Still Time for a Just Vote
I was ashamed of the elected representatives of this student body Sunday night.
In the midst of a heated debate over whether the Reserve Officers Training Corps should return to Harvard, the council had a change to affirm its stated commitment to oppose discrimination in all its forms.
Backers of the resolution asking Harvard to enter into negotiations to bring ROTC back to the University after a 20-year hiatus seemed taken aback by students' arguments that the military's policy of barring gays and lesbians from service made ROTC's return to campus objectionable.
The Academics Committee, which forward the ROTC resolution to the council, 11-2, never even discussed the military's policy of excluding gays and lesbians.
ROTC backers came to the meeting prepared to combat activists on several fronts--from issues surrounding the preservation of Harvard's academic integrity to philosophical questions about the role of the military.
What they did not expect was a direct confrontation with some very vocal gayrights activists, including one who said he had been forced to leave ROTC at Notre Dame because he is gay.
AGAIN and again the students confronted council members with the facts: the military has an explicit policy of barring gays and lesbians from service, the University has an anti-discrimination policy, and the council's own constitution compels the body, not only to avoid discrimination itself, but to actively fight against it in the Harvard community.
Most of those backing the ROTC resolution ceded the point, at least verbally. They granted that no one in ROTC supported everything the U.S. military did and said the best way to make the armed forces more enlightened was for ROTC-trained liberal arts majors to influence it from within.
The resolution is "not an endorsement of this military's policy on homosexuality," said resolution co-sponsor Joel D. Hornstein '92. "And if anyone here would like to propose at some point in time or now a resolution condemning the role of homophobia in ROTC, I would be happy to support that."
But when council member John E. McDermott '92 called Hornstein's bluff and did propose an amendment making ROTC's return contingent on the repeal of its anti-gay policies, Hornstein stood by the pro-ROTC line.
Hornstein had probably been expecting a tame amendment simply calling on the military to admit gays and lesbians. But instead, he got an amendment with teeth that threatened to torpedo his goal of ROTC at Harvard. And Hornstein backed down from his previous enlightened stand.
Unfortunately, a majority of council members apparently shared Hornstein's superficial dedication to gay rights. The amendment failed 38 to 15.
Council members did not even have the gumption to register their opinions on the amendment in a roll call vote. Such a move would have required only one-fifth of council members to approve it, but the body decided instead to hide their individual views on the issue.
AND that's exactly what has been wrong with the council's stance against homophobia. The body passed a strongly worded resolution last May condemning discrimination against gays and lesbians and calling on the University to appoint liaisons for students who had been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
But the council's dedication to fighting bias against gays and lesbians looked great on paper, but when it came to applying it substantively Sunday night, the body waffled.
This dichotomoy may reflect the general campus atmosphere surrounding gay right. It is becoming less and less acceptable to be flagrantly homophobic, but many students still shy away from direct contact with gays or lesbians and share little sincere sympathy for their plight.
But even if this is an accurate sketch of the campus situation, it does not absolve the council of responsibility of its decision. As a body which in some ways sets the moral tone for student debate on controversial issues, it is the council's obligation to rise above the petty prejudices some individual constituents may harbor.
This is especially true in light of the ROTC debate, which it appears that the council single-handedly initiated. If the council wants to be out in front of students opinion on an issue as important as ROTC, it must be particularly forward-looking when it comes to issues of civil rights.
It appears that the council is going to reconsider its ROTC decision Sunday, and it is under intense pressure by activists to reverse its vote.
Council members may fear that a reversal will make them look flighty, and they are probably right. But the body must put aside political concerns to answer to justice.
It's better to be criticized for flip-flopping than to be prosecuted for an air-tight case of hypocrisy--and found guilty.