Gay Faculty Become Activists

News Analysis

Gay faculty at Harvard, long a quiet and even invisible constituency, are moving strongly toward greater activism, openness and organization.

This week's protest of the selection of Gen. Colin L. Powell served as a stage for expressing the concerns of Harvard's gay communities. The participation of several faculty members in the protest indicates the increasing and more vocal role of homosexual faculty at the University.

Five faculty members also recently wrote to President Neil L. Rudenstine articulating their "outrage" about the invitation, while many professors say they expect more such missives.

"We've been transfixed by this [invitation]...we must get our opinions out there to the people who matter," said Professor of Philosophy Warren D. Goldfarb '69.

Goldfarb, who was one of the first openly gay professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said he has seen a growing openness over the last decade.

In the past, he said, homosexual or bisexual junior faculty did not always feel safe revealing their sexual orientations for fear of repercussions in the tenure process.

"There was, 15 years ago, a concern that it might shade their feelings," he said. "I feel, it's much less true. Fifteen years ago, there were no openly gay faculty members, period."

And this year, for the first time ever, gay faculty came together to discuss issues of concern to them.

"We've been organizing," said Goldfarb.

About 25 faculty members, University-wide, gathered last fall to discuss issues such as Harvard's domestic partnership policy. Provost Jerry R. Green chairs a committee which will recommend possible changes to the University's present policy of not acknowledging domestic partnerships.

But by far the most dramatic manifestation of increasing gay faculty presence has been the presence of gay and lesbian professors at two key rallies: Last year's demonstration against the conservative campus magazine Peninsula and this year's protest of Powell's invitation.

"I think what is happening is more explicit occasions where someone is speaking out...It's important to stand up and say we do not agree," said Professor of English and Compara- tive Literature Barbara E. Johnson, who "came out" at last year's Peninsula protest.

Last year's dramatic protest against Peninsula was only the beginning for the University's gay and lesbian faculty. Now, as Colin Powell's invitation sparks angry reactions, gay and lesbian professors are showing...

Students say the new openness means a great deal especially for the hundreds of undergraduates and graduate students who are also homosexual. Gay faculty members serve as role models both politically and academically, they say.

"When I first came to Harvard, [Assistant Professor of English and American Literature and Language and Afro-American Studies Phillip B.] Harper was one of the few outlets to find out what gay life was like at Harvard," said William T. Dougherty '94, editor and founder of HQ, a student publication about gay, lesbian and homosexual issues.

"It is essential [to have openly gay faculty] because gay students have little recourse in the houses, especially at a time like this," Dougherty added.

John A. Frazier '95, co-chair of the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Students' Association (BGLSA), said openly homosexual faculty members serve as role models, particularly for students in the same field.

But while students stress the importance of such role models in their lives, they have not always been there for openly gay undergraduates. Thus far, there have been only two annual BGLSA student-faculty gatherings. Before that, the openly gay faculty presence obvious at the meetings--or at recent rallies--was not so much a reality.

Professors interviewed this week attributed the growing gay and lesbian faculty openness and presence to a number of factors.

Some said the galvanizing effects of crises like the protest last year serve as an impetus for change.

Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Rev. Peter J. Gomes' "coming out" at that rally has served as the catalyst for some others to reveal their sexual orientation, according to Thurston A. Smith, associate registrar. Smith said the number of faculty who have revealed their homosexuality has increased since Gomes' announcement.

Goldfarb said the increasing presence of gay and lesbian faculty makes professors more comfortable with being "out" and active in political causes.

"There are more of us now, every year...There are new people coming in, giving solidarity," he said.

And issues of concern to gay, bisexual and lesbian professors, even if they do not involve public protests, can mobilize quiet action like the issue of domestic partnership has, some professors said.

"I think it's important for us to be out and to remind the administration that we exist," said Assistant Professor of English and American Literature Jeffrey A. Masten, who is gay.

Gomes says general shifts in societal views make "coming out" more comfortable and bring issues of concern to gay, bisexual and lesbian faculty to the spotlight nationwide.

As issues of race came to the forefront in the 1960s, "I think issues of sexuality [have risen] in the...late '80s and '90s," he said.

That shift is reflected in a more supportive attitude toward gay faculty at the University, some professors said.

"I feel in general there's widespread support for the issues of gay and lesbian faculty," said Associate Professor of Philosophy Frederick Neuhouser, who is gay.

But while both the student and faculty gay communities are supportive of each other, they do not share a single agenda.

The Leadership Council, a University-wide coalition of 15 homosexual groups, is crusading for University adoption of a proposal outlining the establishment of a gay studies program and the creation of a gay resource center.

Trying to muster support from Green for the package proposal, members of the council said gay studies would diversify the curriculum.

"People assume sexuality has nothing to do with government or with politics, but it does," said Dennis K. Lin '93-94, a member of the BGLSA. Lin, the BGLSA liaison to the Leadership Council, also said the resource center would centralize the University gay community.

"We're a diverse community, as diverse as the straight community," Lin said. "The council cannot possibly become a legitimate group unless we have a home base."

Faculty members interviewed for this article had mixed opinions on the Leadership Council's causes. While many supported an increased presence for gay and gender studies in the curriculum, they pointed out that professors are already teaching many classes in those fields.

And though some faculty members said they support the idea of a gay center for the University, they did not seem likely to jump on the student activist bandwagon.

Still, if a unified student-faculty agenda is not yet in the offing, both agree they can come together in the crises that unify their community.

"Since no one will fight those battles for you, you must step forward and fight them for yourself," said Gomes.

'There are more of us now, every year...There are new people coming in, giving solidarity.'

Warren D. Goldfarb Professor of PhilosophyCrimson File PhotoJamie W. BillettPlummer Professor of Christian Morals Rev. PETER J. GOMES