When Cyril Wilcox, a member of the Class of 1922, committed suicide, he could not have known the impact his death would have on the Harvard community. He could not have known that it would instigate a witch-hunt that led to the expulsion of gay students at the University. He could not have known that it would lead to the betrayal and vicious degradation of his closest friends. And he definitely could not have known that nearly a century later someone would write a play based on these events.
Wilcox never makes an appearance as a character in playwright Tony Speciale’s 2011 work, “Unnatural Acts”—which was read by members of the American Repertory Theater Institute and was followed by panel discussion on Oct. 22 at Farkas Hall. The play instead focuses on his friends, who were expelled based entirely on their presumed sexual orientation. The story of this witchhunt was forgotten until a Crimson editor uncovered an 80-year old box containing the court records in the University archives in 2002.
Speciale says he wrote “Unnatural Acts” as a way to make sure these student’s stories are never forgotten. “I was drawn to the notion of being able to create a memorial or requiem for them,” Speciale says. Thus, the play gives a voice to the students silenced by Harvard’s history, but at the same time it grants the audience a concrete moment in time that allows them to see how Harvard has changed.
The Harvard that Speciale paints in 1920 can be seen as both a place of joy and fear. “There’s a lot of love, sensuality, happiness, and ecstasy in it. And you get to know the boys that way and fall in love with them,” Speciale says. “And the second half of the play is just the harsh reality of what it means when a group of people is born ahead of their time and has to face society. And Harvard is just a lens through which we see society at that time.” In the second part of the play, the boys are singled out, savagely interrogated, and made to testify against one another.
The production implicitly juxtaposes the University’s views on sexual diversity 90 years ago with its stance now. “The show does a really good job at letting us infer how far [Harvard has] come,” says Justin S. Pereira ’13, who saw the play last Monday. James Lecesne, founder of the Trevor Project—a suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ youth—and panelist at the read-through of “Unnatural Acts” agrees. “I think young people looking at this play can see it as an artifact and indication of how far we’ve come,” Lecesne says.
Back when Wilcox committed suicide and his friends were expelled, Harvard was a place where homosexuality was seen as a “disease.” Like all illnesses, homosexuality was to be quarantined and eradicated. Speciale believes the boys turned against each other because they were made to feel entirely alone. “They [didn’t] have a group of people that they [could] talk to or support. It is all about community,” he says.
Today, Harvard provides a much more accepting community for its LGBTQ students, although there are still problems. Ben K. Moss ’13, an openly gay student at Harvard, played Stanley Gilkey in the Monday read-through of “Unnatural Acts.” He feels that Harvard has come a long way since the ’20s. “I do not feel at jeopardy at all of being expelled from the school for being who I am,” Moss says. “I would be really dismayed if any student at Harvard felt like it wasn’t a safe place to come out.” Similarly, Dana Knox, the Production Coordinator and Adviser for College Theater Programs at Harvard, believes that being gay has become less of an issue amongst the faculty. “It is a very gay-friendly environment. I myself am a gay administrator and feel there are resources available to me should I need them. I feel that the administration is very supportive and embracing of diversity issues,” says Knox. The University has a variety of student-run queer organizations as well as a BLGTQ resource center with its own full time Director of BLGTQ Student Life, Vanidy Bailey.
However, while Harvard has been painting a brighter future for its current students, some say it has failed to sufficiently make amends for its past injustices. The University has expressed regret for its homophobic and hateful actions in the past, but a student-run organization called “Their Day in the Yard” has called upon the University to award posthumous degrees to the wrongfully expelled students. While Harvard has progressed, for some the institution’s inaction in this regard calls into question its stance on this already dark and secretive chapter of its history.