Three photographs are tacked to the outside foyer of the Lowell House Masters’ residence. The unobtrusively-placed and sepia-toned images, which call to mind memories of the College’s conservative past, capture a newly constructed Lowell House standing in perfect form, sidewalks smooth and bricks still tightly in place. Stamped in white lettering near the bottom of each reads the year 1930. That year, the House’s chief eponym, Abbott Lawrence Lowell—a notorious homophobe and organizer of a secretive court that once expelled eight Harvard students suspected of being gay—still reigned as University president. The proximity of these photos to the hearth of Diana Eck and Dorothy Austin, Harvard’s first openly gay House masters, might seem ironic.
Inside the residence, Eck meanders past the big bay windows lining her living room as she tells me how she and her wife “are really just normal people who lead normal lives.” She smiles as she lifts a picture of the two of them on their wedding day, recounting the fanfare that accompanied her Memorial Church ceremony a few years ago.
For many, the Lowell House masters are just one of a string of signs marking the decline of homophobia at Harvard. According to most members of the queer community, it’s easy to be out in Cambridge, the first American city to perform a legal gay marriage ceremony. Some of the College’s most powerful administrators are gay. The Harvard-Radcliffe Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) has become one of Harvard’s largest and most recognizable student groups. And every trendy girl seems to be searching for her very own “gay boyfriend” à la Sex and the City.
While inside the Masters’ residence, the warm, supporting atmosphere can make homosexuality feel as orthodox as the chiming of the Sunday bells, the campus as a whole can seem far colder. There still remains a population of closeted students at the College, who feel compelled to veil their sexual identities despite living in one of the country’s most liberal zip codes. This existence of this silent population belies the tolerance of the openly gay community, leading many to suggest that while it may be easy to be out at Harvard, it’s not easy to come out.
A SEPARATE PIECE
Though he is sitting as he speaks in Lowell Dining Hall, Clayton W. Brooks III ’10 seems as if he’s on his feet, preaching from a pulpit in a low-pitched lightly-southern drawl that drifts toward the rafters. Brooks is the Administrative Chair of the Harvard College Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Political Coalition, which he helped found last year. Called simply “The Coalition” within the gay community, the focus of Brooks’ organization, unlike BGLTSA, is strictly political.
Yet unlike many members of “The Coalition” who were out and politically active throughout their teens, Brooks says he came out only after arriving at Harvard from his home in North Carolina. “I’m from Laurinburg, a tiny town two hours away from any big city,” he says, adding that “coming out back there would have been very devastating. People who came out at home were ostracized.” Brooks, who was distinguished in his community as a social and academic leader, did not want to face this exclusion so close to his childhood home—and the place where his parents remain.
It is situations like Brooks’ that continue to necessitate support from the campus’ gay groups even though Harvard is legendary for its social liberalism. “We may have a welcoming community in Cambridge,” Eck says, “but Harvard students come from all across the U.S., from families, religious communities, and cities where being gay isn’t welcomed.”
Having moved away from one such community, Brooks came out to his parents during his freshman year, hoping their response would be as welcoming as that of his peers and tutors at Harvard. But the support here could offer no remedy for his hostile home situation hundreds of miles to the south. Since his coming out, Brooks’ parents have stopped speaking to him—and cut him off financially.
“I’m working, I’m getting financial aid, and I’m very grateful to Harvard,” he says, citing the differences in environment between home and Harvard. Only a few years into adulthood, Brooks has had to legally declare himself independent. But he’s out, in a happy relationship, and waging the good fight for himself and his peers.
Brooks believes his case is unique among the College’s openly gay population. Students hailing from the scattered regions of the country where homosexuality is approaching cultural acceptability have the privilege of accommodation from tolerant families. His fear, he tells me, is that these lucky few are blind to the harsh realities of the heartland, not to mention the Deep South.
“Many of the students who come to Harvard were lucky to have never perceived discrimination against themselves, and now they live in a bubble where it’s so gay friendly and so very safe to be on this campus,” Brooks says. “Once they graduate, the safety net will be gone.”
Many members of Harvard’s queer community—“privileged” or not—sympathize with Brooks’ perspective, and believe it may offer an explanation for why there is a lingering closeted community in such a liberal enclave. Emily D. Donahue, co-chair of BGLTSA, says that “a lot of this reluctance to come out has to do with the fear of being out here, which would lead to being outed at home.”
“You can’t necessarily be out at Harvard and have no one [else] find out,” she says.
And even some of those who leave their homes in the country’s more conservative climes and come out here are not satisfied with what they find. Many are faced with a disappointing gap between their expectations and the doldrums of a Harvard social climate so-often characterized as infertile ground for relationships, gay or straight.
“I wasn’t out at home,” says Rafael T. Quintanar ’10, who went to high school in a suburb outside Dallas. Expecting a gay Mecca, he says before moving to Cambridge freshman year he thought to himself, “‘I’m leaving Texas, I’m going to Massachusetts and we can get married there.’ I thought there would be so many gays looking for love. But coming here it’s like, ‘Oh, wait. There’s actually not that many and they’re in the closet or they’re not looking for a relationship.’”
Eva Z. Lam ’10, treasurer of The Coalition, says that while she wasn’t sure what to expect of BGLT life at Harvard, she was surprised by the large number of openly gay men at the College, but put off by the small number of out women. Even the mission of Girlspot, an organization aimed at connecting the College’s few lesbian women, speaks to the uneven gender balance that characterizes Harvard’s queer culture.
But as other students have learned, even having groups of similar people on campus does not mean that it is easy to find a sense of solidarity. And without this sense, they say, support groups are virtually for naught.
IN OR OUT?
Though the numerous queer groups on campus are often cited as evidence for the College’s supportive environment, the abundance of organizations might actually negate this supposed support, the large number making navigation difficult for students unfamiliar with the community but desperately seeking to find a niche.
BGLTSA (pronounced “beh-GLIT-sah” by members) is Harvard’s largest student organization, according to its leaders, with 748 members subscribed to its e-mail lists. It functions loosely as an umbrella group, supporting the College’s smaller, more focused queer organizations—like The Coalition—with ad hoc financial and administrative support. There is also a large amount of overlapping membership. Brooks, for instance, serves as both administrative chair of The Coalition and political chair of BGLTSA.
Yet despite its large virtual membership, BGLTSA’s other co-chair, Michelle C. Kellaway ’10, says that only a small number continually attend the group’s events and board meetings. The result is a core of students who enjoy a very tight-knit sense of community, but who unintentionally form a cliquish cohort that seems impenetrable to the gay students on the outside.
“There’s still a big divide between us ‘BGLTSA gays’ and the ‘non-BGLTSA gays,’” says former board member Quintanar, who served as social chair of the group his freshman year. He says the majority of those who make up the organization’s governing body consider their homosexuality to be a large part of their identities, while for the “non-BGLTSA” gays, sexual orientation plays a minimal social role. But he says this prioritization is not the result of a conscious choice.
“It’s up there, and I’m perfectly okay with that,” he says of the place homosexuality takes in defining his personality, “I’m fairly flamboyant and I can’t help that. If people don’t like that, then screw them.”
Others, however, are more reluctant to participate in on-campus activities—not because they’re ashamed of being associated with the gay community, but simply because their interests—or, as some would say, their lives—lie elsewhere.
Jon T. Staff V ’10 is one of these “non-BGLTSA” gays. Unlike Quintanar, he says his sexuality is only one small part of his identity. Staff has risen to prominence on campus, but through a different channel than queer politics: Staff currently chairs the Undergraduate Council’s Student Affairs Committee, a position that is often seen as a stepping-stone to the council’s presidency.
“I would just say that those who you don’t see everyday as gay or don’t talk about being gay have a reason for it,” he says of his decision to remain on the outskirts of organized gay life at Harvard. “It’s a desire not to be identified by only one part of his or her personality. Clearly, I’m biased. But I think that’s a noble goal.”
Leaders of Harvard’s various BGLT groups say the decision of gay and lesbian students to join or go it alone is similar to one faced by members of nearly all the College’s cultural organizations. Sophie B. Besl ’08, who co-chairs Girlspot, says, “there’s always this group of gays that are ‘too cool for school.’” Just as students might scoff at becoming associated primarily with an ethnic group, Besl says, some BGLT students don’t see a need to participate in organized gay life.
It is the confusingly divisive nature of the “ins” and “outs” of the gay community that creates an environment in which it may be easy to be out, but not to come out. Sara Kimmel, a psychologist at University Health Services and director of the College’s residential BGLTS tutors and the peer-advising group Contact, says this dichotomous milieu can be bewildering for closeted gay students.
“Often students...feel they don’t identity with mainstream ‘out’ LGBT community on campus, and as a result experience a great sense of disconnect and isolation,” she says. “Students talk about struggling with the feeling that the visible queer community on campus is ‘too mainstream, or too activist oriented, or overly emphasizes being gay as the main part one’s sense of self,’ and often these students end up feeling a lack of community connection.”
A HOUSE DIVIDED
But even within the “ins,” the LGBT community seems to be bifurcating between the civil rights activists chiefly concerned with broader world and those who keep their eye trained primarily on Harvard.
Before the early 1980s, when gay rights at Harvard gained momentum, a small, all-male, all-white social group called the Gay Students Association (GSA) existed, unrecognized by the College, in relative anonymity because members feared being outed in a climate hostile toward homosexuality. Former GSA president Benjamin H. Schatz ’81 shook up the campus’ major gay organization by incorporating women and playing up the group’s political role, rallying its members behind the burgeoning gay rights movement. But even at the time, some students were uncomfortable with the politicization of an organization that had provided them with a safe means for socializing in an otherwise-cold climate for gay students.
The same conflict continues to challenge members of institutional queer life at Harvard, who find it difficult to strike the right balance between political advocacy and safe socializing. Assistant Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin II, an out administrator who served as a resource for LGBT students as a former freshman proctor, tells me that the question is a “perennial” one. “For some it’s political, for some it’s social, and for some it’s both. That balance changes all the time.”
Despite the rise of gay marriage as an issue of national import, political activism hasn’t been high on the BGLTSA agenda in the past few years. It was for this reason that Brooks and several other politically-minded—and disgruntled—members of the community decided to form The Coalition last year. While The Coalition struggles with legislation concerning equal rights, it’s faced with an entirely different struggle inside the College.
“The biggest issue that the organization faces is apathy. People feel they have other concerns that are more important than their concerns as LGBT people,” he says. BGLTSA co-Chair Donahue explains that the current apathy for gay activism as “the fallout period” after enthusiasm stagnated in the aftermath of Massachusetts’ 2003 legalization of gay marriage. To date, Massachusetts is the only state where gay marriage is legal, though several other states in New England—like Vermont, Connecticut, and New Hampshire—permit civil unions.
Yet Brooks insists that these local victories aren’t as revolutionary as they seem. Lamenting the myopic view of gay rights held by many within the community, Brooks argues that while marriage equality may constitute equal rights from a legal perspective, there is much work to be done in terms of engaging in the struggle for full social equality. And he cites the BGLTSA’s refusal to engage in these battles as his principle reason for parting ways with the group, which he says he found increasingly socially and politically unfocused.
Splits based on mission aside, an entirely new dimension of LGBT life here has been developing as the student body becomes increasingly heterogenous. Increasingly, gay groups on campus have begun promoting events which put queerness in the context of race, a movement that differs from the early days of gay activism on campus, when hosting general discussions asking questions such as “Is there anything good about being gay?” was considered radical.
Some students find themselves torn between two identities—their sexuality and their ethnicity—particularly for those who spent time building social circles within ethnic groups where homosexuality carries a stigma. “Many people who are black and gay feel they are not welcome in the black community,” says Brooks, who is one of few white members of the Black Men’s Forum. To counter this perception, Brooks has used his membership in both organizations to host events that aim to bridge the gap.
Take, for example, a recent event held by The Coalition and several of Harvard’s black groups, which sponsored a discussion about gay life with the current and immediate past mayors of Cambridge, both of whom are black and queer. As the campus’ diversity has grown, it has been a natural step for queer groups catering to these more specific racial and cultural niches to grow right alongside them.
“[Discussion] is getting more nuanced now that we’ve been talking about queerness by itself,” says Donahue of BGLTSA’s recent move toward hosting hybrid events aimed at educating populations who may not be initially receptive to homosexuality. “It’s a lot different growing up gay in a liberal, atheist family in Cambridge than it is in a Hispanic, Catholic family in Mexico.”
Lam, the Coalition’s treasurer, is half Chinese, and says that students who have made friends with people in generally unreceptive ethnic groups might feel conflicted joining the gay community: on the one hand they must confront the difficulty of a new sexuality, and on the other, they must address this sexuality in a way so as not to isolate themselves from the people they formerly identified with.
Lam says that because she wasn’t “raised Chinese,” she doesn’t feel particularly obliged to join an ethnic student group or to make friends with people of similar cultural backgrounds. She remembers telling her father that she had a girlfriend. Her father, in “his most stereotypically Asian moment ever,” told her he was concerned not about her homosexuality, but about rather the fact that a relationship might prevent her from finishing all of her schoolwork.
Still, the fact that it is often difficult for students—white or minority—to come out at Harvard does not come as a surprise to many who say that it is overly optimistic to expect Harvard students to be instantly accommodating of BGLT individuals. “Harvard students aren’t a special group of people picked to be gay and lesbian confirming,” Eck says. “They’re a scattering of high school graduates who may have never had contact with gays or lesbians before.”
Others at Harvard stress that the University’s varied populace helps explain why queer students can feel supported by some and rejected by others. “Harvard is a diverse student population, so often being out is a challenge for students due to factors such as ethnicity, race, class, and religion,” according to Kimmel. “I work with an increasing number of students of color who express feeling like they have to choose—either be connected with a gay community or be connected to their racial or ethnic community and desperately struggle to find a way to remain connected with both.”
No matter how far the Harvard gay community has come since the days of President Lowell, gay rights advocates say full social acceptance has hardly been achieved. And given that students are notorious for subjecting even personal relationships to cost-benefit analyses, the result is that a large share of the gay students remain in the closet.
The focus on future gain—as opposed to present satisfaction—further lends to this hesitancy to advertise sexuality. According to Kimmel, personal and professional worries in a competitive, high-pressure academic setting often force gay students to closet themselves until they are completely independent and well settled in careers. And the fact also remains that students come out at their own pace, according to McLoughlin. “The development of sexual orientation is very individual,” he says. “If it’s not happening now, it’s fine.”
But this time lapse between college and coming out, juxtaposed with the strangely competitive and driven Harvard environment, will continue to confuse queer leaders. “The closeted community is the hardest to reach because we don’t know who they are,” says Kellaway. “But we’ll be the ones sitting in the dining hall with big rainbow flags. Maybe they won’t want to sit down with us. But they’ll see us, and get the sense that maybe, they could come out, too.”
It’s this struggle that suggests that life for gay students is far from ideal. And while the portrait of a legendary bigot lurking on the walls of a house led by gay masters may seem like a twisted sign of progress, the realities of gay life here may indicate that it’s more a sad allegory than an ironic joke.