Gay Princeton of Yesteryear; or, Continuity and Change

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cloacamaxima.jpgPrinceton history is something of a hobby of mine, and reading between the lines of Princeton history to pick out the gay bits is even more of a hobby. It's a really entertaining game, partly because the homoeroticism that pervaded pre-coeducational Princeton is just so blatant: they don't call it the Princeton rub for nothing. Princeton is in the mold of plenty of other elite universities catering primarily to wealthy young men in the 19th and early 20th centuries: homoerotic as all hell. Like Harvard and Yale, we didn't just copy Oxford and Cambridge's architecture! (A tour of between-the-lines homoeroticism at Princeton is necessarily going to leave out women, I'm afraid--coeducation coincides with gay liberation in the historical record, such that by the time queer women arrived on-campus, forms of understanding queer identity had changed somewhat from the protohomosexual attachments of yesteryear.)

Back in the 1890s, round about the time that "homosexual" was becoming a category of people in the eyes of sexologists and psychoanalysts, Princeton's undergraduate culture would definitely look pretty gay to modern eyes. In January, the Press Club's blog posted a link to and excerpts from a fantastic little book called Princeton Stories, by an alumnus from the class of 1892. The memoir of an effete, ennui-filled life as a member of the American aristocracy is filled with tales of hazing rituals involving the seduction of freshmen by older boys dressed in drag; there's one awfully suggestive line in that chapter that appears in its own paragraph without any explanation: "you had only casually to drop word to a freshman on the way to recitation to wait for you when night came, back of Witherspoon -- as you would bid a classmate come to a spread in your room -- and he would turn up promptly and smilingly, take his little dose meekly and cheerfully, and go to bed a better boy for it." You might find yourself wondering what "his little dose" might be, but let me just say that, based on the content of the rest of the book, I have some ideas. Another chapter features an older boy who seems to develop quite the crush on a freshman, doing such exciting things as "gazing mournfully" at him; when the freshman rebuffs his advances, the older boy "skulked off and tried to forget the freshman, like a rejected lover." Reader, I think I need hardly tell you that the simile is not really necessary to get the point across. The subtext is perfectly clear.

Of course, 1892 is long before such homoerotic behavior would be regarded by all and sundry as "homosexual"--keep in mind that the trials of Oscar Wilde, which did much to bring homosexuality to the public attention, do not begin until 1895. And even if homosexuality had existed in the world of these boys--as it did for certain by around the middle of the 20th century--it's fairly certain that none of them would have associated themselves with it. From good east-coast families, destined for public and well-paying careers, it would have been ruin to profess that the playing at lovers of Princeton Stories was anything but hazing fun-and-games. Well into the modern era of Princeton (certainly until coeducation, if not subsequently) male homosexuality was of this boys-will-be-boys, we're-not-really-homosexual nature--so pervasive that former Princeton history professor Martin Duberman wrote in his book Cures: A Gay Man's Odyssey about being at Princeton in 1962 and finding other gay men only in the public restrooms and in bushes behind the Dinky, where there's a parking lot now. The bathrooms in Firestone were also known to be popular cruising spots well into the era of gay liberation, coeducation, and the first incarnation of a gay and lesbian student organization, the Gay Alliance of Princeton.

This barely-closeted homoeroticism certainly does seem like a period piece, reminding us of Mad Men but perhaps less of our own lived experience (depending, I suppose, on whether our own lived experience includes the Mad Men, Dinky-bushes-cruising era). And yet I was reminded of these little anecdotes of history on Monday, after reading Andrew Blumenfeld's Prince column about a perceived prohibition on being "too gay" on-campus. I'm not sure that everything Andrew said correlates with my own lived experience, though to be fair being a queer woman instead of a man gives me a necessarily different perspective. Nevertheless, I was much reminded by Andrew's column of the era of Princeton Stories, when the big men on campus--no doubt, with their steadies at Bryn Mawr or Vassar--didn't seem to need too much of an excuse to make out with a fellow male Princetonian under the excuse of a hazing ritual. Princeton culture has come a long way from the 19th century, to be sure--but perhaps we would do well to wonder whether there's still a bit of holdover.

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