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UPDATED: Oct. 17, 2012, at 12:02 a.m.
One of the first things that Emily D. Mancuso ’09 remembers about her experience with True Love Revolution is the heart-shaped candies that the organization left outside freshmen girls’ dorm rooms on Valentine’s Day in 2007. TLR, a Harvard student group which promotes abstinence from pre-marital sex, delivered the candy with a note that said, “Why wait? Because you’re worth it.”
“I thought it was kind of weird,” Mancuso said. “True Love Revolution wasn’t an organization that wanted to judge people. But the one thing that I was uncomfortable with was this advocacy that waiting for sex until marriage would make people have more fulfilled lives.”
Despite her initial reaction to the candies, Mancuso later became a board member of TLR. She said that she came to view the organization as a group that accepted students with different viewpoints on the sexual culture at Harvard, particularly those who chose to remain abstinent.
In recent years, however, the group has adopted a greater advocacy role. In addition to its original sole stance endorsing pre-marital abstinence, TLR published official platforms just after Mancuso graduated that denounced same-sex marriage as “harmful” and that affirmed the “equality and differences between the sexes” in discussion of women’s work and motherhood.
Just last week, the organization made its latest change: its name. Current president Luciana E. Milano ’14 published an opinion piece in The Crimson announcing the organization’s conversion to the Harvard College Anscombe Society, a move that Milano said honors British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe.
“Elizabeth Anscombe was a big figure in 20th century ethics who wrote on issues related to chastity, and we constantly turn to her work to get to the root of our intellectual mission on campus,” Milano said in an interview. “We chose this name as a way to honor her legacy.” The name also matches that of abstinence societies at Princeton, Stanford, the University of Texas, and other schools.
Milano and other board members of the re-christened organization do not see this name change as reflective of a significant shift in priorities. But other students and alumni said they feel the organization has strayed from its original purpose and may alienate potential members.
True Love Revolution, the gathering space for students determined to stay abstinent on a campus where virginity is not the norm, no longer exists. Now, they say, the Anscombe Society exists not as a support group but as a community promoting abstinence, heterosexual marriage, and traditional gender roles.
“This definitely wasn’t how TLR was like from 2006 to 2009,” said Mancuso, who also served on the board of the Harvard-Radcliffe Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance, now known as Queer Students and Allies. “It’s unfortunate. It definitely goes against the way I interpreted it and I would absolutely not join if I were a student now.”
PRO-ABSTINENCE SINCE 2006
TLR was founded in 2006 by Justin S. Murray ’07 and Sarah M. Murray ’07, then undergraduates at the college. The couple, who married after graduation, firmly believed in abstinence and wanted to create a safe space on campus for other students like them, former TLR affiliates said.
“True Love Revolution was created in response to the fact that nobody on campus was promoting abstinence,” said Peter A. Syski ’08, who served as TLR webmaster. “It was intended as a support group for students who wanted to live the abstinent lifestyle because it’s quite difficult when you’re surrounded by everything at Harvard.”
A little more than a year after Syski graduated, students said they remember a distinct change occurring in TLR.
“In 2009, when they announced their stance on traditional marriage, it was seen as a cultural shift and was controversial on campus,” recalled Matthew P. Cavedon ’11, who was then vice president for social justice of the Catholic Students Association. That was the platform that denounced same-sex marriage.
Cavedon said he speculates the shift resulted from a need for some “ethical mooring” to persuade people that abstinence was an acceptable lifestyle.
“They tried to give their beliefs an intellectual foundation, which, in my opinion, was probably a smart move,” he said.
Rachel L. Wagley ’11, who served as TLR president from her sophomore to senior year, agreed with Cavedon that as TLR members were often questioned about their minority view, they needed a reason to give when asked why they believed in abstinence. That included defining marriage itself.
“If you’re holding out for marriage, you have to talk about what marriage is,” said Wagley, who was also involved in the Harvard Republican Club and Christian Impact. “You essentially get into all these side issues that we eventually decided were not just side issues.”
Wagley first announced TLR’s new platform through an email sent over the group’s mailing list in September 2009. In her message, she prefaced the new position statements by acknowledging that they could make TLR more “controversial” but that they “put the value of abstinence in a more intellectual context.”
“Abstinence doesn’t justify itself,” Wagley said.
WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDERS SAY?
Students who were on the TLR executive board prior to 2009 said that they feel the organization’s current positions do not align with what it was originally intended to do.
“The reason that the original founders didn’t want to have positions like these was because they wanted people to focus on the practical issues such as ‘Do I have sex on a one-night stand or not?’—not to make a decision on whether homosexuals can get married or not,” Syski said.
Mancuso said that though TLR had several discussions about those topics in her day, the organization steered clear of public positions.
“It wasn’t originally something exclusive or homophobic,” Mancuso said. “When I was on the board, they welcomed queer people to the meetings, and welcomed people who were sexually active. It really wasn’t a judgmental space.”
Wagley, on the other hand, said that the pro-abstinence nature of TLR was not her primary focus when leading the group. “None of us were in the club because we believed in abstinence. That wasn’t our perspective on it,” she said. “Abstinence is related to pre-marital sex which is related to marriage, the traditional household, and feminism.”
She added, “I didn’t see it as a safe space at all. It wasn’t a support club.”
Jim P. McGlone ’15, a current Anscombe Society board member, echoed this statement. “The goal is to encourage discourse on these issues and to provide an intellectual and philosophical explanation for many of the views that we hold,” he said.
Students not directly affiliated with the Anscombe Society said that they see the organization as having a conservative bent.
“My one concern is that they’re taking more conservative policy stances and that they have a religious connotation.” said Jennifer A. Delurey ’12, who was on the board for the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship. She said she was concerned that non-religious students might interpret the Anscombe Society’s vision of justice as all Christians’ opinion. “People might forget that understandings of what’s just vary within the religious community and the Christian community. I wouldn’t want to be forced to defend what TLR does.”
The Anscombe Society’s stance on same-sex marriage, understandably, is deeply unpopular among members of Harvard’s BGLTQ community. But Marco Chan ’11, who served as Queer Students and Allies co-chair for three years, said that the relationship between TLR and QSA did not used to be so strained.
“I’d say the sentiment between our two organizations was somewhere between indifferent and cordial,” said Chan, who also lived in the same hallway was Wagley. “Back then, they were raising awareness on abstinence as being a choice. It never came off as being aggressively moralistic.”
Milano and McGlone say today that they are simply promoting discourse on campus and that they hope any student feels welcome to join the debate.
“This is a pluralistic society,” McGlone said. “If someone disagrees, I’m comfortable with that and I hope they’re comfortable with that too.”
Just recently, in fact, current QSA co-chairs Roland Yang ’14 and Trevor N. Coyle ’14 said that they sat down to dinner with Milano to discuss potential collaboration and to highlight common ground between the two organizations.
But many said they are skeptical that any collaboration could work.
“It’s disingenuous for them to think that they can hold a positive relationship with the LGBT community,” Chan said. “You can’t tell someone ‘I like you and we’re friends, but you’re not my equal’ and be on good terms.”
Students also said they believe that the Anscombe Society’s platform may alienate students who believe in abstinence but not necessarily in the organization’s other positions.
“It’s too bad for those students who are pro-abstinent but who now don’t have a safe space because they don’t agree with the Anscombe Society’s platform,” said Ian D. Lundberg ’15, who is part of both Harvard-Radcliff Christian Fellowship and Harvard College Democrats.
Lundberg, who recently transferred from a Baptist church to an Episcopal church because the Episcopal church supports same-sex marriage, said that he has seen other students who believe in gay marriage feel uncomfortable patronizing churches that denounce it. The same students might steer away from the renamed abstinence group, he said.
“Anscombe Society has a risk of dying out if they hold onto these positions,” he said.
—Staff writer Michelle Denise L. Ferreol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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