A Gay Student's Experience at Harvard Coming Out
I knew I had done nothing wrong. In fact, I had done nothing at all. Without consulting me, the Great Cosmos had made me gay. And with my pre-teenage intuition, I apparently realized what I know explicitly now: that no theory of accountability, no morality, could judge me for something that was beyond my control. I was not shit.
"Thou, Nature, art my goddess, to thy law My services are bound. Wherefore should I Stand in the plague of custom, and permit The curiosity of nations to deprive me..." King Lear
I am a gay man.
The fact that I can make that simple statement of fact reflects how much I have grown during my four years at Harvard. It was not always that easy.
I have been homosexual as long as I have been sexual, that is, since I was 11 years old. The stereotype of the confused youth--in doubt of his sexual identity, trying girls, being dissatisfied, trying boys, feeling guilty, struggling--does not apply. I knew from my first adolescent fantasy that I liked boys' bodies, not girls'. I accepted it as inevitable. I did not feel anything that can really be called guilt. My parents did not teach me sexual guilt. My mother, especially, had successfully indoctrinated me with a healthy belief that sex is natural and good.
Although I never felt guilty about my sexual orientation, I hardly accepted it. I thought it was a flaw in my character, a dreadfully grotesque abnormality. I felt that it was a terrible thing to happen to me--especially me, because, by the standards I had been taught, it was my only flaw: I was the smartest in my class, reasonably popular, good in sports, mature.
Yet within this feeling of having been wronged was a huge blessing; because I realized that I had been made homosexual, that it had happened to me, I realized also that I had not chosen to be homosexual. And if I had not chosen to be homosexual, I could not choose to change. I did not like being gay, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it. In this realization lay the seeds of self-acceptance and gay pride. Fortunately, the seeds were well enough planted that I grew strong enough to reject the belief society wanted me to hold: that I was shit.
I knew I had done nothing wrong. In fact, I had done nothing at all. Without consulting me, the Great Cosmos had made me gay. And with my preteenage intuition. I apparently realized what I know explicitly now: that no theory of accountability, no morality, could judge me for something that was beyond my control. I was not shit.
At the same time, I was aware that my homosexuality had to remain secret. Although I can not remember what I expected to happen. I can remember feeling certain that the most terrible of all possibilities would be for someone to find out I was gay. Thus eight years would pass before anyone else would know I was homosexual.
I came to Harvard mortally afraid of being discovered. I worked very hard at adopting masculine mannerisms, eliminating anything I though was effeminate. I was exploiting a nearly universal prejudice; the belief that only effeminate men are gay. I figured that no one would ever know, as long as I didn't "look gay." As far as I know, I was right. No one--straight or gay--ever knew I was gay before I told them.
I also came to Harvard with a fledgling sense of injustice, an awareness that my need to hide was brought on by a defect in society, not in me. It was society that was at fault and to blame for my unhappiness.
I hoped I was leaving anti-gay paranoia behind me when I moved from my intensely conservative and moralistic home town to liberal, enlightened Harvard. But with a cynicism about Harvard one would be more likely to expect from a jaded senior, I asked my journal just before freshman week, "Did I graduate into a more mature world, or just a smarter one?"
Although it was smarter than my high school, Harvard, as regards homosexually, was in fact no more mature. The only difference was that the viciousness of homophobic Harvard was disguised by the niceties of academe, the legitimacy of Intellectual Argument. Only at Harvard, for instance, could a man (who was otherwise almost totally non-religious) present in all seriousness--over pizza at Harvard Pizza--an argument for "Why Homosexuals Should Go To Hell."
Many of my friends freshman year, including a roommate, submitted me, in their unjustified assumption that I was straight (it never occurs to straights that their friends might be gay), to endless pretentious justifications for beliefs in the inferiority of homosexuality. And, of course, there were the hundreds of fag jokes. [All the evidence necessary to demonstrate the astonishing and brutally insensitive ignorance of straight Harvard is that, although most people at Harvard would become hysterical upon hearing a "kike" joke or a "nigger" joke, a "fag" joke rarely elicits a single protest.]
I became aware of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gay Students Association (HRGSA) during the fall of freshman year. Signs appeared one week announcing that the following Wednesday would be Gay Wednesday. Gay people should wear jeans, and straight people should wear "something else," the signs said. The ostensible purpose was to make gay people visible or detectable to enable them to meet each other. In fact, Gay Wednesday was a neat ploy to parody the notion that "you can tell" who's gay. The event tried to get straights to think about their prejudices for a day by making them sweat about whether people would think they were gay, and wonder why that should make them sweat.
But rationality was not on the agenda; the straights' reaction was horrifying. Such witty slogans as "Necrophiliac Thursday" and "Child Molesters' Friday" were scrawled on the signs. I cannot quite express the depth of resentment I felt and feel at being lumped together with people who screw dead bodies or seven-year olds. My love is mature and adult, and requires mature adult reciprocation.
My homophobic roomate announced with disgust, but with authority, that the purpose of Gay Wednesday was to help the "queers" identify sexual prospects. It never occured to him that gay people did anything but perpetually screw. He was insensitive to the idea that maybe gay people wanted to have sympathetic friends and live normal lives. I certainly wished I had a roomate who didn't heap on anti-gay abuse.
Shortly after Gay Wednesday, the president of HRGSA, Joe for now, wrote to The Crimson to respond to the anti-gay mania, and to try to explain the purposes of Gay Wednesday. He signed the letter. I was positively astounded. I could not believe that there was a human being alive with the courage to sign that letter. As it turned out, I knew him--he was in a class of mine--and because of that letter, I came to admire and respect him as I respected few people in the world.
The straight reaction to his letter was sadly predictable. My roommate sagely intoned that the writer had signed his letter only to use The Crimson to invite other queers to his bed. He denied that the signature required courage.
For the rest of the year, I heard references to that letter. Freshmen at the Union no longer told "fag" jokes, they told Joe jokes. I became aware of just how much more respectable--how much more of a man--was a guy who would put himself on the line for the sake of other gay people than were the chickenshits who ridiculed him from the safety of their little groups of gutless friends.
It was that fall, during my freshman year, that I first realized that I would eventually "come out"--openly acknowledge my homosexuality--and live as a gay man, not as an ostensible straight one. I knew it would take time before I was strong enough--it took me two more years.
I cannot really say why I wanted to come out. There was no Big Reason. I can only say that I did not want to live a lifetime without love--nor, of course, without sex--and the only way to avoid that deprivation was to tell other gay men I was gay. But I could not stand the idea of living a double life--being gay among gay people, appearing straight among straights. That kind of double life seemed worse to me than what I was already doing--passing as straight to both gays and straights. So I knew that when I finally came out, I would come out to everybody, not just to gay people.
The problem was, I was not only afraid of straight bigots, but also of gay people, though for different reasons. I knew that gay people, unlike straights, would not judge me, ridicule me, fear me, and hate me. But I was afraid of appearing confused, less than totally together. I was afraid of seeming weak and troubled. And I was deathly afraid of seeming unsophisticated and inexperienced.
I had decided, more or less subconsciously, that I would come out by going to a meeting of HRGSA. But I had preconceptions about the group that very closely matched what most straights think about it. I pictured a small, tightly-knit group of worldly, experienced gay men who had conquered all the difficulties of being gay in a straight world.
Because of these preconceptions, I felt that I couldn't go to just any HRGSA meeting. I thought that my appearance at a meeting would be so conspicuous as to emphasize only the fact that I had never been there before--which, I figured, would make obvious to all that I was unsure of myself, that I was troubled. But if I waited until the first meeting of the next year, people there would just figure I was a freshman, and would not then conclude that I was just coming out, just getting it together. As unfounded as my fear was, it was genuine, and I am convinced that many, perhaps hundreds of gay people at Harvard who have not come out share the same fear.
The group itself fed this fear. It appeared as impersonal, imposing, almost secretive. Its posters announced date, time, place--period. No mention was ever made of what was done, who should come; no encouragement was extended through the keyhole of my closet door. When a poster appeared--"HRGSA meeting, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Phillips Brooks House"--I assumed that all the other gay people knew precisely what went on at meetings, and responded, en masse, as if to a secret signal in the posters.
Another fear had nothing to do with gay people, but with men, generally, at Harvard. Harvard men are the most threatened, most insecure men in the world. Harvard men are incredibly afraid to be less than totally masculine, cool, heroic, with it, sophisticated, charming. They try hard, too hard, to compensate for their insecurity by posing as confident and self-assured. And because Harvard men are highly skilled socially, they largely succeed. But in the process, they scare the hell out of each other--each one is convinced that everyone else's calm front is real, and that only he is in fact unsure of himself. So, for reasons irrelevant to my sexuality, I was afraid to appear to other people--even other gay people--as unsophisticated and inexperienced.
So I waited through sophomore year and went to the first meeting junior year. Apparently, many, many gays at Harvard shared my fears. If Kinsey's estimate that almost 10 per cent of Americans are predominately homosexual is applied to Harvard, there are roughly 600 undergraduate homosexuals. (There are 180 people in Matthews, 18 gay Matthews residents; 140 marching band members, 14 gay bandies. Gay people are not "them," somewhere "out there." If you live in a quint next to a quint, one of you is probably gay, whether you know it or not, whether you like it nor not.)
But there were fewer than 25 people at the meeting. When four or five people I had already known walked in, I thought in amazement, "He's gay?"; "She's gay?" Gays, just like straights, are unable to tell at a glance who is gay--we have no secret radar.
The meeting was largely organizational. We elected officers, and voted to change meeting times so that the Radcliffe feminist group's meeting time wouldn't conflict with ours--so gay women on campus could attend both groups. We listened to a short presentation by a representative of the Cambridge Gay Political Caucus, who talked about Saundra Graham's campaign for state rep from Cambridge. We broke up for cider and cookies, and I was intimidated by the fact that everyone but me seemed to know everyone else, so I left.
My initial coming out, my declaration, was accomplished. The new meeting time conflicted with a section meeting, which I did not reschedule, so I did not go back the rest of the year. I had signed the HRGSA mailing list, and I received regular announcements of speakers, parties, dances, and meetings. But as far as I knew, my absence went totally unnoticed. Certainly no one ever made any effort to reach me. I suppose no one knew that I wanted to be reached.
This has been a big year for me. I have continued to grow, to work out my thoughts, and to come to know and accept myself. I have begun to like myself.
Anita Bryant finished for me last June--and I suspect for many other gay people--what I had been building for nine years. Ms. Bryant brought gay rights out of the closet--she focused the issue very well: the issue was whether or not our society would treat homosexuals as inferior and as dangerous. She made many straights realize how stupid they sounded, and by sounding amazingly like Wallace in 1961 or Goldwater in 1964, she made many straights realize that they had not thought out their positions on gay rights very well.
But best of all, Anita gave me gay pride, and gay rage--pride in myself, for who I am, and rage at the society that refuses to recognize the value of one of its own.
I lived in the Boston area last summer, and I marched in the huge Boston Gay Pride March, June 18, 1977. More than 7000 gay men and women marched from Copley Square to Boston Common, where we held a rally, largely aimed at showing support for the Massachusetts anti-discrimination bill which would have allowed gays to hold civil service jobs. The bill passed the Senate that week, only to be amended into oblivion and then soundly defeated by the House four months later.
The day of the rally was one of the most beautiful days of my life. There were seven thousand of us--men and women, black and white, old and young, and so on. We heard speakers and chanted slogans as at all good political rallies. Then we were asked to hold hands with those beside us--I held the hand of the black woman to my left and the white man to my right--and raise them to the sky, and sing in unison "We Shall Overcome." And as we sang the verses, 7000 strong, swaying to the tune, a black singer poured his soft, improvised, falsetto blues accompaniment over us, soothing, reassuring, strengthening. We Shall Overcome, we sang, and we believed. How could we not believe? We were too strong, too good, too beautiful to be turned under again.
My parents were in the Boston area for a weekend three weeks later. The first evening. I told my mother I was gay; when my father joined us the next day, I told him. I loved my parents, and I felt that I should tell them first of all straight people--if for no other reason, because I did not want them to hear it from someone else. I had not expected it to be easy, and I was right.
My mother is an educated woman, and a very good public school psychologist. I had expected better from her. My father's reaction was only somewhat better. Although he said that he was unconcerned, because he did not believe that homosexuals were "inferior," he has been unable to speak to me about my homosexuality in the four months since I told him. Of my siblings, only my 15-year-old sister, apparently too young to be burdened with society's foolish conceptions of masculinity and prejudices about sexuality, was able to speak to me without great awkwardness. Only she shared any gut feeling of injustice concerning society's treatment of gay people. The rest of my family treated my homosexuality as an imposition upon them and their phony peace. I am acceptable only as long as I keep my sexuality at a distance from them, "play straight," and speak not thereon. Out of sight, out of mind.
Eventually, they will come around. They are my family. I am one of theirs, and their caring will eventually defeat their hangups in their battles to reconcile their feelings for me with their feelings about homosexuality. I only have to give them time--and an occasional nudge to keep them thinking.
Some people need less time. Before coming back to Harvard for my senior year, I had decided that I was not going to hide my sexuality anymore--from anybody. So by now, most of my friends--all of my really close ones--know that I am gay. Their reactions have been comparatively good. They are non-hostile and, even if cautious, somewhat approving.
Surprisingly to me, women have dealt with my homosexuality no better than men. I would have expected that a woman would have been relieved not to have to fear a man, his strength, his physical dominance, and the usual male-rapist sexual mentality. But I have found among my female friends an element of contempt for a man they regard as incapable of being threatening. One woman I know quite well reluctantly agreed that, although for opposite reasons, neither women nor men know how to deal with the opposite sex when on equal grounds.
A straight friend of mine asked toward the beginning of the semester where I went on Wednesday nights. So heavy is the presumption that any given person is heterosexual that when I told him I went to Gay Students Association meetings, he asked why. Any gay person would have thought it rather obvious. This friend had known me only casually for more than three years, and I was afraid he would become cool toward me. In fact, he has become my closest friend.
He seemed to grasp a certain continuity: I was a nice guy when he thought I was straight; the fact that he now knows I am gay does not change that. I did not rape and molest him before, I would not now.
In fact, he wanted to know about homosexuality and what role it has played in my life. We have talked, not just about my sexuality, but also about his, at some length. He is sympathetic and interested, open and unworried. To some extent he is even protective--he would take personal offense, I think, if someone were to attack homosexuality in general, or my homosexuality in particular. My experience with him convinces me that while ignorance of homosexuality is almost universal among straights, even at educated Harvard, and while ignorance often appears as unwitting viciousness, behind the ignorance can be compassion, or a capability for it.
In the process of coming out, I have learned a great deal about how people work. I used to have an innocent belief that one grows up by progressing toward a point of maturity. Beyond that point, I thought, though one might continue to change, the surprises are over. I thought of growing up as Preparation For Life--once the real game begins, the rules stop changing.
But the surprises keep coming.
Time magazine, in its schizophrenic--half scientific, half manic paranoid--cover story on gay life in America (September 8, 1975), referred to coming out as a "rite of passage." So it seemed to me--until I began to come out.
I now realize that coming out is a continuing process. Even though I am fairly openly gay, almost every person who meets me, perhaps for the rest of my life, will assume until told otherwise that I am straight--and will impose his or her straight expectations upon me. For the rest of my life, I will be surprising people--shocking some people, dismaying some people--for the simple fact of who I am.
I also realize that coming out is a state of mind--a toughness and a wariness: a readiness to risk certain social discomforts in order to alleviate straight ignorance, in order to fight straight bigotry; a readiness to constantly attack the obnoxious "presumption of heterosexuality."
Finally, I realize that coming out is a way of life--a new honesty, a source of strength with which to face coming surprises.
Chuck Fraser '78, a Government major from Lancaster. Pennsylvania, lives in Mather House.