Once at Odds, Gay Groups Move Closer Together

Publicity for Coming out Day in October 1999 featured catchphrases like, “Have more sex. Join BGLTSA” and “Can I bum a fag?”

While the postering campaign of the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) certainly captured the campus’ attention then, many members of the gay and lesbian community criticized the posters as offensive and lewd.

The politicized actions of BGLTSA prompted some members to form a non-activist, apolitical gay student group called Beyond Our Normal Differences (BOND) later that week. BOND was intended to be a social organization of which even closeted students could be a part.

Old-school BGLTSA leaders disapproved of the new group’s nonconfrontational attitude.

In an interview with The Crimson last Feburary, Michael K. Tan ’01, co-chair of BGLTSA in 1999, said BOND failed to take seriously the fact that “normal differences” are part of people’s identities.

People searching for commonality, BGLTSA’s self-proclaimed “grand empress” said, should engage those differences instead of “ignoring them like idiots.”

But almost three years after BOND’s formation, some say BGLTSA is becoming increasingly less radical. It is a change that even BGLTSA Co-Chair Daniel R. Tremitiere ’02-’03 acknowledges, saying that the group was “much more political and vocal” two years ago.

“The difference in objective [of BGLTSA and BOND] is not as clear as it once was,” Tremitiere says.

Although some students criticize BGLTSA’s less political direction, they argue that having two separate groups remains valuable—even if they appear to serve the same purpose.

The Right Direction?

Some BGLTSA veterans recall with fondness the group’s more radical heyday and criticize its less political nature today.

“The BGLTSA is walking the fine line between pleasing everyone and doing nothing,” says Laure E. “Voop” de Vulpillieres ’02, a prominent member of BGLTSA whose senior thesis analyzes how the group compares to similar organizations at other colleges.

She says that while she did not approve of the 1999 postering campaign, she is concerned that BGLTSA is currently not political enough.

“There should be two organizations, but one should be politically-oriented, and the other social,” Vulpillieres says. “Now, we have two social organizations.”

Vulpillieres, who is also the secretary of Girlspot, also criticizes BGLTSA for having “no clear direction” and for “having had very few events this year.”

Vulpillieres says better group organization may hold the key, arguing that queer groups at Brandeis and Northeastern owe their success, at least in part, to their weekly meetings. In contrast, BGLTSA has held only three community meetings this year.

While BGLTSA Co-chair Fred O. Smith ’04 says he agrees the group needs better organization—more frequent meetings are already in the works—he takes issue with Vulpillieres’ characterization of the organization as conservative.

“While BOND doesn’t take stances on political issues, we do take a stance on homophobia,” Smith says.

He adds that “a more moderate approach” can sometimes be more effective than an aggressively political one.

Tremitiere says he agrees, arguing that the context of the times often dictates groups’ policies.

“There seems to have been a decrease in homophobic vandalism [on campus],” he says.

The most recent string of incidents led Mather House tutor and BGLTSA adviser K. Kyriell Muhammed to leave Mather and resign from his advisory post two years ago.

The change in climate on campus means that the organization has been able to “focus on a wider range of issues,” although fighting homophobia remains a “top priority,” Tremitiere says.

Vulpillieres says she intends to present her thesis to BGLTSA members today.

A Need for BOND-ing?

At the last community meeting of BGLTSA, a member broached an interesting question: is there still a need for two BGLT student organizations? (Girlspot is a female-specific group.)

BOND founder Clifford S. Davidson ’02 writes in an e-mail that it is “good to have options.”

Tremitiere says that while he feels the distinction between the two groups has blurred, he agrees that having two groups is a positive thing.

“We [BGLTSA and BOND] get more work done this way,” he says.

Other members add that each group serves a distinct purpose, though the membership of gay groups like BGLTSA, BOND, and Girlspot overlap.

“Initially, people thought that there would be a schism in the gay community [after BOND formed],” says Adam A. Sofen ’01, co-chair of the BGLTSA in 1998 and a former Crimson executive. “Today you will see the two organizations publicizing each other’s activities.”

Smith says there are still differences between BOND and BGLTSA, since the former is apolitical. In fact, Smith was a co-chair of BOND a year ago but switched to BGLTSA because he wanted to be more political.

Michael A. Hill ’02, co-chair of BGLTSA in 2000, describes BOND as a “wonderful thing,” saying the group has “reach[ed] out to many students and [provided] a number of smaller venues where people can interact socially”.

Tremitiere characterizes BGLTSA as “out and proud” and BOND as more “low-profile.”

He also says the formation of BOND is beneficial because neither group is “stuck” in the position of being “the only BGLT group around.”

Former board members emphasize that, while there has been a shift in BGLTSA’s outlook, the shift is not necessarily permanent. The tenor of BGLTSA’s outreach activities, they say, are greatly influenced by convictions of group leaders at the given time.

“There was a shift from a more political outlook to a more social, less controversial outlook,” Sofen says.

“There is no historical trend here, it just depends on a few charismatic leaders,” says Sofen, pointing out that there were many outspoken activists in the organization in the mid-’90s.

Albert S. Cho ’02, BGLTSA co-chair in 2000, makes a similar argument.

“The basic objective is the same, but the approach changes every year with a change in leadership,” he says.

Hill argues, contrary to other members, that BGLTSA itself was “never radical.” But he says some of its members were often “radical and politically-charged” and their occupying board positions was coincidental.

From Pin-Ups to Avarice

Founded in 1970 as the Harvard Gay Students Association before evolving into BGLTSA, the group’s most visible time period in the late ’90s was characterized by controversial activities like the postering campaign.

It was also characterized by colorful leaders with a penchant for publicity-garnering stunts.

In February 2000, Hill took center stage as the star “witness” in the bizarre impeachment proceedings against Undergraduate Council Vice President John A. Burton ’01, who had been accused by some council members of stealing an entire box of gay pride buttons from the BGLTSA and illegally using them for his council campaign.

Hill refused to characterize Burton’s actions as stealing, maintaining that the buttons were free for all to take—and Burton was acquitted.

In February 2001, Cho stripped to his underwear in front of the Science Center as part of a Harvard Students Against Sweatshops protest against Harvard’s membership in the Fair Labor Association.

Today’s BGLTSA leaders have been decidedly less visible—and more importantly, less controversial when it comes to gay issues.

“We don’t want to repeat the mistake of those posters,” Smith says, adding that they were “extremely inappropriate.”

The group’s recent activities have included organizing a less controversial Coming Out Day and participating in the National Day of Silence, created to support victims of hate crimes. They have also hosted two dances (the most recent was last month’s “Avarice”), and a third is in the works.

Smith and Tremitiere say BGLTSA will continue to host “Gaypril,” the organization’s month of celebration, and will also organize various panels in conjunction with the Institute of Politics.

“Historically, gay organizations celebrate [gay pride] in June or July. We do it in April so that it can be celebrated during the school year, and it has a catchy name,” Tremitiere says.

—Staff writer Ravi P. Agrawal can be reached at agrawal@fas.harvard.edu.