One of the less glamorous duties that came along with joining the board of Lambda, Harvard Law School’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) organization, was the task of cleaning up the office. Lambda was founded as the Committee on Gay Legal Issues 30 years ago. If the state of the office told us anything, it was that three decades of Lambda leadership had never thrown away a single old poster, flier, banner, or note. But these piles were more than just an impediment to us. Sorting through what some might take to be junk, we discovered an archive—the shared history of several generations of LGBT law students.
It seems appropriate, then, that we write today to mark the 25th anniversary of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus, to share some of that history, and to look to the organization’s future.
This weekend, LGBT students, alumni, faculty, and staff will celebrate the past, present, and future of LGBT life at Harvard. Going through boxes of old Lambda materials, we realized how different this organization was in its early years. Reading the decades-old banners from student rallies, we sensed the urgency that pushed students in the 1970’s and 1980’s to organize and demand an end to harassment and discrimination at Harvard. In its early days, Lambda worked with other members of the community, pushing the university to adopt a nondiscrimination policy that protected people on the basis of sexual orientation. This was critical to one of the central goals of Lambda—to raise the profile of out queer students at the law school and dismantle the homophobic and hyper-masculine culture of a law school that first graduated women in 1953.
In the ’80s and early ’90s, with Bowers v. Hardwick (the case which upheld the criminalization of sodomy) on the Supreme Court’s Docket, and the AIDS crisis exploding into the news, LGBT students were louder and more visible than ever. These students insisted that their professors address issues central to queer identity, demanding a class on sexual orientation and the law, and collaborating with other student groups to push for faculty diversity. Activism flared up more recently when the school decided to let military recruiters on campus rather than risk the University’s federal funding.
Through the efforts of these law students and of the LGBT community at large, the law school was certainly more bearable for sexual minorities in this decade than when Lambda was founded. However, with these improvements, the sense of urgency so present in the early days of Lambda has waned somewhat. The focus of Lambda has shifted to social and community building events, with activism and political organization taking more of a backseat role. While we have a yearly conference addressing cutting edge LGBT legal issues, it tends to be more academic than rabble-rousing.
This change in Lambda is a mixed blessing. It would be ungrateful to disregard the difficulties that spurred the action of earlier Lambda members and naïve to be nostalgic for a period when being out was itself a struggle, but the decrease in activism has frustrated those of us who think there are important LGBT battles yet to be won. We recognize the value of building community and coming together for social activities. And we’d hate to see queer night at Daedalus disappear (see you on Thursdays)! But this weekend gives us a valuable opportunity to reflect on the struggles behind and the battles ahead.
The university recently changed its nondiscrimination policy to forbid discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Discussions have just begun, however, about how to make our campus truly trans inclusive. Building on the significant efforts of the Trans Task Force and the undergraduate bathrooms campaign, Lambda has begun conversations with the law school administration to make our restrooms safe and accessible for people regardless of their gender identity or expression. We should also urge the law school and Harvard in general to be more attentive to the needs of LGBT people from low-income backgrounds and LGBT people of color. Moreover, Lambda must turn this critical gaze inward and query why its membership is overwhelmingly comprised of white men.
This weekend, we will be sure to reflect on the progress the LGBT community has made at Harvard. The anniversary weekend is also a time to be grateful that we have the opportunity to take part in the intellectual and political life of this university as out LGBT people. Using our privilege responsibly, let us make ourselves accountable to those who are the most vulnerable in our community—those least able to advocate for themselves.
Lela Klein is a third year student at Harvard Law School and political chair of Lambda. Lee Strock, also a third year law student, is the co-president of Lambda and the chair of the Harvard Queer Student Leadership Network. The authors would like to thank Geoffrey C. Upton, J.D. ’03, whose history of Lambda informed this piece. His piece is available at http://hlslambda.org/about/history/