Although Kelly M. Dermody ’89-’90 would eventually become known as a prominent gay activist on campus, she began her college career feeling isolated and disempowered.
Harvard lacked a visible gay community or political framework to foster gay activism and Dermody, a star lacrosse player, was forced to grapple with her sexual identity on her own. There was no established network designed to provide support for queer students at the time.
“It felt like dropping off a cliff,” Dermody said. “I was really, really, really depressed and demoralized personally. It all felt like this huge deceit.”
Despondent, she took the following semester off to work for Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56 in Washington. It was 1987, during the buildup to the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, and the city was awash with renewed vigor for civil rights causes.
Dermody returned to campus, energized and ready to fight for gay community at Harvard. The charged environment had permeated the Harvard campus as well, inspiring a movement for heightened awareness of queer issues at Harvard.
“It was a crazy time to be in school, because all of that was percolating out there on the national landscape, and then on campus,” Dermody said.
The 1988-1989 school year was marked by a series of controversies over queer issues, which ranged from an alleged assault of a gay student to a renewed debate over ROTC on campus.
The developments fostered a more cohesive gay community, one that galvanized open discussion and activism.
“We had to come out, we had to help each other, we had to ask for the dignity that we wanted as opposed to waiting for someone to show up and realize it should be afforded to us,” Dermody said.
REFORMING CAMPUS CULTURE
Dermody recalled that Harvard at the time appeared to ignore queer concerns, sweeping them under the rug.
“As far as you could tell, no one talked about gay issues, [and] the absence of that dialogue meant people were very scared of being seen as gay,” Dermody said.
At the time, there were only two queer student groups on campus, the Bisexual Gay and Lesbian Student Association and the peer counseling group Contact.
Dermody and others felt that these groups did not adequately address the needs and concerns of the community. Harvard’s queer community lacked a “political arm” capable of creating changes on campus, according to Clarissa C. Kripke ’89.
Dermody and five other students, including Kripke, co-founded the political student group Defeat Homophobia to fill this gap.
Defeat Homophobia presented the administration with a list of demands. These ranged from the creation of courses on queer history and issues, to publicly identified, gay-friendly resources on campus, to University employee benefit plans that were inclusive of same-sex couples. The group also ran an awareness campaign about homophobia on campus and sought support from the Undergraduate Council for its goals.
The University would eventually adopt many of Defeat Homophobia’s suggestions later that year.
“I’m impressed with what we came up with,” Kripke said. “The agenda that we set out was a forward-thinking one—one that I think we largely accomplished.”
According to Kripke, the activities of Defeat Homophobia brought queer issues to the forefront of campus debates and discussions. Kripke noted that it became “the issue” on campus, a constant source of conversation.
A YEAR OF CHANGE
The spring semester brought a host of opportunities for Defeat Homophobia to continue its activism.
During a dance in Mather House in February of 1989, a gay student approached a high school visitor to the College. From there, the story blurs. Some claimed that the gay student was harassing the high schooler, while others alleged that the gay student had done nothing but talk to the visitor.
The gay student subsequently alleged that he had been assaulted by friends of the visitor.
Accounts of the incident are blurred and often contradictory, but the debate sparked by the event was clear.
Defeat Homophobia took the opportunity to spread its message, and staged a kiss-in where group members occupied Mather dining hall, kissing each other during Sunday brunch.
The protest also ignited intense debate throughout the House community and in Crimson editorials.
A few months after the incident at the Mather dance, the UC shocked the Harvard community by voting to ask the administration to reinstate the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps on Harvard’s campus. The University had kicked ROTC off campus in 1969 as a result of student protests related to the Vietnam War.
Kenneth E. Lee ’89, the UC Chair at the time, recalls that the initial debate largely revolved around the inconvenience faced by the approximately 90 Harvard students with ROTC scholarships at the time. Because of Harvard’s restrictions on the ROTC, they were forced to commute to MIT to fulfill their scholarship requirements.
Student activists, however, were outraged, rallying in support of the ban on ROTC because the military forbade gay and lesbian people from enlisting.
Lee noted that the debate over ROTC gradually evolved to center around the controversial ban on gays in the military.
“It wasn’t until later in the debate that the focus shifted to the U.S. military’s discriminatory policies toward gays and lesbians,” wrote Lee in an email. “I think that shift changed a lot of people’s minds, including my own.”
Lee described the ensuing debate as both messy and chaotic. Some argued that the ROTC ban conflicted with Harvard’s anti-discrimination policy. Others said that it was “economic discrimination” to force students with ROTC scholarships to travel to MIT for training.
The UC ultimately withdrew its support from ROTC’s return to campus. However, the issue would drag on intermittently for years, until Harvard finally allowed the ROTC to open a campus office in 2012—once the military revoked “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy that forced gay members of the military to remain in the closet.
“That was the beginning of a conversation that took several decades to win,” said Kripke, referencing the recent defeat of the policy.
Kripke noted that her experiences at Harvard taught her the importance of being true to herself.
“Part of what we were doing was practicing living our lives openly, honestly, and unapologetically,” she said.
For Dermody, activism in the gay community at Harvard was empowering, despite the struggles she faced.
“It had its hard moments, because shoot, we had to go to school, and we had to deal with that too, but it also had its great moments, so many incredible and powerful and human moments, that it definitely affected my path afterwards,” she said.
She now remembers Harvard fondly.
“I love Harvard,” Dermody said. “For all that adolescent angst and struggling with your issues, going through all your changes, with all of that, I really loved Harvard.”
—Staff writer Quynh-Nhu Le can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Brianna D. MacGregor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bdmacgregor.