Though the damage of 36 LGBT-related books in Lamont Library is no longer being characterized as a hate crime, the incident has brought to light the issue of homophobia on campus and left the LGBT community at Harvard feeling confused and frustrated.
The University’s response to the Lamont incident initially disappointed many members of the Harvard College Queer Students and Allies because of the lack of information, seemingly contradictory facts, and failure to explicitly address the problem of homophobia on campus, according to Co-Chair Emma Q. Wang ’12.
“We first felt on the alert because it was reported as a hate crime, and the LGBTQ community remains sensitive, as issues of homophobia must be comprehensively reported and commented on, especially by those in positions with the most information and influence,” said Wang, who participates in the BGLTQ Working Group that currently explores LGBT life and needs at Harvard.
Upon an investigation in response to a police report that 36 books treating LGBT topics had been damaged with what appeared to be urine in Lamont last month, the University determined Monday morning that the incident was an accident. A library staffer had spilled a bottle of what was reported to be urine on the shelf, according to a statement made by College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds.
Wang, who received several e-mails from strangers expressing their support for the LGBT community in light of the recent incident, said that the College must be forthcoming with clear information to prevent future incidents of this nature, as consistent information is crucial in dealing with sensitive issues. Wang added that the administration is taking steps to further address the lingering concerns of the LGBT community, but she was unable to provide details.
History and Literature Lecturer Timothy P. McCarthy ’93 expressed concern about the handling of the Lamont affair and its effects on the LGBT community.
“At this point, this peculiar incident has produced many more questions than answers, especially in the LGBT community. Until that changes, I think it’s premature to downgrade this from a ‘hate crime’ to an ‘accident,’” McCarthy wrote in an e-mail. “I’m no expert on bodily fluids, but it takes an awful lot of urine to destroy 36 books. Are the bathrooms not working in Lamont?”
QSA Political Co-Chair Sam J. Bakkila ’11-’12 echoed the frustration with the hazy explanation of the incident. He said that the accidental urine spill may be plausible, but wondered why it took over two weeks for the issue to be brought to public attention, why the story changed, and why the initial police report interpreted the issue as vandalism. As a member of the Harvard LGBT community, he said he felt put off to have found out about the issue from the press and not the administration.
“It’s quite unfortunate that so much attention has been given to this incident that was likely an accident, when there were two confirmed anti-LGBT hate crimes on campus earlier this semester,” he said. “Even if this incident was an accident, the fact is that homophobia is an issue that many LGBT students struggle with, even here at Harvard.”
Though pleased with the dedicated LGBT-friendly administrators on campus, Bakkila said that the Lamont occurrence, whether a hate crime or an accident, reflects the rift in communication between the College administration and the queer community and highlights the need for an LGBT center or office with professional support—resources enjoyed by other Ivy League schools.
Some of the media coverage of the story—though highlighting the issues faced by the LGBT community—has “gotten out of hand” since several news sources have expressed skepticism about the accidental nature of the urine spill in Lamont instead of accepting Hammonds’ explanation of the incident.
“Dean Hammonds has been a strong advocate for the LGBTQ community, particularly this year with the BGLTQ working group, and I fully trust her analysis of the incident,” he said.
Though most of the suspicions of a hate crime have been dispelled, the incident has shed light on the ongoing concerns facing the LGBT community, according to QSA Co-Chair Marco Chan ’11, who participates in the BGLTQ Working Group.
“At the end of the day, the incident does bring to mind that we too can be vulnerable to homophobia,” he said. “Going beyond relationships between LGBT students and the rest of the community, I believe that in thinking about inclusion and support, we need to think about how we’re actively supporting each other.”
On Nov. 24, library staff at Lamont discovered a group of damaged books that covered subjects including lesbian and gay issues and same-sex marriage, along with a bottle assumed to have contained urine. On Friday, library personnel reported the incident to the College and Harvard University Police Department as vandalism, and the affair was subsequently investigated as a hate crime due to the subject matter of the affected books.
Hammonds revealed on Monday morning that given the accidental nature of the incident, it will no longer be treated as a hate crime. She added that Harvard College Library plans to replace all 36 damaged books as soon as possible.
“I believe this is an important new fact in the investigation and warrants my sharing it with you immediately. While we should not minimize the seriousness of this incident, HUPD is no longer classifying this incident as a hate crime,” Hammonds wrote in her statement.
In a written statement to The Crimson, Hammonds elaborated saying that the library personnel only reported the incident to the police for insurance purposes.
“As a result, the filing did not need to be immediate,” Hammonds wrote on the two-week delay.
—Staff writer Alice E.M. Underwood can be reached at email@example.com.