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After a lifetime of firsts in entertainment, law and politics, Sheila J. Kuehl met the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus (HGLC) last night as the first openly gay or lesbian member of Harvard's Board of Overseers.
"Everywhere I went I was the first one to do this or that," Kuehl, a 1978 graduate of Harvard Law School, told a caucus-hosted audience of about 25 last night. She recounted a life story that began in Hollywood and now centers in the California State Assembly in Sacramento.
Kuehl first stepped into the limelight as a sitcom star, playing the teenage Zelda Gilroy on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," in the late 50s and early 60s. During her stint on "Dobie Gillis," she also first stepped into an identity as lesbian, which she said was both freeing and fatal to her television career.
"I knew that if they found out, it would end my TV career, and they did find out, and it did end my TV career," she said. Kuehl left television for the Law School, where she became the second woman in history to win the renowned Ames Moot Court competition.
From that second she went on to a series of California firsts, as the first openly gay or lesbian law professor at the law schools at Loyola University and the University of California at Los Angeles. She then became the first openly gay elected state official in California, winning a seat in the State Assembly from west Los Angeles.
Kuehl is now Speaker Pro Tempore of the Assembly, a position she likened in a speech to "chairing a very raucous meeting--or teaching third grade."
Professor of Psychology Warren D. Goldfarb '69, the first openly gay member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said that the caucus in recent years turned up its pressure on the University to elect a gay or lesbian overseer.
Kuehl was elected as an overseer this June, serving the two-year remainder of an unexpired term. As an overseer, she will be part of an alumni-based board essentially responsible for approving most major University decisions and auditing various facets of the University system.
"Her presence was absolutely needed--a diversity of voices is essential, especially within the Harvard Corporate structure," said Diana L. Adair '98.
Myong H. Leigh, a second-year student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and a caucus member, said that Kuehl's election had both practical and symbolic meaning for the gay and lesbian community at Harvard.
"There are very few gay faculty throughout the University, which is symptomatic of a problem," he said. "Sheila is one step towards ameliorating that problem."
Kuehl said in her speech that her constituents expected her, as an open lesbian, to be an honest politician because she is so candid about her own sexual orientation.
"She is a different look for political life that's refreshing for a lot of different reasons, not just because she's a lesbian," Emma C. Cheuse '98 said after the speech.
Kuehl told the audience that she intended to be a voice for gay and lesbian concerns, but only when this sort of input would be directly relevant.
"If people said, 'There's this terrible thing going on, I would talk to [President Neil L. Rudenstine] about it," she said. "But if we're talking about Widener falling over and the books crumbling into Post Toasties, that's not a gay and lesbian issue."
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