Silenced Voices Finally Speak Out in 'Perkins 28'

In 2002, The Harvard Crimson discovered an 82-year-old secret. Eight Harvard men were tried and expelled in 1920 on the basis of their sexual orientation. But in 2008, their story is mainly unknown to the undergraduate community. Filmmaker Michael Van Devere, a Harvard Extension School graduate, seeks to unearth the voices of these men in his film “Perkins 28: Testimony from the Secret Court Files of 1920.” The film will premiere at 7 p.m. on Nov. 17 at Hilles Cinema.

The film derives its title from the dorm room Perkins 28, the alleged epicenter of the homosexual community in 1920. After President A. Lawrence Lowell, class of 1877, was alerted to a possible community of homosexual students on campus, he called a secret court to investigate the claims. The proceedings were so covert that the Administrative Board was unaware of the trial until after it occurred. The court files from the committee sat in an unopened box in archives until 2002.

Van Devere documents the story of these marginalized men, but he is not seeking to focus criticism on Harvard specifically. “This is not a denouncement of the University or the administration at all. In many ways what occurred on campus is representative of an entire social epoch. What happened here could have happened at any other university,” he says.

Christopher J. Carothers ’11—who plays Assistant Dean Edward R. Gay, a member of the secret court, in “Perkins 28”—also hopes that the film will increase awareness within the Harvard community. “I would love people to hear about it. Every time I’ve talked to someone about it they’ve expressed a level of interest,” Carothers says. “They didn’t even know they didn’t know. They thought, ‘Wow, really? Here at Harvard?’”

Although detailed information concerning the secret trials has emerged, Van Devere sees a need to delve deeper. He gave the following advice to the actors in the film: “Find your voice, be true to these individuals, and let the voice speak for itself. And by so doing the audience will step away saying, ‘Their voices mattered, I can finally hear them.’”

With this emphasis on loyalty to the actual events—as well as to the men they affected—the screenplay draws from the documented testimonies of the defendants. Van Devere does not depict the frequent parties the group held in Perkins 28, nor the suicide of one of the trial’s targets, Dental School student Eugene R. Cummings. “I decided that recreating those events would be false, whereas the testimony is right there, ready for exposure,” he says. “The film looks like one interview after the other, more or less talking heads. I think that was truer to the events within the office of the court as opposed to creating fictionalized, sentimental, romantic portraits of these men.”

Van Devere sees the trial as an important part of history at large, arguing that it was one of many attempted purges occurring in the early 20th century as globalization encouraged a consuming fear of the “other.” He hopes that the film will reach a larger audience organically, but he also plans on submitting it to film festivalso national and international gay and lesbian film festivals that focus on queer cinema and queer audiences, beginning with the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.

The world, and Harvard, have come a long way over the decades, but Marco Chan ’11, Co-Chair of the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance, thinks students should be aware of the University’s history. “I think it would be great for Harvard students, whether they are LGBT-identified or not, to learn about Harvard history and realize the evolution of the institution,” Chan says. “More specifically to realize that as with most major historical institutions, we have seen our share of homophobia, and I think that’s something we need to acknowledge and be aware of as we evaluate our past and future progress for equality.”

—Staff writer Melanie E. Long can be reached at long2@fas.harvard.edu.