Gay Faculty Become Activists

News Analysis

Gay faculty at Harvard, long a quiet and even invisible constituency, are moving strongly toward greater activism, openness and organization.

This week's protest of the selection of Gen. Colin L. Powell served as a stage for expressing the concerns of Harvard's gay communities. The participation of several faculty members in the protest indicates the increasing and more vocal role of homosexual faculty at the University.

Five faculty members also recently wrote to President Neil L. Rudenstine articulating their "outrage" about the invitation, while many professors say they expect more such missives.

"We've been transfixed by this [invitation]...we must get our opinions out there to the people who matter," said Professor of Philosophy Warren D. Goldfarb '69.

Goldfarb, who was one of the first openly gay professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said he has seen a growing openness over the last decade.


In the past, he said, homosexual or bisexual junior faculty did not always feel safe revealing their sexual orientations for fear of repercussions in the tenure process.

"There was, 15 years ago, a concern that it might shade their feelings," he said. "I feel, it's much less true. Fifteen years ago, there were no openly gay faculty members, period."

And this year, for the first time ever, gay faculty came together to discuss issues of concern to them.

"We've been organizing," said Goldfarb.

About 25 faculty members, University-wide, gathered last fall to discuss issues such as Harvard's domestic partnership policy. Provost Jerry R. Green chairs a committee which will recommend possible changes to the University's present policy of not acknowledging domestic partnerships.

But by far the most dramatic manifestation of increasing gay faculty presence has been the presence of gay and lesbian professors at two key rallies: Last year's demonstration against the conservative campus magazine Peninsula and this year's protest of Powell's invitation.

"I think what is happening is more explicit occasions where someone is speaking out...It's important to stand up and say we do not agree," said Professor of English and Compara- tive Literature Barbara E. Johnson, who "came out" at last year's Peninsula protest.

Last year's dramatic protest against Peninsula was only the beginning for the University's gay and lesbian faculty. Now, as Colin Powell's invitation sparks angry reactions, gay and lesbian professors are showing...

Students say the new openness means a great deal especially for the hundreds of undergraduates and graduate students who are also homosexual. Gay faculty members serve as role models both politically and academically, they say.

"When I first came to Harvard, [Assistant Professor of English and American Literature and Language and Afro-American Studies Phillip B.] Harper was one of the few outlets to find out what gay life was like at Harvard," said William T. Dougherty '94, editor and founder of HQ, a student publication about gay, lesbian and homosexual issues.

"It is essential [to have openly gay faculty] because gay students have little recourse in the houses, especially at a time like this," Dougherty added.