Students, Faculty, and Faust Speak at LGBTQ Vigil

Angie Peng

Reverend Dorothy Austin addresses a crowd of students at the LGBT Vigil held on Wednesday, October 12th, 2011.

When Dorothy A. Austin, an associate minister in Memorial Church, was appointed Lowell House Master along with her partner Professor Diana Eck, the worldwide media seized on the news of the first lesbian couple selected as Harvard House Masters. When an article that identified Eck as lesbian reached Austin’s aged aunt, she called Austin’s mother and asked, “Does Dorothy know that Diana is a lesbian?”

The anecdote was one of many personal stories—both humorous and painful—about the difficulties of revealing one’s sexual identity to family members and friends shared at an event Wednesday to commemorate National Coming Out Day. These experiences were related at a Queer Students and Allies sponsored candlelight vigil at the John Harvard statue Wednesday evening to memorialize both the suffering of LGBTQ community and progress made toward queer equality.

“We had this event to highlight what doesn’t get talked about, and how we can work to actively make our world better,” QSA treasurer Trevor N. Coyle ’14, who organized the event.

University President Drew G. Faust made a brief appearance at the vigil—which is the first event organized by the QSA that she has ever attended, according to QSA Co-chairs Emma Q. Wang ’12 and Sam J. Bakkila ’11-’12. In her speech, Faust recalled Harvard’s intolerant past and the 1920 Secret Court—a string of closed-door trials that resulted in the expulsion of several students for their sexual orientation—but said that one of her top priorities is to make the University an accepting and comfortable environment for queer students.

“I worry that even now people may ask themselves ‘do I belong here?’ One of my highest aspirations as president is to ensure that all the members of this community feel that they fully belong here and that Harvard truly is theirs,” Faust said.

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“Let’s all work together to create a future where no one asks ‘Do I belong here?’, no one asks because the affirmative response to the question is already clear,” she added.

Her speech came after several months of tensions between queer rights activists and the administration. Emotions ran high last semester when the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps was welcomed back to Harvard after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that banned gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from serving openly in the military. But activists took issue with NROTC’s return as the military excludes transgender people, a policy which activists say violates the University’s non-discrimination clause.

While Faust has said that she is receptive to the concerns of trans rights activists, little headway has been made to resolve this issue.

“I think she was looking for a platform to show her support for the LGBTQ community,” QSA Co-chair Emma Q. Wang ’12 said. “She’s been under a lot of fire since last semester for ROTC.”

English Professor Matthew Kaiser, who is openly gay, shared a story from his childhood about the first time he encountered a gay man.

“The mere presence of him, just being himself so unself-consciously, meant something to me,” Kaiser said. “In his radiance I saw myself illuminated. This was a small miracle for me.”

“You leave in your wake a trail of beauty and confidence for little LGBT kids who are figuring themselves out,” he added.

Students were encouraged to share their own stories in an open mic session.

Several speakers touched upon the string of nationwide suicides that rocked the LGBTQ community last fall.

“Tonight we are here to honor the memory of our LGBT brothers and sisters who took their own lives,” Kaiser said. “We remember the senselessness and ripping apart that we all felt.”

—Staff writer Tara W. Merrigan can be reached at tmerrigan@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Zoe A. Y. Weinberg can be reached at zoe.weinberg@college.harvard.edu.

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