Bringing Gay Life to HLS

This weekend, Harvard Law School (HLS) will hold the first-ever reunion for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) graduates to commemorate the founding of the school’s first gay student group 25 years ago, known then as the Committee on Gay Legal Issues and today as HLS Lambda.

HLS has held celebrations in recent years for its African-American and female alumni, but this is the first reunion for its GLBT alumni—in fact, as far as is known, this is the first such event at any law school in the nation. For both Harvard and the world of law, this reunion marks a significant milestone. Just months after the Supreme Court held anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional, this event, in its own small way, underscores the dramatic progress that gays and lesbians have made in the law and in American society during the past 25 years. It makes even clearer the connection HLS has had in this progress toward full equality for gays and lesbians under the law.

Gay and lesbian graduates of HLS have influenced the profession in countless ways, taking leading positions in academia, the judiciary and public interest law, and proving to the world that openly gay people have as much of a place in the law as anyone. HLS’s gay alumni include two of the most prominent openly gay elected officials in the country; the nation’s first openly gay or lesbian federal judge; several of the nation’s top authorities on sexual orientation and the law; and many, if not most, of the leading courtroom advocates for gay and lesbian civil rights. In addition, a large number of openly gay Harvard graduates have become powerful and senior partners at the nation’s premier law firms.

But this reunion is unusual in that many of the school’s gay and lesbian alumni have less than positive memories of their HLS experience. This I know first-hand. As part of an HLS project, I met with or interviewed by telephone about 85 of these GLBT graduates this past spring. I asked them what it was like to be gay at HLS when they were there, and whether they remembered their Harvard experience fondly. Some had graduated in the 1950s, before “being gay” meant anything to anyone. Others graduated just a couple of years ago, by which time Will and Grace had become household names.

Yet while much changed over the years, and while many people loved their HLS experiences, one theme linked these many men and women: Harvard Law School itself had never been particularly friendly to them as gay men and women. Rarely did the alumni I spoke with report feeling that the school itself or anyone representing it was overtly homophobic; nor did they recall being subject to much hostility from straight students, as incidents of harassment have been few and far between.

But equally rarely has HLS gone out of its way to make its GLBT students feel comfortable as other schools have, whether by hiring openly gay faculty members, offering courses in sexual orientation and the law or fostering a reputation as a diverse and accepting environment. One explanation is that the school has historically put a premium on intellectual and scholarly achievement, and has rarely seemed interested with how people spend their time outside the classroom or who they are as people.

In any case, when being gay was something that needed to be kept under wraps, this indifferent attitude actually helped students lead dual lives and allowed them to keep their private lives private. When, however, gay men and women emerged into the light of day in the 1980s and 1990s, students found the school’s entrenched elitism and indifference counterproductive and were frustrated when they attempted to draw more attention to their issues and concerns. Although the school’s culture is changing, much of that legacy of indifference remains today, and Lambda continues the struggle to educate faculty and students on GLBT concerns.

And yet, despite any indifference they may have experienced at HLS, upon graduation many of these gay and lesbian law students became out and proud lawyers and openly gay leaders in various legal fields. Moreover, many of the men and women who quickly broke barriers by being out on the job were fully closeted while at HLS, or only beginning to come out; others were not yet out even to themselves.

Over time, students have become more comfortable being out at HLS, despite the institution’s continuous indifference and their relatively small numbers. Significantly, it has been gay Harvard alumni who have accelerated the acceptability of coming out at HLS. For as Harvard’s gay graduates made their presence known at law firms, and rose to those firms’ highest ranks, they became involved in and responsible for hiring—and sent the message that it was okay to be openly gay in the recruiting process. As gay alumni began producing scholarship in the field of sexual orientation and the law, they created and built an academically respectable niche in which many students now work. Harvard’s gay and lesbian alumni have also affected the school in more tangible ways—by serving as members of its Alumni Association, its Visiting Committee and even of the University’s Board of Overseers.

This weekend, many of those alumni will be back at HLS, some for the first time since they graduated. In no small part thanks to their efforts, and those of their classmates scattered around the country and the globe, gay men and women are enjoying greater respect and equality than ever before. They may not have been nurtured at HLS, or welcomed with the most open of arms while they were enrolled. But they come back to HLS as warmly welcomed as any group could be, to attain the recognition they as a group deserve.

To the extent that Harvard’s gay men and women have experienced discrimination, hostility or, at a minimum, indifference to their plight, their involvement in the school’s future—and in our society—will hopefully make both safer, warmer better places for all.

Geoffrey C. Upton ’99 was editorial chair of The Crimson in 1998. He graduated from Harvard Law School in June.