By Eric Patterson ’70
When I started Amherst in September 1966, what did our society say about gay people?
I sure knew, because since junior high I’d been hiding from the realization that I liked boys, and I’d been reading up on “homosexuality.” In our suburban public library, I’d read about it in frightened fascination, carefully hiding psych and soc books inside larger, innocuous books so no one would see. Psych and soc said that “homosexuals” were “mentally ill” “social deviants;” Time and Life said they were “perverts,” “sex criminals” and “child molesters.” And of course, among kids, to be labeled a “faggot,” or a “fairy,” or a “queer” (pronounced “kh-wee-ah” around Boston, where I went to high school) totally negated a boy’s masculinity—indeed, his very existence.
In high school I was a tall, skinny, geeky kid with glasses, incompetent at team sports. I loved backpacking and canoeing, though, so I could hang on to the minimal masculine credentials those outdoor activities conferred. I always felt like a man, and I resented that society told me I wasn’t one because of my secret attraction to other men. But mostly I hid from thinking about It. I worked constantly and survived by being a “brain.”
Coming to Amherst, I felt far too exposed at the prospect of having a roommate and was relieved to get a single in Morrow. But the intensity of the all-male society exposed me nevertheless: a prep school boy on my floor nailed me as a queer, though his taunts fortunately weren’t taken up by anyone else. This was the most extreme such experience I had at college, but various degrees of shunning confirmed my sense of marginality, and of the reason for it. I coped by getting stoned and listening to Mahler. I made some wonderful friendships at Amherst, but being out in college was beyond my imagining.
Amherst today is a much more inclusive place, and to younger LGBTIQ people, I can’t emphasize strongly enough how isolated it felt to be sexually different at Amherst back then. Sure, there were gay faculty, who were the subject of gossip (as were a few students), but they stayed closeted. I remember reading Whitman, with no mention whatsoever made of his sexuality, in an otherwise brilliant American literature course. I sat in Frost for hours, rereading Whitman’s poems, wondering if all the homoeroticism really was there, or if it just was something “wrong” with me. The start of Gay Liberation in 1969 was, for me at least, an exotic and rather scary rumor in far-off New York City.
Senior year I always kept enough Seconal with me to get out of it, once and for all. As much as I liked my close friends, I didn’t trust anyone enough to tell. One, on whom I’d developed a crush, abruptly told me, “I can’t be the sort of friend you seem to want,” and thereafter avoided me, confirming my reluctance. The one person who did help a great deal, though I was too fearful to tell him at the time, was Professor Allen Guttmann, my independent study adviser. He and his family welcomed me into their home and befriended me, which helped me begin to believe, despite my shame about my sexuality, that I must have some value as a person after all. Years later I did talk to him, and he was kind and supportive. Other faculty were very helpful to me in learning—John Petropulous, Leo Marx, John William Ward, Henry Steele Commager—but Allen’s kindness was crucial in getting me through.
In May of my senior year, I went to one of the college’s psychological counselors. He was kind, but his main point, following the standard homophobic psych theory of the time, was that, with years of “aversion” therapy (looking at slides of naked men while receiving electric shocks) I might “become heterosexual.”
Walking out into the sunshine by the War Memorial, I stopped and watched some Amherst men playing Frisbee. Years of struggle lay ahead—with family; with homophobes in grad school and at work; with the AIDS catastrophe; with Amherst, too, because of hateful letters to the college magazine at the height of the AIDS crisis telling people like me we had no place in the Amherst community. But watching those men play, I knew that the only way to go on was not to accept the “advice” I’d just been given, but instead to accept who I was and to love who I loved.
Eric Patterson is an associate professor of American studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He is the author of On Brokeback Mountain: Meditations about Masculinity, Fear, and Love in the Story and the Film (2008).
Image © 2011 Jud Guitteau c/o TheSpot.com