Students Demand Degrees for Victims of 1920 Court

As Lady Gaga and Oprah Winfrey made their way to Sanders Theater for the launch of the Born This Way Foundation, around half a dozen students braved the snow and cold in a demonstration for Their Day in the Yard, a group advocating for posthumous degrees for gay students expelled from Harvard in the 1920s.

Following the demonstration, the group marched through the yard to University President Drew G. Faust’s office to deliver a petition demanding that the University award the students honorary posthumous degrees. The petition has garnered around 5,400 signatures, 400 more than the group’s initial goal.

Their Day in the Yard was founded in June of 2010 by a Harvard student to urge the University to grant degrees to seven students expelled for being gay or perceived to be gay almost a century ago.

The students—two of whom committed suicide after their expulsion—were the targets of an investigation into gay activity at Harvard by a body that has come to be known as the “Secret Court” since a Crimson editor uncovered its existence in 2002.

“They actively discriminated, actively pursued,” said the founder of the group, who has consistently chosen to remain anonymous in the press. “It is the responsibility of current students to hold Harvard accountable for what it did.”

The Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday that the University rejected the group’s request. A spokesman for the University told the Associated Press that Harvard typically grants posthumous degrees in rare instances in which the deceased student had met all the academic requirements before the degree could be conferred, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Members of Their Day in the Yard said they are now asking the University to grant honorary posthumous degrees because they are easier to award. The demonstration was heavily publicized through email list-servs and Facebook and received coverage on national news outlets.

However, most of the individuals huddled outside Sanders were there to catch a glimpse of Lady Gaga and Oprah Winfrey.

Jonas Wang ’12 was the only student from the College who attended as a supporter of the group.

“Because Harvard is opening doors to the Born This Way Foundation, it’s a great opportunity to point out what Harvard still has to do in terms of it’s own LGBTQ community,” Wang said.

Some of Lady Gaga’s fans ended up listening in as the group’s spokesperson, Kaia Stern, who is a lecturer at the Divinity School, delivered a speech on the activists’ cause, followed by a moment of silence for each of the expelled students.

“Let us remember the unspeakable suffering students experienced at the hands of the secret courts,” Stern said.

The group stressed that their presence was not intended as a protest of Lady Gaga’s foundation or the launch event, but rather was an effort to make her aware of their cause.

“This is not a protest; this is an awareness action,” Stern said. “We are here in solidarity with the Born This Way Foundation.”

—Laya Anasu contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Melanie A. Guzman can be reached at melanieguzman@college.harvard.edu.

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