It was behind our barn, one summer, and I slept outside from May to November. All by myself in the tent out there. Cooked my breakfast on a stove and things like that. And I can remember when I'd be like thirteen, fourteen years old and I loved to wander around the countryside. And in the summertime, I could get up and eat my breakfast and take my fishing pole and go off and come back in time for dinner. And in those days nobody worried about a girl wandering around the countryside. It was so entirely safe. We were so free compared to what young people are today in what we could do.
MS: It sounds like your family wasn't much affected by the Depression?
LR: Oh yes. Dad actually had just donated a building to an orphanage. And it was actually being built when the Depression hit. And so he borrowed money to finish it and things were a little lean for quite a few years.
MS: What did lean mean for your family?
LR: Well I often say today that I look at what children have when they go to high school. And my high school years were very happy years. I thoroughly enjoyed them. But I can remember that I had two jumpers, which are like a sleeveless dress, and different blouses. And that was my high school wardrobe. You wore one one week and one the next. You'd have different clean blouses, but that was it. That was the wardrobe. And everybody else was very much the same. So that when you think about a high school child today going to high school with two outfits. They don't realize. But as I say, it was a very happy time. I remember thinking at fourteen that I wish I could stay fourteen forever. And I know how, having been a pediatrician now, that fourteen is not an easy age for most children today. But it was a wonderful age for me because I was so free. I was free enough to be allowed to do a lot of things and not old enough to have a lot of responsibility. So it was an ideal situation.
MS: Were you ever aware of lesbians, gay men, sexually different people in your childhood?
LR: No. Actually, I never knew there was such a thing 'til a year after I fell in love with "Kay."
MS: So that preceded any knowledge of other people.
LR: But looking back, there were several incidents that I remember very clearly. I remember when I was a freshman in high school. I was thirteen and there was a senior girl who always dressed with shirts and ties and had a mannish haircut. And I can remember, "I just wish I could get to know her." And I remember one time, we had a front porch that was right on the street. And I remember one time she came walking down the street with somebody. And there was a miniature golf course on the other side of town. And she invited me to go along to watch them play miniature golf. And I thought that was neat. So looking back, I see that that was the sort of person I focused on long before I knew there was such a thing as a homosexual.
MS: Any other incidents that you recall?
LR: The one that I've thought of particularly, and it took me a long time to put two and two together on this, but in those days, you didn't have supermarkets. There was a butcher store. There was a bakery. There was a general store. And one day when I came home, my father, it was one of the two times I can remember him punishing me. Because he wanted to know what I said in the butcher shop. And I hadn't the vaguest idea that I had said anything in the butcher shop. And for years and years and years I couldn't understand. I never did know why, until finally it dawned on me one day that the butcher lived catty-corner across the street from us. But it wasn't a street you crossed much. I played with the people on this side. And I didn't go over there. And I can remember, and I haven't any idea of how old I was when this happened, I can remember that one day she invited me to come over there to play. And I went over there and we were playing up in her barn and she wanted me to lie down over some box sort of things over there. And she was going to lie on top of me. And I said, "I don't think I want to play this." And I went home. And since that was the butcher's daughter, I just wonder to this day now whether she made up this tale to her father.
MS: That you had said something?
LR: Yes, that the butcher told my father and I got punished for. To this day I'm wondering if that is the connection. I have no idea really.
MS: A mystery. A childhood mystery.
LR: Yes. But that's another incident. And I remember I played basketball with the boys at lunch time. I wasn't into going to dances and that sort of thing. I was a real tomboy.
MS: Did you ever have a boyfriend in your teenage years?
LR: Yes, I had a boyfriend. Everybody did in high school. But I was not focused on boyfriends. From the time I was twelve, I was focused on going to medical school.
MS: Is that right? How did you decide that you were going to do that?
LR: Well, when I was twelve, my mother had a third daughter who died the night she was born. And I woke up in the morning to hear, "You had a little sister but she died last night." So I decided I was going to be a doctor and see that babies didn't die.
MS: And I bet you did.
LR: And I stuck to that, I stuck to it. So my focus was on that. And the other thing is, I can remember from in my teens thinking, "This business of marrying a guy and then you have to keep house and raise kids like my mother did." I thought it was stupid. And then the next generation does the same thing? It seemed like it was an endless, what am I trying to say?
MS: Cycle or pattern?
LR: Yes. Treadmill. Just going round and round and round like a squirrel cage. And not getting anywhere. And I just had no interest in being involved in that kind of a scene, I remember from quite early on.
MS: Well I guess maybe now’s the point for you to explain to me how you had your first relationship, how that came about.
LR: Well I went to Girl Scout camp. And I'd never been away from home. The only place I'd been without my immediate family was to visit a cousin overnight at my grandmother's. I'd never been anywhere. And I went to Girl Scout camp. And the first day I was there I started to menstruate. And in those days you didn't swim if this was happening.
MS: How old were you when you went?
LR: I was sixteen or fifteen I guess. And all the kids had gone swimming, of course. So I was sitting on the platform feeling very sorry and lonesome for myself. And along comes this counselor. And then I looked at her and thought, "Boy she looks neat." She sat down and was so nice to me. And from then on we were pals through the whole time I was there. But I still didn't know there was such a thing as homosexuality. I had never heard of it. In those days women that were pregnant, nobody ever talked about it. You didn't even mention that so and so was pregnant. So you can imagine how far out something like this would be.
MS: So at first, I imagine, you just became very close friends.
LR: Yes. We were very close friends that time at camp. And through the next year we wrote to each other back and forth because there was no way of getting from her town to mine, even though they're an hour's drive. You didn't have that many cars in those days. People didn't travel the way they do now. So then I went back to camp the next year and she wasn't there. And that's when another one of the counselors and I got to talking to each other a lot because she was very fond of "Kay," too. And she's the one who told me about homosexuality.
MS: Do you remember what she said?
LR: No. I just remember she tried to climb into bed with me and I didn't want her.
MS: Did she use that word, "homosexuality."
LR: No. I don't think she used the word, actually. I think she just talked about women who loved women. And I thought, "Oh, is that what's going on with me?"
MS: And did you immediately say that that must be it or was there some uncertainty and doubt?
LR: No, no. I realized this is what's been going on. This is why I've felt the way I have. And this is why the real crush I had in high school was on my gym teacher.
MS: So you had had a crush on your gym teacher?
LR: Yeah, sure. Lots of kids do.
LR: But it wasn't one of the guys.
MS: So at that point you began to look back right away and find signs?
LR: Yeah, at that point I began to look back and realize that things had been different all along and I just didn't know. So the next year, when my father gave me three choices of schools to go to and two of them were all-girl schools and the other was Ursinus. So naturally, "Kay" was there and they had a wonderful science course. And so that's where I went.
MS: And she was farther along, right?
LR: She was a junior and I was a freshmen. And the first night, then they had freshmen orientation week, so the freshmen came a week before the upperclassmen. And so the first night I got there I called her up and told her I was there. And she was there in fifteen minutes.
MS: Had you seen much of each other over the course of the past few years?
LR: No, I'd only seen her once in the summertime when I was at a conference in Collegeville. That was the only time we’d really seen each other in that time. But she was there. Just like that. It was just one of those things with us. I mean talk about love at first sight.
MS: And when did you first start talking about, that that was what it was?
LR: Well, very shortly. Because she was there. I remember my roommate was a sophomore so she wasn't there yet. So we sat on the unmade bed in the room and talked for a long, long time. We were so happy to see each other again. And it wasn't very long, a week, two weeks, something like that. She and her brother had a little Chevy Coupe (she was a day student) that they commuted in. And I remember sitting in that on the road right around the corner. They didn't have dorms at Ursinus then for women. They used various large houses along the main street of the town over there. And this was just around the corner from that. Essentially it was a dorm, but it wasn't. There were something like a dozen of us in the house. And sitting there in the Chevy, we decided that we'd like to spend the rest of our life together. And I can remember her very carefully telling me, "Now you realize what this means." She said, "We're always going to have to hide. And if people find out, who knows what can happen? You can be sent to a psychiatric hospital. All kinds of things."
MS: So you both were very aware, then, of the dangers?
LR: Well I hadn't been, but she said, "Before you really make this commitment, I want you to know."
MS: Now how did she know?
LR: Well she had a relationship with another one of her classmates at college. And she'd also had some growing up things with her high school counselor and whatnot. So she was experienced and I wasn't.
MS: Now did she have a similar kind of tomboyish upbringing or was she more the opposite of that?
LR: No, she loved to hunt and to fish. And she had a brother who was ten years older, her sister, eight, a brother six years older, and then a brother two years older. So she had three older brothers and one of them was only two years older than she was. So that she did boy things, too, a lot. We were very much alike that way. We both liked to fish and go bird watching, all kinds of outdoor stuff. Her favorite pastime here was mowing the lawn. She'd get on that tractor and get out there and mow the lawn. She was happy as a clam.
MS: So let's see, you arrived at Ursinus in 1934. And you must have had to live apart during your years of college, right?
LR: Yes. We were in the same sorority, but of course I lived on campus and she lived at home. And in those days, boys were free, but girls, when you left your dormitory house, you signed out as to where you were going evenings. And you could sign out to go to the library. You could sign out to go to the drugstore or to the local little bistro that we all frequented that served tea and cakes and stuff like that. And then you had to be in by a certain time, I forget what it was. Nine thirty or ten, it was something like that. And if you went off on a weekend, your parents had to give permission for you to go. The parents gave the school a list of the people that you would be allowed to visit. And you could sign out to go home or you could sign out to go to these particular places only, so that girls were really very well chaperoned through the whole thing. So what I used to do was sign out to go. I'd go home for the weekend and my family would bring me back Sunday afternoon and I wouldn't go back in the dorm. And Kay would pick me up and I'd go back Monday morning, ostensibly coming from home.
MS: I see. So you were able to steal some nights together?
LR: So we were able to steal some time together. Yeah.
MS: And did anyone else know what was going on during those years or was it really just a secret between the two of you?
LR: Well the gal, "Rose," wasn't in her class, because "Rose" graduated. "Rose" was two years ahead of her. That was the gal she was with before I came along. She graduated in the spring when I came in the fall. So that she of course knew that something was going on. And there was another friend of hers who knew, who had a single room in one of the dorms. Down at the end of the hall. And I can remember we'd come back on Monday morning, go to our eight o'clock classes, and then we'd go down to "Tommy's" room and just sack out. Because we'd been up all night.
MS: "Tommy's" was a single room?
MS: And "Tommy" was a woman, right?
MS: So was that the extent of it? Just those two people knew and was that about it?
LR: Yeah, that was about it.
MS: Neither of your families at that point knew?
LR: I think my family suspected something was going on, because after that second year at camp, the counselor that I talked to about it wrote me a letter in which she talked about this. And my mother opened and read my mail. I remember that they told me I was not to go back to camp another year.
MS: Nothing further was said?
LR: No, but for the first year or so I was at Ursinus, they did not want me coming to "Kay's". And I never was quite sure if they tied it together with the camp experience or whether it was because she had a brother who was two years older who was in the same class, because he'd been ill for a year and she'd skipped a grade. So they were in the same class. Or whether they were concerned about me being over here because of Don. I never knew. They never said anything. But they weren't happy about me coming over here for the first couple of years. But then they began to have problems, mother and father, and ended up being divorced. I guess it was '41 when Dad remarried. He left home in '36. After my second year at college, Dad left. So that from then on, nobody kept tabs on me. So I'd be over here a lot. I used to ride from my town over here, which is fifteen miles. I'd ride on my bike and spend the day with "Kay" and ride back.
MS: Now did the boys at school give you any trouble? Either of you? In any way?
MS: No pressure to date?
LR: Oh, a little sometimes, but I just was never interested. And nothing much was ever said about it. I really didn't date anyone in college at all.
MS: Now did you ever encounter any kind of written material on homosexuality during the thirties?
LR: The Well of Loneliness, of course.
MS: You did?
MS: You read The Well?
LR: Oh, sure.
MS: Do you remember when you read it? Were you in college?
LR: Yes, I was in college. See my first summer after college I was at home. And I walked the countryside all summer. The next year I worked nearby, waiting tables at the Spring Mountain House. And then the following two summers I was at the Flanders in Ocean City as a waitress. A lot of our college kids went down there for the summer, like they still do. And so I got to see a little more of "Kay." And "Kay" had a great aunt who had a summer place in Ocean City. So she could come down there in the summer to visit her. And we'd get together. But we really didn't have a lot of time together those first years, in the summertime. In the winter, of course, when we were at school we saw each other every day.
MS: And so how did you get a copy of The Well?
LR: It was in the summertime, I was down at the shore.
MS: And someone gave it to you?
MS: Why do you think someone gave it to you?
LR: I have no idea, because my roommates were two sisters. And neither one of them were lesbian. I'm sure they weren't. And yet they were the kind who would have been interested in all kinds of funny things.
MS: And so it was one of them who gave you the book?
LR: Yes, yes, it was one of them, as I remember, that I got the book. And I was told to hide it. "Don't let people see this."
MS: And did you enjoy the book? Did you identify with the characters?
LR: Oh, yes. Cried over this poor woman, of course.
MS: Because a lot of people describe very different reactions. Some people, I guess, got very angry at how tragically it ends.
LR: I was very sad about the ending. And I thought she was very noble. I mean this girl really wasn't into our lifestyle. She was very noble to have given her up and so forth. I mean that was my reaction in my late teens when I read this.
MS: Any other written material? Scientific or otherwise?
LR: No. And the other thing that you might be interested to know was my religious problems. Because I was raised and my family was quite religious. My father was an elder in the church. And we went to church. To Sunday school Sunday morning, to church service Sunday morning, to church service Wednesday night, and if they had any other services, we were there. This was just taken for granted. Nobody said, "Do you want to go?" You went. Clear through high school and into college. And it was fairly fundamental. Well it was a pretty literal approach to the Bible. So that when I got in college and got involved with "Kay," when we got involved sexually, I began to have some problems with this religious background. And I stopped going to church. Except when I was home, you just went with the family. But I stopped going otherwise. And this was really a struggle for me. As I said, that first summer of my first year at college, I walked all summer, which is another way I deal with stress. I go to the mountain. And I came back at the end of that summer and said, because Paul, to my way of thinking then, said very explicitly that a woman who sleeps with a woman, who lies with a woman, is an abomination unto the Lord. This was the old King James version. And I said, "'Kay'" I can't do this anymore." And she was crushed. And she went off, didn't say anything. And that lasted approximately a month. And I just couldn't stand being away from her. I knew she hung out down at the bakery. And so I went down to the bakery one day and just sat down next to her. And that was fine.
MS: You were back together?
LR: Yeah. I guess she got the car and we went down and sat outside in her car and talked. And I said, "Religion or no religion, I just can't give you up."
MS: She must have been very happy. Was she angry that you had taken a month?
LR: No, she wasn't. She never was. Not that I know of.
MS: Did you ever go back to the church in any way?
LR: Oh, yes. That was '34. We went back to the church in the fifties. My father died in October '54. Her father died in March of '55. Her oldest brother died in July of '55. And we went back to the church. Great Aunt Ray, her maiden aunt, had always been a great church person. Her family were not particularly: Christmas and Easter and baptisms and that sort of thing. And with the death of three members of our family, we went back to the church and became very active in the church, as a matter of fact. I taught senior highs in Sunday school. We had group teaching at that point, so there were three of us teachers in a class. I taught Sunday school for senior highs for six or seven years. We got up Sunday morning. She had a niece who had five little kids. And we got up Sunday morning and went up to the niece’s house. And she fed them breakfast and I dressed them and we took them to Sunday school.
MS: So this was back to the Presbyterian Church?
LR: Yes. This is back in the sixties. And we both ended up being elders in the church. And it's interesting that, at one point, one of our ministers had arranged that various families in the church would bake and bring forward the communion bread. And at one point he asked "Kay" and I to do this as a family, which we did. It was very special for us. The same minister at one point offered to do a commitment service for us. But we had been together at that point for thirty, thirty-five years and we didn't feel any need for this.
MS: Was this in the sixties or a little bit later?
LR: This was later. This was in the seventies.
MS: Well going back to the forties or late thirties, you finished Ursinus and you went straight to medical school?
LR: Penn Medical School.
MS: And was she in Philadelphia as well?
LR: No. She'd started at Penn to do graduate work in bacteriology and had to drop out because she had some eye problems and using a microscope was difficult. So she went to Pierce Business School and worked for Curtis Publishing Company for a couple of years and then came back to the family business and became the treasurer of the business and worked at the brickyard for the rest of her life. She was the only woman there and she loved it.
MS: Meanwhile, though, you were in Philly for a few years.
LR: I was in Philly for the four years I was in medical school.
MS: And did you have any encounters with other gay people in those years?
LR: No, not really. Except for the one classmate and we never talked about it.
MS: Could you describe that classmate?
LR: Well one of my classmates had a man's haircut and wore a shirt and necktie and a regular suit coat always. And so I felt certain that she was lesbian. But we never mentioned it, even though we lived in the same apartment. And they knew I spent all my weekends out here with "Kay."
MS: You said there were three women in your medical school class? Is that right?
LR: Yes. And when we lived in the apartment, there were three of us that were medical students and one that was a law student. So there were four of us. As I say, we never spoke about it, so I may be entirely wrong about it, though I don't think so. We somehow know. My Spanish class this morning, there's a girl who sat next to me at the last class and there's no question in my mind that she's one of us. And we just have that. I don't know if you men do, but we do.
MS: Well speaking of men, did you have any encounters or knowledge of gay men during this time?
MS: That didn't come 'til much later?
LR: That's right. Well in the fifties "Kay" and I began going to Cape Cod. And there we did.
MS: There you did. But not in the forties?
MS: So you never went to any of the meeting places, say, in Philadelphia during the years when you were there?
LR: We didn't know where they existed.
MS: Not a bar, not Rittenhouse Square?
LR: No. We didn't know they existed.
LR: And we'd have been scared to go anyway. Plus getting back and forth to Philadelphia meant a train ride in those days. I'd come out on the train and walk up from the junction.
MS: And was there any effect, do you think, of the war years on women's relationships with one another? People say that with a lot of the men off to war there were more opportunities for women to live together and for women to get together?
LR: Well yes. I think there always have been. Because I can remember back in those days, one of the wealthy women in this town came back from England with a companion. And from then on, anywhere she went, the companion was always invited with her. And "Kay" and I were sure what was going on there. But this was how women functioned in those days. We didn't have the problems that a lot of the men had trying to live together because it was sort of taken for granted that two spinsters could get together and live in the same house. What they thought we did, I don’t know.
MS: So do you think, all in all, in the thirties and forties that gay men had it much more difficult than lesbians?
LR: Yes I do. Because two men moving in together, ssomehow it didn't seem right to people, whereas two women, well poor women, they have to support each other. Men are supposed to go out and be able to take care of themselves. That was the patriarchal system we operated in. So men had a lot of pressures on them that we didn't have.
MS: Do you think the men had more of a sense of community with other men like them than the women did?
LR: I really wouldn't know.
MS: But it sounds like you didn't feel during those years that much sense of community with other women involved with other women.
LR: No, not until I came out here in the forties and started to practice. And we met several women who were around the hospital that were lesbian.
MS: You came back out here when?
LR: I started to practice in 1945 here.
MS: I see.
LR: No, that's not right. I did start to practice in '45, yes, yes. But I was out here before that. I was out here in '42, '43 and then went into children's, came back out. But I opened my office in '45. And then we got to know some women from the hospital. And the others we knew were a couple of women that we discovered that had gone to Ursinus, too. We hadn't known about them then.
MS: How did you meet all of those people you just mentioned, the ones at the hospital and the other couples? Do you recall?
LR: Well I know how we met the ones from Ursinus. They had the same kind of dogs that we had. And we were looking to breed one of our dogs. And they had a male and so we got in touch with them and so we began sort of going around with each other and realized that. But still it was not talked about. Even though we knew, we all knew.
MS: And you talked among yourselves.
LR: The ones at the hospital, I guess I just put two and two together because these two women lived together and were together around the hospital. And so I got to know them and introduced them to the rest of the group.
MS: So would you all socialize together?
MS: Have one another over for dinner?
LR: Over for dinner. In fact, almost every Saturday night we were at one house or the other.
MS: Is that right?
LR: And Fourth of July parties, Labor Day weekend, Christmas, and New Year's, too.
MS: This is three couples, all told?
LR: Well there were three couples and two women who were sisters who were not lesbians.
MS: But nothing was ever talked about as far as your relationships were concerned?
LR: No, it was just taken for granted.
MS: Do you think the two sisters knew?
LR: I'm sure they must have.
MS: And were you all of a similar class, professional status, and ethnic background? And all lived in this general area?
LR: Yes. Yes.
MS: And so you said the socializing was pretty much holiday parties and Saturday night dinners? Would you all go out as well?
LR: No. Not really. No. We went to each other's homes. And we went on fishing trips and that sort of thing. And we'd vacation. We went to Florida and rented an apartment there. Well actually we didn't rent an apartment. One of the doctors gave us the use of his apartment. And we did some travel things together.
MS: Now were any of the couples butch/femme?
LR: No. None of them were. Nor were we, actually.
MS: Why do you think that was? Because so many people have described that to be what things were like back then.
LR: I know. And I have no idea. I really don't. We were all interested in sports. That was one of the things that tied us together. Dogs.
MS: It seems like those discussions more often are about working class women, women who were going out to bars. And maybe that was less common among more middle class women. Do you think?
LR: I think probably it would have been. Yes. I think that going to bars and that sort of thing was not something anybody in our world, heterosexual or homosexual, did really. People who went to bars were mostly, as you say, the working class people.
MS: It was really out of the realm of your experience.
LR: Yes, yes. Yes, it still is. I've been to some. I've been to some with my younger friends. And they're just so noisy. You can't hear anybody think. We used to talk and have great discussions about all kinds of things that are going on. Politics, religion, history, antiques.
MS: So if anybody had walked into any of your houses, any of the four couples' houses, would they have noticed something different? Was there anything in any of your homes to suggest that there might be lesbians living there?
LR: Not then. Now you'd find some books. You'll find a photograph of Martina. You'll find some materials around because I've been very active in the church, in the discussion on the question of ordaining homosexuals.
MS: I see. But back then there wouldn't have been anything in the homes?
MS: Right. Was that because of fear of visitors, do you think?
LR: Well I think we were just so ingrained from early on, starting out from a position where if you were discovered, you were going to be ostracized by everybody. You might have ended up in a mental institution. I mean, starting from there, you weren't very anxious to let people know what was going on. So that you were really very careful.
MS: Now did you know anyone who was ever institutionalized?
MS: And did you know anyone who had any trouble with the law during those years? Say the forties, moving into the fifties?
MS: Nothing like that?
LR: No. But we were just so separate. We were fortunate that we knew a couple other couples.
MS: And you told me, I think on the phone, that you had moved in with "Kay's" family.
LR: Yes. The first nine years, from '45 to '54, we lived in the big house with her family.
MS: And nothing was ever said by the family?
MS: And they treated you well?
LR: Well, they treated me like another daughter. And after my parents were divorced, my mother got to know "Kay." I began to bring her home there. And my mother got to like "Kay" very much. In fact, she once told me you don't treat her very well. So they got to accept this. And what they think or knew, I haven't the vaguest idea. Whatever it was, they obviously didn't care enough to do anything about it. They cared more for us.
MS: Would they do things like give you joint presents the way they would any other couple? I guess I'm asking that because I'm wondering if they treated you like all the other children?
LR: Yes. "Kay's" family did.
MS: They treated you like every other child and spouse.
LR: Yes they did. And her brothers and sisters grew up here and had raised their families here on the family farm. And the kids all called me Aunt Skippy and we played together. We took them sledding and we cooked hot dogs for them in the basement fireplace.
MS: How did you acquire that nickname?
LR: I liked boats.
MS: So that was from way back?
LR: Yeah, that was back in my teens.
MS: Oh, I see.
LR: Back in my camp days I got Skippy. And I've been Skippy ever since.
MS: And did you ever have any encounters with issues about homosexuality in your practice during these years? In your medical practice?
LR: I've had several youngsters, one in particular that I've never forgotten, because when they talk about whether there's a genetic component to this, I always think of this youngster. His father was a garage mechanic, his mother was a housewife. He had a sister two years younger. He was a blond, blue-eyed kid. And I wouldn't ever have thought anything about this kid. I took care of him from the time he was born. And when he was thirteen and started high school, his parents suddenly brought him in very distraught. He was being kicked out of school. And I hadn't seen this youngster for about a year. So this was his puberty year. I took one look at this kid: this kid was gay. There just wasn't any question about it. His mannerisms, the whole thing. The boy didn't know what was going on. He'd been attacked in the boy's room in high school by some older boys. And they kicked him out of school.
MS: So you knew he was gay because he was effeminate? Am I getting that right?
LR: Yes. Here suddenly was this effeminate boy who you couldn't have told from any other boy up until he hit puberty. And then all of a sudden, and I'm sure he didn't know. He obviously was as shocked as anybody else. He didn't know what was going on either.
MS: What did the parents want you to do?
LR: Well they wanted me to do something about getting him back in school. And they didn't know what was going on. And I had a hard time dealing with this. How do you sit there and say to this working class family that this young man, this young son of theirs, is a homosexual. I had a terrible time dealing with that.
MS: What did you do?
LR: I sort of worked around the issue, really. I never did come straight out and tell them.
MS: Were you able to give him some kind of support?
LR: Yes, we arranged for him to go to work on a farm and be tutored for a while. And then he got back into school.
MS: Then did you watch him grow up the rest of his teenage years?
LR: I lost track of him, actually.
MS: Any other patients like that that you remember?
LR: Well, one other one I remember was a girl whose parents were foreigners, well first generation here. They came over from the old country, from Europe, middle Europe. And I had taken care of them too as they were growing up. She and her sister. But they were not infants when I first saw them. They were children when I first saw them. I can't remember the exact age, but I can remember them bringing Jerry in when she was about fifteen or sixteen. And the complaint her mother had was, "She's so like a boy." And the girl was concerned, too. "I no developed." "She no developed. She's so like a boy."And there again, how do you communicate this? Well it was difficult.
MS: Both cases were in the forties, the ones you’ve described?
MS: That early?
LR: Yes. Forties or early fifties.
MS: Do you remember what you said to her? Or what you did?
LR: No, not really. Probably not to worry about it or something like that. That this is fine for her. And just let her be what she wants to be, that sort of thing. But I remember bumping into her younger sister four or five years later outside the library one day. And saying, "What's happened to Jerry? Where is she?" "She's in San Francisco." Jerry found out.
MS: I've never thought about that. It must be interesting for doctors, especially pediatricians, to deal with this.
LR: Yes, because you just knew. It's not the sort of thing that a doctor can just pronounce a diagnosis. This demands a lot of time and rapport with people to get them to understand what's going on. And I wasn't prepared for this.
MS: Because homosexuality wasn't discussed in medical school, I take it?
LR: It was not discussed. It was not discussed anywhere. I'd had nothing that I'd read. It wasn't until into the seventies that I really got to reading any lesbian/gay literature.
MS: So let me ask you this, then. Because you had just made a passing reference a few minutes back to the question of whether homosexuality is genetic.
MS: Where do you stand on those sorts of questions?
LR: Oh, I don't think there's any question about it. There's a genetic component.
MS: You do think that?
LR: I do. Why is it that I can listen to a talk show on the radio and tell by a guy's voice? Now this isn't something that he's cultivated. You go into any public arena and I can pick out this woman and I can pick out that man. Not always, not always.
MS: Is it as simple as saying that about men who are effeminate and women who are masculine? Or is it more complicated than that?
LR: No, no, there's just an air. I remember once seeing a woman. I think it was in a church and a woman minister came walking into the pulpit. And I thought, just like that. Yeah, there's just something. She walks in, she puts her hands in her pockets, and she stands there like a man. Women don't act like that. There's just sort of an assurance, in a way. Now not all of them, because some of them were very feminine and I wouldn't guess. But a great many of them. And the men the same way. Like this kid that I was telling you about. When I saw him, here's this kid and he's got all the gestures. And he couldn't have cultivated those. He didn't even know he had them. So that's got to be innate. That much of it has got to be innate.
MS: Well maybe we should move on to the fifties then. Did things change much in your and "Kay's" lives in the fifties? You were still practicing medicine and still living here.
LR: We went back into the church. That's the only thing that happened in the fifties.
MS: Oh, right. You mentioned that. And was it also in the fifties that you said you started to go to Cape Cod?
LR: Yes. And then we got to know. As a matter of fact we lucked in, because the first year when we went to the Cape, well my father was in New Hampshire at that point. And we were going up to see him. And we stopped off at the Cape, so we hadn't any reservations or anything. And we were driving through and we thought, "Oh, we'd like to stay here overnight." And we saw this very nice little Cape Cod cottage with a cottage for rent sign out front. So we drove in. And there was this chap in overalls, gray hair, digging in a garden there. And so we pulled up the car and called across to ask did they have a cottage for rent? And the chap raised her head. And we were very welcomed. We went back there for fifteen years and had a lovely time. It was a lovely place. We had a nice cottage with a fireplace. And we were known as the women with the cockers, because we always took our dogs and it was a quiet little town.
MS: What town on the Cape?
LR: It was Yarmouthport. In those days it was very flat, all aligned with elms, and by nine o'clock at night the drugstore was closed. And that was the only thing that was even open in the evening.
MS: So you would go for a whole month or for a few weeks?
LR: No, we started going for two weeks and then worked up to going for the month.
MS: And always, you said, in September?
MS: And you said it was while you were there that you became friends with some gay men for the first time?
LR: Yes. Because the woman at this cottage that we rented knew several gay men's couples on the Cape and a few other gay women. And so we got to know them through her. And we were great friends with them. In fact, I still am. But there are only two of the guys left and they’re both having troubles. I want to get back up to the Cape so I can see them before something happens.
MS: They both still live there?
MS: So these are resident couples? People who live there?
MS: Not vacationers? They were people who lived there.
LR: Yeah. The one couple that were our very dear friends are both dead, but they were very active in their church, in their community. They were accepted there. They were antique dealers. And they had a lovely home.
MS: Now, for you was the Cape as much of a lesbian gathering place as it was a gay male gathering place?
LR: No. And we were never tied in. Provincetown was a place we might visit once in the summer. We weren't involved with the gay community out there. We were involved with people who actually lived on the Cape. So I have no experience of Provincetown and the scene there until the eighties probably. Seventies and eighties anyway.
MS: But it still, I imagine, was a more friendly place for lesbians and gay men to live than other places in the country.
LR: Oh, yes. Because one of these chaps was the historian for his town and played the organ in the church. And the other one sang in the choir. And they were respected citizens. Quite well-accepted, yes. All of them, the women and the men.
MS: Was it very easy at first, when you first became friends with these gay men, or did you feel like you were coming from completely different worlds?
LR: No, we felt like we'd walked into another part of our world.
MS: You felt like their experiences were pretty similar to yours?
MS: Can you say something more about that? Because some people find that the gay male and the lesbian experience were so different.
LR: No, because the two that are dead met during World War Two and were together from then on until they died. And let's see, Cliff died in '77, I think. And Wilbur just died about two years ago.
MS: So they were another long-term couple?
LR: They were a long-term couple. The male couple I still know there, they have been together forty years? I once talked to some of my younger friends today about the fact that the relationships, for most of them, don't seem to endure the way they did with my generation. And one of the things they said to me was, "Well, you didn't have the temptations we have. You didn't have the bar scenes and it wasn't out in the open. You didn't know very many people."
MS: Do you think that's accurate?
LR: I don't think so really. I don't think so, because I see among my younger friends, some who I am sure are going to be long-term survivors. And some that I think never will. But I think that they would be going through the same thing if they were heterosexual. And I think today, the same thing is happening with heterosexuals. The relationships are no longer made for a lifetime. When you look at our divorce rates and separation rates, I think there really isn't any difference between the two communities on that.
MS: It sounds like also you weren't socializing a lot with single people.
LR: No. No, we weren't. We were socializing with other couples for the most part.
MS: And so the gay men and the lesbians shared the experiences of, you were saying, long-term relationships, church, hiding their relationships?
MS: Is that another thing that you all had in common?
LR: Oh, yes.
MS: Similar issues in the workplace, would you say, the men and the women?
LR: Yes, I think so. The one thing that I had any difficulty with in my professional life was the fact that there would be staff things where the men would invite their wives. And I just never went because I never felt quite free to bring "Kay." So there were certain places there where I was excluded.
MS: What do you think would have happened if you had brought her?
LR: I don't suppose anything would have happened. I just think that in that time we wouldn't have been too comfortable. For one thing, when we get together, we're not discussing grandchildren and the latest clothing styles and the sort of thing that these women are talking about.
MS: So you wouldn't have been comfortable around the women?
LR: No. We'd have been more comfortable with the men talking about golf. "Kay" was a champion golfer. And fishing and things like that. Gardening.
MS: So did things change much for you then as the sixties rolled around? A lot of people talk about that decade as being one of such change for lesbians and gay men.
LR: No. For us we were settled in our situation, in our careers, in our church affiliations. So very little changed.
MS: Did you become aware of either the feminist movement or the gay movement?
LR: Oh yes, we became more aware of the feminist movement particularly.
MS: And what were your first memories of that? Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique?
LR: Yes. And feeling that women were finally beginning to come into their own in some respects.
MS: Would you have described yourself as a feminist?
LR: I don't think I would have in the sixties. By the seventies, yes.
MS: Well, what changed there?
LR: Well, I just began to learn. I had just been settled in my little nook very comfortably and suddenly began being concerned and realizing. One of the things that I remember so clearly was the fact that I told you about my reaction to my mother and the lifestyle that I had when I was fourteen, a woman's lifestyle. And I was fourteen. Well when my mother became divorced, she suddenly became a person. She went out, she got a job, she went on vacations with her sisters. She began to have thoughts about things that weren't programmed. I really started to like my mother. And to see that transformation just was a prime example of what feminists are aiming for. To let women be all they can be instead of programming women into this is what women do. And you can't do this because you're a woman.
MS: Right. What about the gay movement?
LR: I really got involved in that in the seventies when I began to read and went down to the bookstore.
MS: Giovanni's Room?
LR: Giovanni's Room. From then on, yes.
MS: How did you find Giovanni's Room?
LR: Through a friend who was another doctor who was gay, who was lesbian. And she knew about the bookstore.
MS: Did you go together the first time? Or did she just tell you about it?
LR: Did we go together? I think we did. I'm not quite sure. I don't really remember whether we went together or whether I went. And that was the time when the Presbyterian Church began to have their first big discussions on ordaining homosexuals. And so I got involved in that and reading both minority and majority reports. And actually went in front of the session of the church to ask for their support for the majority report. And they had fifteen elders and five of them voted for it, which I thought was real good in this community in that time.
MS: Now were you speaking as someone involved with a woman or was that unsaid?
LR: I was just speaking. I was just interested in justice being done. And I'm sure that a lot of them knew who and what I was. They all knew I lived with "Kay." We were in church every Sunday. We were involved with everything that went on. We were always together. So they could assume what they wanted to assume. But I didn't come out and say, "This is what I am.” No.
MS: So in addition to Giovanni's Room and the church, were there other ways you were beginning to connect with the larger gay community in the 1970s?
LR: Not really.
MS: What kinds of things were you reading? Novels mostly?
LR: No, I read a lot of the religious stuff that I got from Giovanni's and that's why when this thing came up in the Presbyterian Church I already had a lot of this literature that I had been reading. I'm trying to think of some of the names. McNeil? There was a Catholic. I have to get those books out again because we're starting tomorrow night, Wednesday night, the third go around on sexuality.
LR: And now it's coming into the local churches and we're going to have, every Wednesday night for I think six weeks, discussions of a report that the committee on sexuality brought to the General Assembly in which they said there was no reason not to ordain homosexuals. But they said a lot of other things about sexuality. Homosexuality was just one issue along with all the other little things that are going on in relationships between men and women. And I want to be clued in. But since the seventies, whenever anything like this comes up, I'm there speaking up. There was a woman from California who was called to be a pastor of a church, a Presbyterian church, in Rochester, New York. And the congregation voted yes, the Presbytery voted yes, the Senate voted yes. And some of the fundamentalist groups took it to the General Assembly and they voted no. But while this was going on, one of the men in our church got up at an annual meeting and wanted our church to put in a protest against it. And so I went and talked to him.
MS: What was his motivation?
LR: "Well we don't ordain homosexuals. This is against the entire religion."
MS: Oh, I thought he was on the other side. Sorry.
LR: No. He was against it. So when I can speak up, when there's situations like that that arise, I speak up now.
MS: And was it in the seventies that you loaned some money to Giovanni's Room?
MS: That was in the seventies.
MS: Was that Arleen [Olshan] or Ed [Hermance] or both?
LR: Both of them, yes.
MS: You had been saying to me before that they had to move because their lease was up?
LR: Yeah. They had a lease in a place. It was one of the row houses there on Spruce? I forget what it was, about 12th or so and Spruce. Ed would know. And they had the first floor of this row house that they rented. And their lease was up and they had problems finding somebody who would rent to a gay bookstore. They ended up with different people loaning them money for a down payment. It was like they took out a mortgage with us, which a bank wouldn't give them. That's all it was. It was a business deal. But it enabled them to keep the bookstore going.
MS: Well maybe if we could backtrack again. We'd been talking before about the sets of friends that you had, the three couples. Did those friends stay pretty constant over the fifties and sixties?
LR: Oh, yes.
MS: You continued to socialize with them?
LR: We socialized with them. And now there are only three of us left. There are only three out of eight left.
MS: Were there other people ever added to this circle?
LR: Yes. There were different people from the hospital. Oh, and there's a chap at the hospital, too, who's gay. When we'd have Fourth of July parties at one of the homes, why there'd be a number of people from the hospital that we felt comfortable with. One of them was this gay man. And then there were a couple of other couples.
MS: They were straight couples?
MS: People you felt comfortable with?
MS: When did that start? When did you start mixing socially that way with them?
LR: Oh, back in the fifties. And that went on straight through. One of the straight sisters is in a retirement community. And I'm here. And there's one other one whose partner just died. And she's trying to get on with her life at this point.
MS: The gay guy, you said he was at the hospital?
MS: How did you meet him and get to know him?
LR: Well, just because he worked there and we knew him. He was in the department that one of the women headed.
MS: He was a doctor as well?
LR: No. He was a physiotherapist.
MS: I see. And did he have a steady partner?
LR: No. He never has.
MS: Did he bring someone different each time to the parties?
LR: Well I shouldn't say that, because there is a friend who's been in his life for a number of years. But they don't live together. He lives out here, the guy lives in the city. But I might ask "Larry" if you'd like to talk to him because he'd been involved with the Seamen's Institute. He's Norwegian. And he's been involved with the Seamen's Institute in Philadelphia, so he spent a lot of time in and around Philadelphia.
MS: Oh, that would be great.
LR: And I'm sure he's had contacts with a lot of others.
MS: Is he of the same generation as you?
LR: "Larry" is a little younger. Yes, he's ten to fifteen years younger maybe than me. I would imagine "Larry" is sixty maybe. I'm just guessing. But he's been here since the forties.
MS: Well I'd very much like to talk to him if you'd be willing to ask him and pass on my phone number.
MS: He lives out here still
LR: Yes. He lives out here. And I don't know how far out you're going with this survey. There's a woman in the retirement community that I've gotten to know who also is a doctor and who grew up in the Reading area. And her experiences have been so different from mine.
MS: Can you tell me something about that?
LR: Well she's never felt accepted. She's never had a stable relationship. So she might give you the other side of the coin from what you get from me.
MS: Because basically your story is a pretty happy one from everything you've told me.
LR: Oh, very happy. Very happy, yes.
MS: Can you think of the single worst thing that happened in your life because of homophobia?
LR: The single worst thing that happened in my whole life was my fault. I got hung up again on the religious bit in the sixties when I was teaching senior highs and I got thinking, "I'm teaching these kids." I still wasn't squared away on the religious bit. I'd sort of thrust it aside. And it came back and I said something about it to "Kay" one day. I quoted that verse to her. And she froze. Things just weren't the same between us for a long while. And then she began to take an interest in another woman. And that was the worst thing that ever happened in my life. But I didn't really know what was going on. I just knew I was very uncomfortable when this woman was around. I just couldn't stand having her around. And yet it was a woman I felt sorry for. And I knew she needed some friends. And so I didn't want to turn her off. It was just awful.
MS: This was when?
LR: This was in the seventies. And that's when this thing came up in the church and I really began to go back and study and read the Bible in a different light and began to understand a lot of what was going on. And so I finally got talking to "Kay" about it.
MS: Worked things through?
LR: Everything was fine then, yes.
MS: So when you quoted the passage, were you quoting it in the sense that you still believed that Paul was seeking the truth.
LR: Yes, yes. I was still disturbed by this, because I'd been raised in this fundamentalist church.
MS: So that must have caused you some torment over the years?
LR: Yes, it did. I mean it was the religious thing and, as I say, I sort of pushed her away because of it. And that was the worst thing I ever went through. It was that literal biblical interpretation that almost ruined our lives.
MS: That's interesting to me that you bring up something, well you said it yourself, that you did, not something that a family member, a religious figure, or a politician did.
LR: No, this was the way I'd been programmed to read the Bible all my life. And I just never had really questioned. But when I really began to get down and study what they really were talking about, I understood that this was not saying what I'd been taught it did say. I'm very comfortable with what the Bible says at this point in my life.
MS: It seems like it.
MS: I'm seeing the product of all that.
LR: Yes, of working it through.
LR: Well, we live, we grow. If we don't stop learning, we're in trouble.
MS: Well maybe one way to finish this up might be for you to just reflect for me for a little bit about the kind of changes you think have happened in the last thirty, forty years.
LR: Well, I think that things are so much more open now. And in that way it's good for people. I think it's good. I think this is a period we have to work through. It's good that things are open, that people can be more open. It's part of making some progress. But it's three steps forward and two steps back. Because there's always this reaction and people have been programmed like I was in my early years with the religious bit. And until they sit down and really study what really is going on, until they really learn to know some gay people, because most people, if they know them, they don't know they know them, because they’re hidden like we were.
MS: What's changed most for gay people?
LR: I would think being and feeling a lot freer about being gay, the fact that it isn't something that you really have to hide. You can hide it if you choose, because it may be better for your job or your family or something. But you know there's an option. We didn't have an option. We hid. That was all there was to it. But today they do. And I think that's good.
MS: Do you think lesbians and gay men get along better today than they used to or get along worse than they used to?
LR: I don't know. We had no problem getting along with them then. And the young women I know, I don't see them having any problem with them, really.
MS: So that hasn't changed much, as far as you can tell?
LR: Not that I can see. Not among the people I know. Though the young women I know, I was most amazed when, after "Kay" died, I got to know this young group and went to a party one night and there were sixty-four of them there. Sixty-four lesbian women in one spot!
MS: Were they mostly younger women?
LR: Yes, twenty to forty, in that age group.
MS: And you must have felt very welcome there, I take it?
LR: I sponsored their baseball team, so they've been very nice to me. And I've thoroughly enjoyed that, getting to know them.
MS: Well, any final thoughts for the tape? Do you think we've covered the important highlights?
LR: I think so.
MS: Well thank you very much. We can always add more if you think of things.
LR: All right, if I think of something.