Cindy Crohn: Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been Lavender?
OutHistory presents a fictionalized version of Anne Nunnally's experience based on interviews with Nunnally by her friend Cindy Crohn.
Introduction By Cindy Crohn
The events narrated began at Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi), in Hattiesburg, in the late 1950s, a time now known as The Lavender Scare. Although I was a student in the college at that time, I was not present at any of the episodes described. Since I graduated and moved away to teach in another town, I didn't hear about these events right away. Years later my friend, Anne Nunnally, who was directly involved, told me the story, and said I can publish it as a tribute to her dear friend, Brock A. Loper, now deceased, who was dismissed. While I changed some names, and imagined scenes and conversations, this historical fiction chronicles real episodes and actual people.
For the reader's information, I was born in Pontotoc, Mississippi, halfway between Oxford and Tupelo, in 1935, and brought up in the Southern Baptist Church. During World War II we moved fairly often throughout the state. In the early '50s we were living in Vicksburg and I graduated from high school there in 1953. After that I went to Mississippi Southern College in Hattiesburg, majoring in music, more specifically, piano.
In 1955, a young Jewish man was hired on the faculty to teach piano and coach and conduct opera. Within a short time he asked me to turn pages for one of the other teachers in a recital they were to give. Soon, after rehearsals began, he asked me out for coffee. The rest of our relationship could have been predicted. But we had to sneak around, because he could have been fired for dating a student. We were married in 1958, a year after I graduated.
By that time I was pretty well acquainted with the insanity of the Music Department, and the general underhanded methods of the college administration. We had to watch ourselves at all times and make sure no one overheard our opinions about politics or anything having to do with segregation. My husband began to work on another degree, a Doctor of Musical Arts, at Eastman School of Music, to help us get out of Mississippi. A couple of years later we did.
Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been Lavender?
by Cindy Crohn
Copyright by Cindy Crohn. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author.
Anne was scared before she ever entered the office of Dr. James Switzer. Nobody liked him; he never did anything good for anyone; you only heard from him when someone broke a rule and was in trouble. How ironic that his title was Dean of Student Welfare.
“Hello, Miss Nunnally. Have a seat. I’ll be right with you,” he said while closing the top of his pen and stacking some papers. His large desk crowded the office and he looked very small behind it.
“Miss Nunnally, I called you in because the administration has been made aware of a disturbing situation on campus. You see, there are a number of homosexuals in the college, and their behavior is making them conspicuous. Of course, it’s nothing new, but it seems to be getting worse, and we in the administration are responsible for guarding the reputation of the college.” His pronunciation of the word, homosexual, was strange. It sounded as though he was going to say “homogenize” or “hominy” but changed his mind halfway through. In any case, even now, in the late-1950s, the word was not part of ordinary conversation. People used to call them “queers,” but somehow it became known that the word, “homosexual,” was preferred. Anyway, people didn't go around talking about sex. It just wasn't considered polite conversation.
He continued, “And they are not trustworthy. Yesterday I had a visit from the parents of a young woman who was a mathematics major last year. She had married a fellow student. After the wedding she found his little black book with names of some of his homosexual lovers and was shocked and horrified. Naturally, her parents are very upset. They feel the school has not upheld its duty in loco parentis, and that the college should be held responsible for this situation. Of course, we are not responsible, because they got married after they graduated.” His face reflected a sense of satisfaction.
Anne’s breath was becoming short. He had spoken so abruptly she felt attacked and it was hard to think, but at least she knew the situation had nothing to do with her. She was dizzy, and wanted to leave. It took all her concentration to control herself and think calmly. Everyone in the music department knew that Amy and her boy friend had gotten married. It was also common knowledge that he had sex with men, and most people, if they thought about it at all, assumed Amy knew as well. Marriage of convenience between straight women and homosexual men was not unheard of in the music world. Some of these were common knowledge, in fact rather famous. But on further reflection, Anne realized that a young sheltered college woman from Mississippi might not suspect a thing.
Dean Switzer continued, “And of course, we also began to worry about you. We know that you and Brock Loper are friends and spend a lot of time together.”
Of course he wasn’t worried about her or Brock; he had already admitted the school officials only wanted to protect themselves.
“Yes, we are very good friends,” she replied cautiously. “I admire his voice and his talent a lot. Since I still live at home here in Hattiesburg, Brock spends a lot of time at our house, and we often sing duets and accompany each other. His family is very musical and highly cultured. He has taught me a lot about art and poetry. He even eats supper at our house several times a week, and Mother considers him like the son she didn’t have.” She smiled. “He graduates on Sunday and I’ll miss him when he goes off to graduate school. I still have one more year before graduation.”
“Miss Nunnally, you must be careful. If he wants to marry, you must not allow yourself to be seduced.”
Of course we don’t plan to marry, you idiot, she thought. She didn’t even try to answer him.
“Another thing we’ve learned is that there is a group of medical doctors from town who send cars onto campus throughout the weekends to pick up young boys for homosexual parties at their houses. Do you know about that?”
“No, I don’t.”
Actually she had heard of it, but so far as she knew, it was only another rumor.
“Dean Switzer, I don’t understand what any of this has to do with me.”
“Yes,” he replied, drawing the word out. “Well, since you know Brock and seem to know a number of his friends, we would like to ask for your assistance. You see, if you can give us names of anyone else you know or suspect to be homosexual, it would be a great help.”
His words felt like a slap. She was cold in spite of the Mississippi heat and wanted to bolt out the door, but her feet didn’t move.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with me,” she repeated.
“That’s why we are asking you to tell us who the others might be.” His voice was taking on a slimy quality. He mentioned two names and asked if they were homosexual.
There really was no time to think about anything, to try to understand why he wanted the information. What was he planning to do? What if she didn’t answer his question? Was he planning to embarrass her? Was it a crime to be a friend of a homosexual? Indignation rose in her throat like nausea. Well, she wasn’t going to rat out anyone.
Barely achieving control, she replied sweetly, “Dean Switzer, I don’t know." He mentioned two more names and she replied again, "I don't know. He was about to name someone else, but she interrupted. I don't have any such information, and I can’t speculate. I couldn’t give you names unless I saw them in the act. It would be wrong to name someone and bring trouble upon him.” She was rattled, but realized that resisting him brought a little relief.
She gazed all around the room trying to avoid eye contact, finally slumping in her chair, and looking down at the floor. That’s when she saw it there in the kneehole of the desk. It was one of those new-fangled tape recorders, both its reels turning silently, recording their conversation.
“Dean Switzer,” she said, “do you know your tape machine is running?”
“Uh, no. I must have forgotten to turn it off." He was now the one who was embarrassed and flustered: she had no doubt the recording was deliberate.
He came around to the front of the desk and, reaching down, turned it off then told her she could leave.
Anne went home and tried to call Brock in his dorm, but was unable to contact him.
On Friday the Dean of Student Welfare sent out 200 letters to faculty and students who were believed to be homosexual informing them they were expelled and/or fired for moral turpitude. They were no longer welcome on campus and had twenty-four hours to leave the college. Those expecting to graduate would not receive degrees and should not appear at the graduation ceremony on Sunday.
Brock spent Friday and Saturday moving out of the dorm. He took his possessions home to Jackson, returning late Saturday night in order to attend graduation ceremonies on Sunday. Many other students had also moved home including most of his friends. The dorm was nearly empty.
Sunday morning he shaved and dressed in suit and graduation gown and repacked his change of clothing. Looking at himself in the mirror one last time he tried to smooth down his shock of curly blonde hair, without success. Some things simply refuse to be controlled.
He had done it! He’d made it through all four years of undergraduate college; he’d kept his mouth shut when he knew things the art history teacher didn’t; he’d tried earnestly to sing in such a way as to blend with the College Chorus, and most of the time his strong baritone voice didn’t stick out, but remained part of the integrated sound. When it was important to do so, he had even managed to remain below the radar of Mr. Marsh, the Music Department Chairmen. If anyone suspected his sexual orientation, it hadn’t been mentioned. And he had been accepted into graduate school at that amazing, prestigious music department at the University of Indiana! Just thinking about it made him feel he was floating. Indiana produced three or four operas each year as well as workshops, thereby giving students opportunities to learn entire roles and become skilled as actors as well as singers.
The roles became a part of their repertory, a foundation to draw upon in the future. With a Masters degree from Indiana he’d be ready to try his wings in New York, where vocal opportunities proliferated.
On the way to the big auditorium where graduation was to take place, he stopped at the campus post office to get his mail one last time. Along with a couple of notices he pulled out a letter from Dr. James Switzer, Dean of Student Welfare, and went outside to read it. It took a few moments for its significance to penetrate.
Someone walked past him going into the post office and said, “Hey Brock, you better hurry. It’s nearly time to march.” To which Brock answered, “Yeah.”
How could they expel me, he wondered. I have high grades in all my classes. I earned those credits! My dad paid for them! They can’t take those away! Can they? Well, who cares anyhow. I’m leaving here now. But what about Indiana? Will I still be admitted there? Is this the end of the career I’ve worked so hard for? Will everyone hate me? Will my friends be afraid to associate with me? And now that I’m accused of being homosexual, will I be admitted to any school at all? Am I going to be a total outcast? I haven’t broken any laws, he thought. His brain felt as though it had glue in it. It was so hard to think.
He returned to his dorm to wait for his family, and they left campus before the graduation ceremony was over. At least they knew all about him; they had homosexual relatives, and this cushioned the blow when his parents learned about him. The drive home was mostly silent.
A few days later Brock and Anne finally found each other by phone.
Anne said, “I’m so sorry I couldn’t reach you before you got Switzer’s letter. I knew you would be shocked and hurt, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
“It really was a huge shock.” he replied. “But I know you couldn’t get in touch. I can’t believe that jerk questioned you about things that were none of his business, and, in fact, were none of your business either. How many other people were expelled? Do you know?”
“I don’t know. Natalie said there could have been as many as 200. The really odd thing is that they didn’t purge everyone. For example, the two homosexual teachers in the piano department have not been dismissed, and there are others. I wonder if it’s because they have been here so long and both have tenure.”
“That’s anybody’s guess.”
“Oh, Brock, I’m going to miss you so much. I wish we could have run away to New York years ago.”
“So do I, but you were right; it couldn’t have worked. We’ll have to keep in touch by phone and rob a bank to pay for all that long distance.”
She laughed. “It will be hard, but we’ll manage. In the meantime, take care."
Brock’s summer at home in Jackson had been planned for months. He had a job lined up as assistant decorator for the windows of McRae’s, Jackson’s major department store, and within a few days he began work. All his local friends and former teachers assumed he had actually graduated from Mississippi Southern College. Some knew about his plans to attend Indiana University, but Brock began to talk about how much he needed to earn more money; the fellowship wouldn’t cover everything. Friends and neighbors commiserated; education was expensive.
Of course his admission to University of Indiana was rescinded. No one expelled from one college would likely be admitted to another, especially when the cause was moral turpitude. He learned that Mississippi had a law making homosexual behavior a crime; who knew? He really was a criminal and could be prosecuted as such. He was stuck in Jackson.
Realizing that even though he couldn’t leave right now, he had to be prepared if an opportunity came along, he contacted his former vocal coach and told her what had happened.
She was sophisticated, a skilled professional teacher and mentor who had worked with people of varied backgrounds and races when she lived in other cities. He respected the fact that she studied with pianists, Rudolf Ganz and Percy Grainger in Chicago each summer, continuing her musical growth even now in her later years. He also knew she had coached a number of singers in operatic roles for performance in major venues, in small cities as well as large ones. These days, in this town, she taught mostly piano students, but also continued to coach a few singers. She was aware of the prejudices of many people, and though she sympathized with Brock, there was nothing she could do about his social reputation.
She listened and consoled as so many music teachers have always done for their students. They arranged a schedule of vocal coaching sessions, and she taught him with the same professional rigor she used with all her students. They didn’t talk further about his personal problems, but their work and her respect probably saved his life.
His church was a consolation as well. His grandmother had been organist at St. Peter’s for a long time, and the church had a good choir director who demanded the singers give their best. Brock knew this was a good venue for performing high quality religious music, but that he’d have to find operatic outlets elsewhere.
The Mississippi Opera in Jackson was good, he thought, but they usually hired singers from New York or Chicago for leading roles, so there wasn’t much chance of getting a lead. He knew, also, that the company was not quite on a level with the New Orleans or Houston operas, and they only produced one opera each year, no more than Mississippi Southern College. “I suppose there is no way to find backing for more productions in a small southern city such as Jackson,” he thought, “I’ll have to make do with what’s available.”
Within a few years Brock was well-established in the Jackson Opera Company and learned and performed many of the secondary baritone roles of the standard repertory.
After Anne graduated from Mississippi Southern College, it was she who moved to New York, studied with a renowned voice teacher, and established a singing career. She and Brock managed to stay in touch, speaking to each other from time to time in spite of the expense of long distance calls. One day in 1967 he called to tell her that Southern had decided to allow him to graduate.
“I was stunned when they sent me a letter and a diploma,” he said. “There was no explanation, no apology, just a statement that I had now graduated. I don’t know what brought that on.”
“"I can't imagine," she replied. "however, they finally integrated the school two years ago. Maybe they were afraid they'd be sued if they disallow homosexuals while accepting Negroes.”
“You’re probably right,” he said. “I guess some things have improved, but life is still hard for anyone who is too different from the ordinary. I wonder if that will ever change. Probably not in our lifetime,” he said.
“Not likely. I just recently found out there are laws against homosexual behavior in almost every state. Did you know that? Most of them have been on the books for generations, so don’t expect them to disappear any time soon. Sometimes enforcement has been sketchy, but lately the bigots have used those very laws to harass thousands of people who weren’t a danger to anyone.”
“Yeah. Well, Congress said they were trying to root out anyone who could be blackmailed into giving up security information,” said Brock.
Anne laughed. “I suppose that could be — in the case of jobs having to do with government, but do you know of any situation where a singer would have security information to give spies? It’s just a stupid excuse. They had their Red Scare and then their Lavender Scare, when all along the thing that really frightened them was the bomb.”
Brock chuckled as well. “I was so shocked when it happened to me partly because I didn’t know that it was happening elsewhere. Did you know that in Florida they went so far as to create a congressional committee to root out homosexuals? That bunch was vicious. They took people out of class and questioned them for hours. And I didn’t know, either, that University of Indiana was spying on people and trying to trap them. Finally someone sued them —and won!”
There was a moment of silence, each realizing they were no longer naïve.
Anne said, “It’s been great talking.”
“Give my love to your mom. Let’s get together next time you’re in Mississippi.”
It was the fall of 1981 when they finally saw each other again in a suburb of Jackson. Anne came up from Hattiesburg to meet Brock, and as she drove down Main Street in the fall heat, she wondered how Brock had survived in this culture-deprived area of the world. She had to remind herself that he seemed to have been happy here. Jackson did, after all, have pockets of art and music and she knew he had taken advantage of these things throughout the years. Of course, it wasn’t New York, but certainly better than Hattiesburg. They met at a small restaurant and indulged in a very long hug.
Middle age had changed them both, taking away the blush of youth, but instilling composure and grace in its place. Both of them wore maturity well.
It took a while to catch up on the events of their lives. Despite adverse conditions he had sung in a lot of operas and concerts throughout the south. But his venues were always local and temporary. Although she had continued to sing, she had been out of the country a good deal of the time. Neither of their lives had gone as planned, but both had remained musicians, giving and receiving the pleasures of that profession.
Eventually they began to talk about the hatefulness they encountered in their beginnings, now so long ago. They acknowledged that some things had improved, but prejudice still consumed many hearts and minds.
“This visit to Hattiesburg has been unsettling,” she said. “After living in India during the last fifteen years, it seems unchanged here. Yesterday I went over to campus to do a library search, and afterwards went into Wimpys to get some iced tea. Even that hangout is unchanged. It’s exactly the same as it was when we were in school. I was looking around for a place to sit when I spotted Dr. Switzer and asked if I could join him.
“He welcomed me and I sat at his table. He’s retired and has aged a lot. He said he was on campus to have lunch with his daughter who is a graduate student now. We spent a few minutes catching up with news about current activities and stuff at the school. Then I just had to ask him if he remembered calling me into his office to ask me about homosexual activity on campus. Clearly it put him on edge and he squirmed around a bit. I have to admit it felt good that he was the one in the hot seat now.
“He said, ‘Of course, I remember. Those were difficult times for the school.’ Can you believe that? For the school!
“He went on to say that expelling 200 people wasn’t his idea, that he was only doing what others in the administration forced him to do! I’m sure my mouth was hanging open. The first thing I thought was ‘just like the Nazis.’ It’s the same thing they said when they got caught!”
Brock stirred his tea and remained quiet for a moment.
“They may have done me a favor,” he said. “What if I had been at University of Indiana when they were spying on people.”
Anne replied, “You’re right. I just wish I could believe we’ve moved past all that now and that people have learned to tolerate each other, but I doubt it really.”
Anne and Brock said a reluctant goodbye. Since they lived so far apart, both were acutely aware it would be a long time before they could see each other again, if ever; so it was hard to let go.