Dan Pinello, "The Homosexual at Williams," October 28, 1971
This essay was the front-page feature of the October 28, 1971, issue of the Williams Advocate, a student newspaper at Williams College. At the school’s commencement in 1972, the article received the Henry Rutgers Conger Memorial Literary Prize for the best piece of student journalism appearing in an undergraduate publication during the year. A separate commentary elaborates on events before and after this story.
The Homosexual at Williams: Coming Out
The Williams Faculty Minutes for September 24, 1934, report newly installed President Tyler Dennett’s concern with “the value of contact with the students and his desire to do preventive work to the end that queer boys, and maladjustments, which come to the attention of the Faculty, be reported at once to the Assistant Dean.” (What happened to such persons after their discovery is anyone’s guess.)
That brief, ambiguous entry is the only recorded incident concerning homosexuality at Williams. But lack of recognition has little to do with actual numbers. Statistics compel the existence of a gay population in any community. Kinsey reports that at least 4 percent of any population is exclusively homosexual throughout adult life while 46 percent “engages in both heterosexual and homosexual activities, or reacts to persons of both sexes, in the course of their adult lives.” (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, p. 656.)
The question is how has the College’s gay population been able to develop an identity?
“Well, some write graffiti on bathroom walls,” answers Roy (a pseudonym). “The men’s room in the basement of Stetson Hall, for instance, has had a good one for some time: ‘Gay, young, and goodlooking’ I think it says, plus a name and telephone number. One of the stalls in a Bronfman lavatory is also a reliable place for choice tidbits of local gay news and propositions.”
Roy is a senior at Williams, a conscientious, no-nonsense sort, who hopes to enter law school next year. He has a nervous habit of playing with his watch to occupy his hands if he’s studying or in class or talking to someone. Asked about his sexual preference, he unhesitantly replies that he finds men more erotically stimulating than women.
“I don’t want to define myself too narrowly though,” he quickly adds. “In saying I’m either hetero- or homosexual, I immediately exclude about half of all my potential for erotic pleasure. Andrew Crider in the Psychology Department would call that ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.’”
He grinned, looked at his watch, and went on.
“That means if I assume an exclusive orientation, I do injustice to an infinite variety of interpersonal relationships, both Platonic and sensual. In other words, why should I restrict myself before exploring the limits of my social-sexual surroundings?”
Has he been able to explore in Williamstown?
“Not in the least. The students here are really uptight to conform to heterosexual mores. If there’s just the slightest hint that things aren’t on the straight and narrow, ostracism, at best, is the result. The lumber-jacket, macho reputation of the fraternity days still fits.”
He hesitated, then qualified his response.
“I guess it’s a product of the Williamstown environment. If we were in or near a metropolitan area, things would be a lot different. First, you can get some degree of anonymity in a city to help you come out.”
“That’s a gay slang term. A homosexual can have clandestine sexual experiences without ever having to come to grips with being a member of an oppressed, socially unorthodox minority. That’s because he’s not readily visible to the community like, say, a black person is; the homosexual himself is the only person who can show his neighbors that he belongs to the gay minority. ‘Coming out of the closet’ refers to the person who consciously identifies himself with that group. It’s like developing a black consciousness or a Jewish consciousness or what have you.”
He turned his watch around and played with its band. Getting back to the problems of Williamstown, he went on.
“So, a city can provide the anonymity a 1500-student campus cannot. Second, a place like Boston or New York or even Albany has gay bars – wretched, deplorable places for the most part, to be sure, but at least you know everybody there is gay or possibly bisexual. Look, in the northern Berkshires the homosexual has no outlet for socializing with other gays. Hell, for that matter, he doesn’t know who they are since there’s no way to express that gayness – except the bathroom walls, that is.”
He attempted a weak smile and snapped his watch back on his wrist. A sullen expression came over his face.
“It’s funny,” he continued, “about all the games there are which enable you to pretend you’re straight. A guy leading on some poor girl at Bennington or Smith, say, just to be able to show the Bros ‘his woman.’
“I remember in my freshman year I invited a girl I knew from high school here when Williams played her college in football. We went to the game, and I showed her the campus, and we made small talk, and I introduced her to all the guys in my entry.”
He stopped and breathed a quick sigh.
“I felt so dishonest.”
And since then?
“I resolved never again to be such a hypocrite. Let them think what they may.”
Again he removed the watch and turned it end over end. His brown eyes fixed on some distant object.
“You know, I’ve really developed some close friendships here at Williams. And I’ve never wanted them to be any more or less than that for the most part. I guess I’m apprehensive to develop an acquaintance with anyone I find physically attractive. Fear is as great a motivating force for the gay person as any other social stimulus.”
Does he know any other gays on campus?
“Oh, I’ve heard plenty of rumors, and have plenty of suspicions, but I only know of one other for a fact – someone I ran across at a gay function last summer in New York, just by coincidence. We have nothing else in common though.”
But that’s someone.
“Sure, of course. But does every straight guy find the first girl he meets to be the answer to all his specifications? Some congeniality and mutual attraction are better social motivations than just being desperate. Straight students have scores from which to pick and choose – I should be happy with one?”
Any other problems for him at Williams?
“The loneliness. That really gets to you. People remark at the paradox of New York City: being among eight million people and not knowing a soul. Well, Williamstown is no better. In the midst of 1500 peers, I run the risk of complete ostracism, or even worse, of a clawing condescension, if I dare raise the subject of homosexuality. Williams men are all Men, you know.
“Little things, too, add up. At my Freshman Banquet, the Ephlats sang ‘Alexis’ to the incoming students. I sat at my table in Baxter Hall and was obliged to add to the uproarious laughter at the song. I’ve heard it enough since then that some of the lyrics stick with me.
He rode side-saddle,
Down on the range in Texas!
He was a prairie fairy!
Well, yip ee ka yae,
He’s the queen of the May,
Down on the range in Texas!’
Even before classes began, we initiates to Williams were forewarned of the consequences if we didn’t live up to the school’s manly tradition.”
How had he been able to “come out,” then, if the College offers all these problems for the gay person?
“I was damn lucky. This summer I went to New York City ostensibly to find summer employment but primarily to investigate an organization I’d heard about – the Gay Activists’ Alliance. I really didn’t know what to expect: maybe bomb-throwing arch-radicals or smelly, disheveled anarchists – definitely not my style.”
The pensive look appeared again.
“Surprisingly enough, GAA turned out to be a middle-class, highly bureaucratic, political pressure group. The people I met there were an incredibly diverse lot: grade-school teachers, college instructors, Wall Street bankers, you name it. My response to them was cathartic: I learned that gays, too, are human and not some subspecies of vermin, as society would have you believe. I buried my stereotyped preconceptions and my self-doubt and hopelessness.”
What answers does he have for Williams?
“We desperately need something here for the gay students. Their experiences may not be as fortunate as mine were this past summer. I’ve heard the rumor that some years back one student committed suicide just because he couldn’t deal with the pressures of being a homosexual in a heterosexually dominated society. That seems a ludicrously high price to pay for the luxury of intolerance.
“Williamstown needs an organization whereby gay students – and even gay faculty and townspeople – could come together to discuss mutual problems and socialize. The benefits of such a group would accrue both to its members in helping them come out and to the community at large in dispelling the damaging myths about homosexuals that permeate our society.”
And how does he propose to achieve that goal?
“Anyone interested in forming a Gay Liberation chapter at Williams should call me at 458-8479.”
I wish him luck.
Oh, by the way, I am Roy.
– Dan Pinello