HLS Holds Conference on Gay Activism

Students from Lambda, Harvard Law School’s gay rights organization, convened Saturday at the first annual Gay and Lesbian Legal Advocacy conference to map out the course of gay rights activism following the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding the Solomon Amendment.

At the end of a day-long conference, Lambda honored Boston College law professor Kent Greenfield for his work in challenging the Solomon Amendment. The day featured panels planning ways to attack the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which prohibits openly gay and lesbian individuals from serving, and discussing “ex-gay treatment,” a movement by some faith-based groups to alter the sexual orientation of homosexuals.

Greenfield accepted the organization’s Leadership Award at the dinner banquet for founding and leading the Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights. FAIR, a coalition of 40 law schools, unsuccessfully sought over the last two and half years to overturn the Solomon Amendment, a federal law that forces universities to choose between forgoing federal funds and allowing the military to recruit on their campuses. Schools have refused to do so because “don’t ask, don’t tell” clashes with many law schools’—including Harvard’s—non-discrimination policies.

“History will prove that fighting for the right for people to love the people they want to love is the civil rights issue of our time,” Greenfield said when accepting the award.

ALL’S FAIR THAT ENDS FAIR

At the award banquet, Greenfield was introduced by Lavi Soloway, a lawyer who works on gay rights cases, who praised Greenfield for fighting against an “outrageous expression of government enforced homophobia.”

In his acceptance speech, Greenfield said that his key motivation for challenging the Solomon Amendment was his son Liam.

“One of the high points in the litigation was when we won in the Third Circuit. My son, who’s eight, was with me at Logan when I heard that news and he was with me again at [the Supreme Court’s] oral arguments,” Greenfield said. “I never want my son to ask me what I did to fight this injustice and not have an answer that satisfies him.”

He admitted that the case “wasn’t really about free speech,” as FAIR had asserted in its challenge, but “about equality.” FAIR, he said, had come up with a “creative” argument to fight Solomon.

Greenfield also urged the crowd to not be demoralized after the loss, saying that “a lot of people will be looking to Harvard students to lead.”

“If a straight, white, corporate law professor at a Catholic school can take on this fight, than surely anyone can,” he said.

MILITARY-ACADEMIC COMPLEX

In a session entitled “Where do we go from here?” the panelists debated whether Harvard should take a stance on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and how it can better “engage” the military.

Sharon E. D. Alexander, a military veteran and policy director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, spoke of breaking down the walls between academia and the military, noting that no one else attending the panel had served in the military.

“We need to be directly engaging the institutionalized discrimination in the military,” Alexander said. “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ is a seriously constitutionally and legislatively vulnerable law.”

Williams Professor of Criminal Justice Richard D. Parker and Professor of Law Christine Desan both said that “don’t ask, don’t tell” should be rescinded, but disagreed as to whether Harvard should take a position on the issue.

Parker said that he was concerned that it would be difficult to determine which “injustices” Harvard would take positions on. Desan responded that Harvard has an “institutional responsibility” to oppose the military’s discrimination and that there is near consensus opposition to the policy among the faculty.

In an interview last month, Harvard’s chief lobbyist Kevin Casey said the University has not considered taking a stance on repealing the military’s policy because it typically only takes stances on “issues related to Harvard’s mission.”

THE GAY GENE?

The other panel, about the biological nature of homosexuality, began with a presentation by Simon LeVay, a prominent neuroanatomist who authored the famous 1991 study demonstrating that heterosexuals and homosexuals have different brain structures. He presented similar research results at the panel, showing genetic differences between straight and gay men.

Libby S. Adler, a law professor at Northeastern, discussed how “immutability” of sexual orientation could affect the legal system. If it were shown that people are born gay, just as people are born into a race, it would be easier to win suits alleging discrimination based on sexual preference, Adler explained.

The other two speakers focused their comments on “sexual reorientation” efforts, popularly known as the “ex-gay” movement, in which people are “conditioned” to be straight.

A. Lee Beckstead, a clinical psychologist, spoke of his research on the movement, saying that as a whole, it is “unethical and destructive.” Author and gay-rights activist Wayne Besen condemned the “ex-gay ministries” in even harsher terms, saying that they were scams supported by the right-wing to thwart the successes of the gay rights movement.

—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at pbhayani@fas.harvard.edu.