Gay Rights: The Emergence of a Student Movement

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?'"