Waging a Delicate Battle


LATE MAY an unfamiliar but not altogether surprising tableau two sophomores a guy and a girl lean against the wall in the entry to the Dunster dining hall reading aloud to each other from a glossy magazine with partially naked men on both covers. He reads "Sweat Kevin was the hairiest fifteen-year-old I ever saw" Laughter comes from passersby as well as from the girl. The scene--Harvard students taunting homosexuals--was unusual for only one reason the particular publication a gay arts magazine called Lavender Portfolio had never before appeared.

The violent and on the whole the unpleasantness of community reaction to Lavender Portfolio which was funded by the Gay Students Association (GSA) is upsetting at first. But then one realizes that the magazine affords the unfortunate opportunity for anyone with an instant unreasoning discomfort about homosexuality to express disapproval of the endeavor on purely "artistic" grounds. Thus for far longer than any endeavor on purely "artistic" grounds. Thus for far longer than any other new campus magazine would have continued to draw comment one could encounter debates over the triteness of the stories the taste of the cover photo the problem of so few lesbian writers. If printing the magazine was intended to improve the community's awareness of gay outlooks and emotions from an artistic standpoint--as seems likely from the number of copies distributed in dining halls--the students who discussed such matters probably wound up hardly more "converted" than the majority who disdained even that much introspection, tossing the magazine aside with a wince.

In the end, Lavender Portfolio may simply have brought out the worst in its readers, those who found in it a fresh vehicle for which to ridicule gays, those who honestly distrusted the venture, those who confronted for the first time by evidence of gay sexuality--hid deeper discomfort even from themselves as they resorted to carping on artistic grounds. But the fact of a negative reception, which surely the GSA itself must have expected, is less troubling than the catch 22 it demonstrates for those who try to improve gay students predicament on campus.

This time a year ago, after the meteoric rise of gay rights as a campus lobby issue, an administrator pivotally predicted that "it will all blow over when Schatz graduates." "The cynicism was understandable Benjamin Schatz '81, last year's GSA president, was the single figure generally credited most with bringing Harvard's gay rights movement to prominence. But what has happened since Schatz left is not so extreme as that prediction. Rather, observers can detect a subtle shift in the GSA's tactics, away from its political stance as a minority group like any other, fighting for representation and legal protection.

This year's two notable gay issues--the appearance of Lavender Portfolio and the furor over a letter critical of gays by Faculty member Edward I. Pattullo--both confronted gay sexuality squarely And if the level of discourse briefly improved in each case as the community plunged into psychological theorizing, both events also built up so much tension and misunderstanding as to nearly offset any gains in awareness.


Schatz's genius and that of the GSA last year was their knock for arguing like any other student group. When the College refused them permission to include GSA pamphlets in students registration packets, they argued not as representatives of a minority sexual persuasion but as a legitimate student group--which they were. They argued so successfully that to oust them from the packet, the Faculty was forced to remove all other student activity leaflets, along with the GSA's to a hurriedly created "second packet." When the group tried to put a statement on the books affirming the College's opposition to anti-gay discrimination, its strategy of stressing parallels to other groups which the College would never admit to discriminating against--such as Blacks--carried it a long way (although the Faculty Council ultimately mixed the statement)

In both cases, the men of the approach was that people could debate the issues without actually confronting their feelings about homosexuality. Even someone who felt uncomfortable attending Gay and Lesbian Awareness Day (GLAD)--an annual event whose attendance has been dropping discouragingly--could stand firmly on the moral conviction that denying GSA space in registration packets because they were gay showed explicit prejudice and injustice. Put another way dealing in formalized issues obviated the necessity to reform deep instilled impressions of homosexuality.

THE GSA as a political lobby faces special challenges, in fighting assumptions so deep-seated that most people are not even aware of them. The conceptual jump from homophobia to tolerance can probably take place for a heterosexual in only two ways--personally, through actually discovering the homosexuality of a friend too close to discard, or politically, by observation of the inescapable parallels between the plight of gays and minority issues to which they have less resistance. As numerous discussions of "visibility" have stressed, it is far more difficult to hate a gay classmate or neighbor than to hate gays in the abstract. But that fact works against the gay movement when the push for recognition, which must be public and general, strays from firm legislative ground. Publishing a literary magazine, for instance, allows visceral responses or pseudo-scientific psychological argument to cloud the basic issue--that of the rights of a minority group set off from society, like racial minorities, by factors other than will.

The recent furor over the letter from Pattullo, director of the University's Center for Behavioral Studies, provided a perfect example of such blurring Pattullo expressed his belief that "negative social pressure" might help dissuade potential gays from pursuing an undesirable lifestyle. The GSA's demand that Pattullo apologize and that the University investigate his academic practices threw wide open the debate over the origins of homosexuality and in the absence of conclusive scientific answers, that debate drifts inevitably back to regions that smack of homophobia.

Everyone talked about the Pattullo question: everyone, it seemed, had Lavender Portfolio somewhere. Such forceful demonstrations that homosexuality is more than a political issue are no doubt valuable as pure education, but this spring, they seemed to spark as much regression as progress. More disturbingly, such episodes make clearer than ever the depth of the trouble gays will inevitably have in fighting towards acceptance in society; what works for women or Blacks may contain unexpected pitfalls for gays. If a year of waging the battle for gay rights on an emotional front accomplishes more than temporary stalemate, it will be to make the straight community realize just how difficult the battle will be.