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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Twenty-five years after the founding of the first gay student group at Harvard Law School (HLS), around 50 alumni returned to campus this weekend for another milestone: the nation’s first-ever reunion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender graduates.
On Sept. 19, 1978, HLS student José Gómez called the inaugural meeting of the Committee on Gay Legal Issues (COGLI), attempting to organize the law community against attacks on gay civil rights.
Celebratory at times, solemn at others, alumni and current students marked the anniversary Saturday with anecdotes about the personal challenges they faced, the battle they continue to fight to keep military recruiters off campus and the need for classroom instruction in legal issues pertaining to homosexuality.
“This is an historic event, and I think it’s extremely important for networking and helping us all coordinate the important work that still remains to be done in the search for whole equality,” Gómez said.
Many of the alumni, a few of whom graduated as far back as the early 1960s, said they attended despite the possibility they might have to relive some of the most painful moments of their lives.
“I came here, I must say, with some trepidation because I was concerned that physically being here might raise some of the memories of some really bad times that I underwent here,” said Michael Joblin, who graduated from HLS in 1968. “Luckily, that hasn’t happened.”
Throughout the day, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) alumni participated in discussions in Ames Courtroom and Austin East on the HLS campus, sharing shocking and sometimes humorous stories about their experiences at law school and in the professional world.
During the first discussion, titled “Remembering 1978: Out at HLS,” Gómez recounted how, in an announcement to the community, he exaggerated the number of students who showed up to the introductory COGLI meeting in the hope that more students would feel comfortable attending the next meeting.
They did, and COGLI was formed.
Although colleagues say Gómez spearheaded the effort to form the group, he acknowledged that he was not alone in the endeavor.
“I think I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Gómez said. “Eventually, someone else would have done it. I was kind of the yeast that started the leavening.”
Gomez’s co-founders joined him on the panel, which was comprised of classmate Steven M. Sayers, Barbara Kritchevsky, who graduated from HLS in 1980, and Mary B. Whisner, who graduated in 1982.
The panelists reminisced about the agonizing decision they made to run a group photograph of COGLI in the 1981 law school yearbook. When some students expressed concerns that employers who saw the yearbook would discriminate against them, the group decided to run the photograph without identifying its members.
“Some people said, ‘We can do it symbolically with bags over our heads,’ but that was ridiculous,” said Whisner.
During the second discussion, titled “Lambda Today: Current Issues and Challenges Facing GLBT Students at HLS,” a student panel expressed their dissatisfaction with the efforts that the faculty and administration are making to address issues facing GLBT students.
They highlighted the University’s decision to continue to allow military recruiters on campus, even though their presence violates Harvard’s non-discrimination policy (please see related story, page A-1).
Sarah R. Boonin, who will graduate from HLS in June, recalled an interview she attended for the Judge Advocate General (JAG) legal corps of the military, which does not accept openly gay or lesbian members into its ranks.
“After 45 minutes of really intense discussion, the [interviewer] said, ‘You know, this has been a really interesting, difficult discussion. I want you to know that you haven’t said anything that would disqualify you,’” Boonin said.
Boonin then informed the interviewer that she was lesbian.
“And she said, ‘Oh, well now you have.’ That ended my military career,” Boonin said as the audience roared with laughter.
Following the discussions, Amanda C. Goad, president of HLS Lambda—the successor of COGLI—said she valued the opportunity to hear the perspectives of the alumni.
“Some things really graphically changed, especially the climate of the rest of the U.S. in regards to these issues. On the other hand, a lot of things are still the same,” Goad said.
“There’s still a lot of confusion about how many gay students really are around, and if they’re not out, why not? Do we really have any faculty support?” she said.
Joblin, the 1968 graduate, said he was unhappy with the climate at the law school as described by the current students.
“I was very disappointed to hear the students’ part of the presentation with respect to having trouble finding a really strong sponsor for the Lambda organization and the lack of scholarly activity in the area of gay and lesbian legal issues at the law school,” Joblin said.
“I’m used to thinking of Harvard as a leader in everything; they don’t seem to be a leader in that area right now, and I find that very disappointing.”
As the reunion’s final event, a dinner held at the Hyatt Regency hotel, HLS Dean Elena Kagan renewed her commitment to improving student life for all students on campus and keynote speaker William B. Rubenstein, Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, said Harvard “could do much, much more” to support its GLBT students.
Geoffrey C. Upton ’99, who graduated from HLS in June and served as the chair of the reunion committee, deemed the reunion a success, despite a smaller turnout than the 150 alumni expected.
“Dinner was all we could have hoped for. I only wish that more people would have come. I think next time, when there is a next time, we’re going to do all we can to really plan further in advance and get more people,” Upton, who was also a Crimson editor, said.
In past years, HLS has also hosted reunions for women and African-American alumni.
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