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Gay Rights: The Emergence of a Student Movement

By Susan C. Faludi

Between today and the time the graduating class arrived at Harvard four years ago, a political movement has arisen out of silence, consolidated a large following, dominated campus headlines, and outpaced the other student movements in numbers and staying power. The newborn political presence is the gay rights movement.

The Gay Students Association (GSA), formerly a small, all-white, and almost all-male social club, has transformed itself in the past two years into a forceful gay rights lobby, with male and female, white and Third World membership of more than 300. Another gay rights advocacy organization. Gays Organized to Oppose Discrimination (GOOD), took shape last year and sponsored two Gay and Lesbian Awareness Days (GLAD Days), which drew crowds of 1000 in 1980 and 800 in 1981.

In the meantime, gay Harvard graduates have established alumni associations in Boston, New York and San Francisco, and are now forming chapters in Atlanta, Houston and Washington, D.C. The associations congregated in Boston's Park Plaza Hotel last week to plan the creation of a tax-exempt foundation that would supply tens of thousands of dollars to gay student organizations for educational activities like GLAD Days. They are also talking of setting up scholarships for gay students who have been disowned by their parents, and of funding an endowed chair in gay studies at Harvard. One gay alumnus. Toby Marotta, will soon publish "Sons of Harvard," a book about the lives of 14 Harvard gay students.

Gay rights activism at Harvard will culminate at today's Commencement exercises, where class marshals will distribute 10,000 letters asking alumni to withhold contributions from the College, because the Faculty Council refused this spring to adopt a policy of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual preference. Protests of discrimination against gays steadily gained momentum during the year, from charges that University administrators were unfairly restricting GSA's rights to publicize its activities on posters and in student registration packets to the demands by gay students that the 1981 yearbook staff publicly apologize for describing Adams House as a "haven for homosexuality."

Many attribute the meteoric rise of the gay rights movement on campus to the determination of its earliest leader, Benjamin H. Schatz '81, a class marshal, former president of GSA and founder of GOOD, who graduates today. Administrators who have watched the movement's rapid growth with discomfort say privately that "it will all blow over when Schatz graduates." But Schatz's leadership is only one of a set of circumstances that have coalesced in the last few years to make gay rights activism possible. "A lot of things came together at once," Michael G. Colantuono '83, a member of the GSA and the Committee on Houses and Undergraduate Life (CHUL) who proposed the non-discrimination policy, says. "We had some very strong leaders and a nucleus of 'very out,' politically-aware people and--starting this year--the issues." Schatz offers a third factor to explain both the extent of the movement and its ability to persist despite the intransigence and sometimes outright hostility of University officials and undergraduates. "I think the reason our movement is so successful is that gay students feel such a real, urgent and personal need for support." Contrasting gay activism with the quick rise and fall of the South African Solidarity Committee, a student group that protested Harvard's investments in companies that do business in South Africa. Schatz observes that discrimination and exploitation in South Africa, "though just as real, is not as real to the people protesting it." Gays at Harvard, on the other hand, are fighting for their own dignity and the right to express their sexual preferences without fear of recrimination, he says.

Leaders of the gay rights movement point to the first GLAD Day, last spring, as the starting line for the movement. Out of nowhere, 1000 people showed up. "Everyone was convinced it would be a failure," Schatz recalls. "And then all these people came. It was the first time something had been organized to make gay students feel good about themselves. It changed things drastically. We talk now about 'Before Glad Day' and 'After Glad Day.' Sort of BGD and AGD."

To trace the steps of the "AGD" era it is necessary to understand the environment for gay students before Schatz and other senior gay student leaders arrived at Harvard in 1977, and to follow the history of Schatz's political development at the University.

The 'BGD' Days

Schatz remembers his first GSA meeting: A small circle of nervous white men sat around and discussed "topics like, 'Is there anything good about being gay?'" The organization provided a desperately needed but isolating social setting. If a gay student did not go to a GSA meeting, several members noted, the chances that he would meet another avowed gay elsewhere were slim. Most members had not, publicly "come out of the closet," and the few who had were not yet emotionally steeled to speak out politically. "They had to guilt trip somebody into being president each year," Schatz remembers.

The reluctance to make one's sexual preference known stood firmly in the way of GSA's political effectiveness. Fear of public exposure even stalled GSA's formation for some time. University rules require that a student organization submit a membership list of at least ten names to be kept on permanent file in University Hall. Because no student wanted his name in official hands, GSA seemed fated never to gain official recognition. At last, after several pleas from gay students, a dean bent the rules and agreed to sanction the group if the students just waved a list of names in front of him for a moment.

Because GSA members back then were looking for a socially secure and private haven, the struggles that flared between GSA and the administration in these years were typically set off by perceived threats to GSA's social privacy. Barbara G. Rosenkrantz, professor of History of Science, who was faculty adviser to GSA for five years, recalls that, "the issues were things like how many policemen should there have to be at a [GSA] dance." For the most part, the students in GSA kept a low profile. "I never knew who I was advising," Rosenkrantz says, adding that only later did she realize that she had also been assigned to advise the Radcliffe Lesbians Association (RLA). "They never came to see me," Rosenkrantz says.

If GSA never managed to expand its limited membership in those days--averaging about 50 students--RLA drew even more insignificant numbers. Ruth Colker '78, a third-year student at Harvard Law School, former president of Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS), captain of the crew team and member of RLA, remembers its creation. Ann W. Merrill '77 "announced the foundation of a lesbian group. And the women who showed up had never met other lesbians at Harvard; they weren't even sure they existed. She posted notices announcing the first meeting and the posters were defaced and torn down as soon as they went up. But she held the meeting anyway, and about five to ten women arrived."

Unlike GSA, the RLA founders started out with educational, rather than strictly social, intentions. But the aim was self-education, not the education of an outside public that GLAD Day organizers now designate as their goal. "They met at Phillips Brooks House and Ann passed around a reading list," Colker says. "They called it the Lesbian Study Group, and we all did readings and discussed them at meetings."

Lesbians at that time also believed their first obligation was to the women's movement. "Lesbians were not working on 'lesbian issues,' but on women's issues and we considered lesbian issues to be women's issues," Colker says. "We were fully integrated into the women's community and most of us were very quiet about being lesbians. We were working on affirmative action, women's studies, abortion funding at UHS, equal treatment for women's sports, the housing sex ratio at the Quad."

The coalition of gays and lesbians this year--one of the keystones of GSA's and GOOD's new strength--was unimaginable back then. "We looked down on the women who went to GSA meetings," Colker recalls. "We would say, 'Why are you doing that? Why are you hanging out with the boys?'"

The Beginnings: '78-'79

To break into politics, gay students first had to let go of the self-imposed secrecy that had been their only defense in a hostile environment. Patrick J. Flaherty '83, treasurer of GSA, says. "Secrecy was our greatest enemy. The first step to being political is not being afraid to make a public stand. On other campuses I have visited, the students refuse to have their names in the paper, they are unwilling to do anything that will involve publicity." The opening scene for the movement then, Flaherty believes, was the day Ben Schatz "was willing to say out loud, 'I am gay.' That has made all the difference."

Schatz remembers his step out of the closet with less enthusiasm. "The thing that got me started was that I came out and started to lose friends. And it made me very angry." What saved him, Schatz believes, was a "stubborn" attitude. "If other people thought I was peculiar, then I thought there was something wrong with them. Most people, unfortunately, do not feel that way."

Despite the internal self-assurance, Schatz and students like him who were "coming out," still felt the need to band together. Schatz moved to Adams House ("None of my straight classmates wanted to go there that year, because of its gay reputation," he remembers with a grim smile.) That year, Schatz says, the first "gay clique" formed in Adams House. When he first moved in, the students who were a year older--the first group of open gays at Harvard--kept up their spirits and challenged the prejudices of fellow students by "being outrageous," Schatz remembers. "It was an attack on people's pettiness," a sort of short-lived avant-garde rebellion.

"Being outrageous" involved, among other things, dressing in drag--a display that got a gay student assaulted in Tommy's Lunch late one night last year by a man sitting in the next booth. Assaults then and now are not uncommon. Two Harvard gay students were badly beaten in the subway this spring when an angry passerby spotted them arm in arm. "Being outrageous" also included behavior which would not seem especially flamboyant if committed by heterosexual couples--like holding hands in the dining hall or on the street, and kissing each other hello in public.

In the first of many excursions out of the protected world of GSA's Saturday night dances at Phillips Brooks House (PBH), Schatz and a few other Adams House friends would try going to House parties, attempting to integrate Harvard social life with tactics reminiscent of 1960s Freedom Riders. "So many times, I remember, we would go to a Mather House party, start dancing and the party would stop all of a sudden and we would be told to leave. It was pretty ridiculous; there were four of us out of 40 people at a party and people would get upset and say. 'The gays are taking over.'"

That summer Schatz started out as a Bloomingdale stockboy, got fed up, quit and then went to Washington to canvas for the equal rights amendment with the National Women's Political Caucus. His introduction to activism by way of feminist politicking, coupled with the news of the impending National March for Gays and Lesbians, catalyzed Schatz' political college career. "I decided I would come back to Harvard and organize for the march," he says.

Organizing for the march entailed presenting himself publicly as an interested party, and Schatz remembers the first awkward announcement. He was taking Government 133. "The Politics of Women's Liberation," and wanted to tack up a poster announcing the march. After posting it on the bulletin board one day before a lecture, Ethel Klein, assistant professor of Government and professor of the course, suggested he announce it to the class. "I thought to myself, 'What!, before all these people?'" But he did, and all went well.

As Schatz's name began to circulate as an openly gay student who was willing to make his name public for the sake of organizing for gay rights, other privately gay students timidly sought him out as a confidante. In the next four years, Schatz became a folk hero and a sign of a change in the political climate. "We all owe Ben a great deal of gratitude," one gay graduate who asked that his name not be identified, says, adding. "He is a symbol for the politically aware generation."

Not everyone is so grateful; after Schatz's name appeared in a Boston Globe article on gays at Harvard, he received an anonymous letter threatening his life and attacking homosexuality in bitter and violent language. Schatz was shaken, but only temporarily: "I also got two fan letters this week; one death threat to two fan letters; that's not a bad record," he says.

In assembling the political machinery necessary, Schatz quickly learned he could not press GSA into service. "I knew if I wanted to be political, I had to be outside of GSA." So he founded GOOD and asked Gaye Williams '83, president of RLA, to serve as co-chair, making the start of gay and lesbian political unity.

Williams, who was out of town and unavailable for comment, is mentioned frequently with admiration by gays and lesbians at Harvard. "She is a one-woman network." Schatz says of Williams, who is also president of the Black Students Association. Williams pressured GOOD and GSA into considering feminist issues in meetings and into including a discussion of feminism and lesbianism at the GLAD days. Laurie Knight '83-2, a member of GSA and RLA, points out that this year for the first time GSA's membership is "approaching parity" between men and women. "Much of the huge torrent of activity and talk about gay rights has to do with a better integration of women into GSA." Knight says. Why lesbian women chose to direct their political energies toward gay rather than feminist issues when they did is unclear. Knight attributes it to the deterioration of the women's movement on campus. Colker believes that lesbians today have changed. "Lesbians at Harvard now are a different breed. We were pretty much separatists; the women now seem able to see men as feminists. And, on the other hand, men have now taken an interest in feminism."

Despite the influx of lesbian support, the next few months for GOOD organizers were deeply discouraging. "We had very little experience organizing," Schatz recalls. "We called a meeting of GOOD and no one showed up, and we called another meeting and no one showed up and we called yet another meeting and again no one showed up..." He xeroxed 2000 leaflets on gay rights and distributed them at registration in Memorial Hall. He tried to recruit friends to join in, but "most people would only stay for five or ten minutes. It was a very hard thing to stand there." People jeered, whispered and pointed. "But the more I faced things like that, rather than getting submissive, the more angry I got."

The next battle was holding onto the GSA office and getting a gay hotline. The University announced the office was closed, because it wasn't being used, and only after several gay students demonstrated to the administration that it was indeed in use, were they allowed to keep the office--a basement room in Memorial Hall. Schatz also arranged a gay hotline after hearing that a large percentage of the phone calls that Room 13, the student counseling service, receives are related to gay concerns. The phone, with an extension on Schatz's room so he could man it in the wee hours of the morning, rang at all hours. "I would get calls at three in the morning."

With a phone in place, GOOD started to gear up for GLAD Day that spring. It collected funds from the Houses, and rented out the film. "The World is Out," an award-winning documentary with interviews from gay men and women around the nation.

In a seemingly ominous confrontation two nights before GLAD Day, Lowell I. McGee '80, was attacked at PBH while helping clean up after a gay dance. The assailant, John A. Francis '83 was apprehended by University Police, but McGee--in a politically masterful maneuver--agreed not to press charges if Francis would publicly apologize at the upcoming GLAD Day. He did, telling 1000 students. "I guess it is just the way I was brought up. I come from a very small town with no open gay community. I've just never been exposed to it before."

GLAD Day, as it turned out, had a hidden bonus that its organizers had not expected. More than raising the "awareness" of the general Harvard community, it reassured and brought out many once-fearful gay students on campus. "GLAD Day showed the closeted gay people there were a lot of gay people out here." Flaherty says. It also clued in non-gays to the sheer number of gays on campus. And, as many students suddenly became aware that their friends were gay, they were less cavalier about telling what Schatz calls "fag jokes." After GLAD Day, GOOD organizers could go into dining halls and announce a gay rights event without having to confront 100 mocking faces or duck missiles of cafeteria food. Before GLAD Day, Schatz recalls "the grisly response" when he and others stood in dining halls to ask students to join in a protest of a screening of "Cruising," a movie that gay students believed stereotyped gays as thugs. Schatz recalls, "We would say. 'This movie encourages violence against gays and lesbians.' And people would applaud."

GLAD Day set the stage for a political crusade the following year by setting out the stereotypes and prejudices that most uninformed non-gays hold, and then gently knocking them down. Leslie Gladsjo '84, co-chair of GOOD this year, says that the gay rights movement, both nationally and at Harvard, is in the same stage as the civil rights movement in the early 60s. "We are at that very first step where we can't get people to listen to us unless they acknowledge our existence," Gladsjo says. "For that reason, GLAD is oriented toward awareness, rather than toward winning political concessions." Colantuono also sees the parallels between the gay rights struggle and the earliest moments in the awakening of Afro-American conciousness in this country. "It took Blacks a long time to realize that racism is not justified; that they were not biologically inferior, and gays are just reaching that point," he says.

Political Wins and Losses: '80-'81

Harvard students arrived in September to find in the Yard several "kiosks"--$40,000 tricornered stands for mounting posters--and a new rule banning posters elsewhere, the decision indirectly hurt the publicity efforts of GOOD and GSA, which need to put up twice as many posters as other student groups do, because anti-gay students rip down half of the gay notices. Restricting the posters to a few places seemed to guarantee that all GSA and GOOD posters would be removed. After protesting the decision without success. GSA decided to insert literature on GSA in student registration packets as several other undergraduate organizations have done in the past. But suddenly the administrators were pointing to a "policy" they had never mentioned before and that was not in writing anywhere, forbidding student organizations from including literature in the registration packet. The GSA lined up members of other student organizations who remembers having the privilege of including information in the packet to testify before CHUL, but to no avail. In a complex debate in a CHUL meeting packed with gay students, a faculty member introduced a motion to create a second registration packet to hold the literature of student groups, thereby avoiding confronting the real issue: Was the administration discriminating against gays by introducing such a policy at the seventh hour? "We were satisfied with the solution," Colantuono says. "But it didn't address the issue."

In another attempt to force the administration's hand, Colantuono introduced a proposal in CHUL asking the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to adopt a non-discrimination policy. Nine of the 11 University faculties have adopted statements asserting that they do not discriminate against gays in employment policy and admissions, or permit companies that discriminate against gays to recruit on campus. The Harvard Law School faculty alone passed without question a policy that covers all three areas, and recently enforced it by throwing Navy recruiters off campus because of its anti-gay bias. William L. Fleming, the president of the Committee on Gay and Lesbian Legal Issues, says that the Law School's willingness to guarantee against discrimination grows out of its "liberal legal perspective. A non-discrimination policy is totally in line with their dedication to basic civil rights, and they realize this. They also realize that saying we don't discriminate against gays is not the same thing as advocating homosexuality."

The Faculty Council for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, however, did not see it that way.

Claudio Guillen, professor of Comparative Literature, and the sole member of the Faculty Council to voice public support for the gay students' efforts, says that some of the Faculty Council members feared, "If we give them this non-discrimination policy, does this not amount to almost a recommendation of homosexuality?" Unfortunately, Guillen was out of the country when the Faculty Council finally voted against the gay students' proposal. "I am very sorry it did not pass," Guillen says. "The students have my very serious sympathy. They are courageous, rational and right." Paul Perkovic '71, the alumni adviser to GSA, points out that the Faculty Council members who opposed the non-discrimination policy, as well as most older administrators and faculty, grew up in an era when it was easy to believe that homosexuality did not exist, because no gays were out, on campus or elsewhere. "The feeling within Faculty Council," Perkovic, who sat in on part of the Council debates, says, "is, first, it doesn't exist and second, the less said about it, the better."

Despite a legal memorandum from Ruth Colker, outlining the lack of protection afforded gays by state and federal law, despite a list of gay student testimonies recounting incidents of harassment and physical assault, despite a large collection of defaced posters (including one that said, "Hitler was right, Gays should be exterminated."), despite private assurances from the general counsel's office that such a policy would pose no legal difficulties for the College, the Faculty Council chose to reject a flat statement of non-discrimination policy because of its "legal implications." The Council did quietly agree, however, to make permanent a temporary guarantee introduced recently by L. Fred Jewett '57, dean of admissions, promising no discrimination on the basis of sexual preference in undergraduate admissions. The Council issued instead a statement saying that it strongly opposed harassment of gay students. "We are all very disturbed to hear of the harassment," Rosenkrantz, who sits on the Faculty Council, says. "The most important thing that occurred was that we were made deeply aware of the existence of harassment," she adds.

Despite this new awareness, gay students remain unprotected by an across-the-board non-discrimination policy. Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, observes that the effort of gay students to win this right on campus mirrors the attempts gays are making at the national level "to gain a status equal with minorities." But, Epps agrees they do not yet have that status at Harvard. "That was what they were trying to achieve before the Faculty Council," he says. Before they can achieve that, Epps says, they must help nudge faculty and administration attitudes. "Developing a deeper understanding about sexual preference--that will require further education and discussion," he says, noting that the alumni plans for a foundation "could be helpful in finding a way to advance that education." But Dean Fox, who chaired the CHUL debate and sat in on the Faculty Council debates, doubts that gay student politics will have a significant influence on Faculty of administration views of homosexuality. "People's attitudes around here are the product of many years of thought. And I don't think a period of student activism will change that."

If Faculty and administrators refuse to speak publicly, in private many of them offer advice and sympathy. Gay students officers say that several professors now come to GSA meetings. "There are many of them (gay professors)," Colantuono says, "and they support us tacitly. At Harvard it is okay to be a gay professor but it requires discretion. They cannot vocally support the gay community without jepordizing their careers." At the law school, sympathetic administrators smoothed the way so that the non-discrimination policy could pass without a hitch. "Some administrators went to bat for us," Fleming says.

Other administrators and faculty who disapprove of homosexuality, and particularly of the public stance gays at Harvard recently have taken, privately create difficulties for gay students. Several gay students recall nasty inuendos and occasional taunts directed at them from instructors. One of Schatz's teachers refused to grant him extra computer time, although he had granted it to his other students, to finish a data analysis for a sociology research project on attitudes toward gays, and further told Schatz his subject was worthless. One other student remembers separate private conversations each of them had with the same high-ranking administrative official, where the official asked each student if a female junior faculty member was gay.

Gay students have pockets of sympathy elsewhere within the University. The Institute of Politics now openly regards gay politics as a subject worthy of debate in the Kennedy School forum and last year sponsored a panel on gay issues. The University Health Services (UHS) director has also listened to requests that UHS doctors treat gay students fairly. Dr. Warren E. C. Wacker, director of UHS, spoke before a GSA meeting and has taken the lead in "sensitizing" physicians and psychiatrists. Nevertheless, most counselors at UHS still regard homosexuality as an indication of psychological distress and confusion that needs treatment, several gay students say. Schatz, whose medical record includes the fact that he is gay, is now tested for venereal disease whenever he goes to UHS. "When I had water on the knee, they tested me for VD. And when I broke my arm, the doctor didn't accept my reasons. He thought it was some S&M thing," Schatz says, shaking his head sadly.

Non-gay students also have started to support openly the non-discrimination policy and, in a one-and-a-half-day blitz, 1400 students signed a "Straights for Gays" petition to the Faculty Council, calling for passage of the policy.

The Council's decision not to adopt the policy has angered gay alumni, many of whom plan to donate to the foundation as a form of protest. The alumnus who proposed the foundation, a wealthy graduate who asked not to be identified because he is not "out" to all of his associates, said that he has spoken to many angry alumni, both gay and non-gay, who regard the Faculty Council's stand as "morally indefensible." The foundation will provide money for whatever end the students wish to see fit, "just as the Friends of Crew support the crew team," he says.

Administrators who are counting on time to calm this flurry of activity are deluding themselves, gay student leaders say, pointing to the current shift of leadership from seniors to freshmen and sophomores. The current president of GSA is a sophomore and the two co-chairs of GOOD are freshmen. Gladsjo points out that because GSA had such a strong presence on campus when she was a freshman, she felt comfortable plunging into gay politics almost immediately. At the same time, changing social attitudes have made it easier for people to come out earlier in their lives, Gladsjo says, noting that she and Mark Lentzner '84 "were both out when we got to Harvard." Colantuono observes that the number of gay students who are politically active increases with each class. "There is a geometric progression--the younger they are, the more there are." Gays are also not isolated in Adams House any longer. "There is a sizeable gay community that out in Mather and North House," Colantuono says. And the administrators, even those who do not look favorably on the expansion of the overtly gay population, have been forced by the political debates and activism of the last year to recognize its existence: "It is interesting to hear Bok or Rosovsky refer to the 'gay community.' It never would have occured to them to do so a year ago," Schatz says.

Having established that gays exist at Harvard, launching the second stage--winning of equal rights--will come with time, gay students believe. "Truth is on our side," Flaherty says. "Gays are being discriminated against and eventually they will have to acknowledge it." Schatz echoes that conviction: The University will inevitably come to understand their position, Schatz says, because "we are obviously right. Everyone knows gays are discriminated against, because everybody does it. When they meet us and see we are not ogres and lechers, they have to recognize our humanity."

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