The cover of the magazine features a black-and-white photograph of a bare-chested masculine figure lying on a bed, the covers pulled up to just below the pecs. The face is cut off by the frame. The right arm splays across the striped duvet; the left reaches suggestively beneath the covers towards the groin.
The words “Lavender Portfolio” are printed — in lavender — along the border of the page.
Created under the auspices of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gay Students Association (GSA for short), the Lavender Portfolio meanders through student poems (“Death Camp in Lavender,” “Texas”), sketches (a strapping male, pictured from behind, is clad only in tight shorts), and photography (“Butch Posturing #2” juxtaposes a shirtless male student with photos of muscle-bound men in all their beefcake glory).
How Lavender Portfolio came to be — whose idea it was, how it was published, how it was distributed — is mostly a mystery. Sandy F. Smith, Jr. ’82 and Jonathan L. Handel ’82, two members of the magazine’s six-person editorial staff, can recall only snatches of the beginning.
“I don’t remember now how we got around to discussing that we should put out a magazine,” Smith says. “But I know I expressed interest in that the moment the subject was broached.” Handel adds that he’s “pretty sure” magazine staff did not drop copies of the issue outside every undergraduate’s dorm-room door. “I think we left them on tables in the dining halls,” he says.
What is certain is that Lavender Portfolio was a one-off.
“It’s a shame that we never put out a second issue,” Smith says. “I think there were more stories we could have told.”
The Portfolio’s lone issue was almost surely shocking to the average student enrolled at Harvard in 1982. It would probably be provocative even by today’s standards. But for queer students attending Harvard in the early 1980s through the late 1990s, magazine publication offered a way to own their sexuality — a means to carve out space for their own narratives. There were a handful of national gay-interest publications — most notably “The Advocate” and later “Out” — but gay issues and queer culture were mostly absent from mainstream media.
“I literally kept a clipping file of every gay-related story in the New York Times and the Boston Globe,” Handel says. “And it was easy to do, because there would be one such story every few months in either paper. There was no coverage.”
“DO NOT PURSUE GAPS.”
Someone has written this in inky black block letters on one of the first pages of Harvard’s archived collection of “Peninsula,” a conservative publication launched by Harvard students in 1990. A smaller hand has penciled in the name of one of these “gaps”— missing issues — below:
vol. 3, no. 2
“Exploring the Truth”
Visitors can page through an anti-abortion issue of Peninsula (Nov. 1992, title-less and displaying on its cover a cartoon fetus with the hook of a wire hanger wrapped around its head). Passersby can also pick up an edition devoted to the environment (May 1993, “Saving the Earth from the Environmentalists”). But “Exploring the Truth Re: Homosexuality”?
Nowhere to be found.
I didn’t listen. I pursued the gap, and it brought me to the Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana — where Rev. Roger J. Landry ’92, one of the founders of Peninsula, had sent it in March 1992, and where staff librarians were kind enough to send me scanned copies of the magazine.
In an enclosed letter, Landry writes to a Mr. James Lanning: “I apologize that it has taken so long for me to send you the issue. We have been so swamped with requests for this issue that we ran out of issues in the middle of February. Over the past month, I first had to find money to reprint the issue, and then had to re-edit it and get it to the printers. I’m proud to say that the issue I’ve sent you is the new-and-improved edition.”
The fruits of Landry’s labors are now captured in a convenient PDF and pulled up on the screen of my laptop.
On the cover, a pink triangle explodes into shards — it looks as though a bullet has blown through, sending rose-colored fragments flying towards the reader. At the bottom is printed — as is printed on each and every edition of Peninsula — “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
As if any clarification were necessary, the magazine’s self-styled “Preamble” renders the intention of its Oct./Nov. 1991 issue abundantly clear: “Why we think homosexuality is bad, and what we would do about it, is what this issue is all about.”
For Landry, that edition of Peninsula concretized a view that was “not being considered” within the undergraduate community at Harvard. He calls this perspective “street-corner conservatism” — which he defines as “the type of conservatism you’d hear at a barbershop.”
Sean P. McLaughlin ’91, who founded Peninsula alongside Landry, initially wrote for a conservative publication called “The Harvard Salient” and established in 1981. McLaughlin says not all perspectives were welcome in that community: “A kid came in and tried to submit an article about a moral conservative issue, as opposed to an economic issue, and it was rejected. And at that point this had happened a couple of times.” These “moral conservative issues” included abortion, the access to birth control — and homosexuality.
José M. Padilla ’97 saw Peninsula’s willingness to adopt controversial stances as a way to let dissidence surface on campus. “The point of it was: let’s say something that’s really outrageous in order to create space.”
Landry, now a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., said the “Homosexuality” issue was inspired by the activities of queer students on campus.
“That was an issue that basically was born from my experiences as a freshman at the Freshman Outdoor Program trip. I met a handful of classmates and, you know, nice guys, they were all Americans — and then five or six months later, they had identified as gay.”
Landry’s description of the impetus behind the issue is one of collective interest. These classmates, he says, were “getting more and more involved in a lifestyle that we didn’t think was really for their happiness.”
Peninsula door-dropped its “Homosexuality” issue to every undergraduate on campus.
Rachel E. Cohen ’94 vividly remembers the day the magazine came out in print. “I remember waking up one morning as a sophomore in Lowell House and finding that there was a copy of Peninsula on our doormat, and an exploding pink triangle on the cover of it,” she says.
“We were outraged, we were appalled, we were shocked,” Joel L. Derfner ’95 says. “Well, we weren’t shocked. Because there were people like that all around back then.”
Though Rachel B. Tiven ’96 was not on campus during the release of the “Homosexuality” issue — she enrolled as a first-year the following fall — she was well aware of the publication. She says Harvard sent it to her as a part of her admissions materials as an incoming member of the class of 1996.
“It was mailed to us in a packet of examples of student publications,” Tiven says with a laugh. It’s a sunny late afternoon, and we’re sitting on the steps of Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. “I don’t remember being upset exactly. I remember being like, what the fuck is this?”
Marlyn E. McGrath ’70-’73, who has worked as director of admissions since the 1980s, wrote in an email that Harvard often sent a sampling of publications and printed materials to admitted students around that time.
“It was a pretty random selection as I recall — we wanted to introduce prospective students to the dazzling array of publications at Harvard, and we wanted them to get a sense of the diversity of activities and opinions. I don’t recall specifically what we sent — it varied from year to year and there may even have been some variation within a given mailing, depending on how many copies of each we could get,” McGrath wrote. “I don’t remember anything about Peninsula specifically.”
But Theodore A. Gideonse ’96 does. He says the magazine with the pink triangle on its cover turned up in his mail, too. “As someone who knew they were going to come out the minute they got to school, seeing that was pretty unnerving,” he says.
The staff of Peninsula spent 19 months researching the issue, Landry says. The first part is titled “Exposing the Myths”; the second, “Exploring the Truth”; and the third, “Evaluating Solutions.” The edition includes a flow chart Landry compiled titled “Possible Pathways to a Homosexual Orientation.” In addition to biology, he lists “difficulty getting role models,” “experimentation and enjoyment,” “trauma,” and “desperate election.”
One of the last articles in the issue — “The Courage to Change: A Survey of Help Groups for Homosexuals” — provides contact information for six such groups. A note below this array of foundations and rectories reads: “Unfortunately, however, Harvard University has no campus organizations or services dedicated to helping homosexuals who wish to change their lifestyle. In fact, neither University Health Services nor any of Harvard’s half-dozen or so pro-homosexuality organizations even offer information about the alternatives available to homosexual students. Perhaps it’s time that the university did.”
For queer students and allies on campus, the “Homosexuality” issue served as a rallying cry.
“When I say it was galvanizing, I mean that the lesbigay community” — a title Derfner says some in Harvard’s queer community adopted at the time — “had been very close, and we hung out, because we were the only people like us we knew.”
“And now we had an enemy.”
Two days after the “Homosexuality” issue dropped, the BGLSA (the ‘B’ was added in the late 80’s) organized an emergency night-time meeting. Nearly 100 students attended the gathering, at which they planned two dining hall sit-ins. They also organized and held a rally at noon the next day, Sheila A. Avelin ’93 remembers.
But that wasn’t nearly enough.
“Any undergraduate who had any connection to any closeted professor was deputized to reach out to that professor,” Avelin says. A junior at the time, Avelin had served as co-president of the BGLSA the year before.
“People were in glass closets. The message of that to undergraduates was, ‘This is how you get along.’ You can acknowledge it privately to your friends, but it’s not something you can speak to in your professional world.”
Avelin reached out to Barbara E. Johnson, a professor of law and psychiatry in society. “I looked her up in the white pages, and so I called her at home and asked her if she would speak at this rally. And she agreed to.”
With Johnson in their camp, the rally organizers were able to convince another faculty member to come out that day: Reverend Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University.
“It was after Barbara had said that she would that we got Peter Gomes to speak,” Avelin says. Johnson ended up speaking after Gomes, “but Barbara also came out that day and opened up space for us to tell Peter that he would not be the only faculty member coming out.”
The rally began at noon. Energy was high. When the time came for Gomes to speak, the reverend — whom Derfner remembers as the kind of public speaker who could “work a crowd like nobody’s business” — cracked joke after joke.
“And then he came out,” Derfner says.
Gomes’s declaration was simple: “I am a Christian who happens to be gay.”
The crowd of around 250 went wild. In its next issue, Peninsula published a complete transcription of Gomes’ speech. Just after faithfully copying down Gomes’s nine-word revelation, the transcriber wrote into the text: “[Wild applause and cheering for 27 seconds]”.
The minister’s public — and unexpected — avowal of his sexuality marked a milestone for many of the College’s queer students.
“The person who was the closest to God on campus had staked this moral claim that outness was the morally correct stance, and it turned things inside out,” Avelin says.
Still, Gomes’s “moral claim” did not go undisputed. Two campus groups — Concerned Christians at Harvard and Association Against Learning in the Absence of Religion and Morality (AALARM) — actively campaigned for his resignation in the wake of the rally.
Less than a decade after Lavender Portfolio, queer students at Harvard once again began seeking a place in print where their voices could be heard.
We dedicate this first issue of HQ to the
Reverend Peter J. Gomes,
for his courage.
These words grace the inner front cover of “HQ,” a publication begun in 1992 as a response to the “Homosexuality” issue and the events that followed. The cover itself is black and white, bearing a target with a sinuous, bold black line that reaches out from the central rings. A row of block-shaped recesses line the top, each holding what looks like a fragment of sculpture. Nose and lips are visible in one; an ear in another. The only thing discernible in this dense and inscrutable system of symbology is the “H” scrawled in black in the top left corner.
William T. “Tate” Dougherty ’94, who helped design the cover, says he drew on the work of 20th-century gay artist Jasper Johns. The image of the target represented “how all of us felt,” he says.
Dougherty and Cohen and a third founder, Timothy M. “Cage” Hall ’94, wanted HQ’s name to reflect its inclusive bent — and to differentiate it from the dogmatic moral binary preached by Peninsula. “We all liked HQ. It seemed to suggest Harvard Queer, but not demand it,” Cohen says.
Much like Lavender Portfolio, HQ featured poetry, art, and essays; it was very much a literary magazine. It did not grapple with explicitly political discourse.
It was important to Cohen that every issue be door-dropped. “I wanted it on every doorstep in the same way Peninsula had been on every doorstep,” she says. She organized and sent battalions of volunteers to deliver cases of each issue to every House. She joined in the action, too, running up and down scores of sets of stairs.
Cohen, Dougherty, and Hall later recruited Tiven and Gideonse to help produce the publication.
“I can’t remember how I ended up going to a meeting of HQ, where I met Cage and Tate and Rachel,” Gideonse says. He does, however, remember when he saw HQ for the first time.
He spotted the second issue, whose cover featured an image of Bill Clinton and Al Gore photoshopped to resemble bodybuilders straight out of a gay fantasia. “I remember that showing up in the basket in front of my door in Hurlbut and being like, ‘Oh my God, this is the most amazing thing in the world.’”
The mass distribution of HQ — and of Peninsula — was possible because of what Hall calls “the home computing and home publishing revolution.” It was easy to obtain and use software like Pagemaker to run off a couple hundred issues at a cost of only a few hundred dollars. This led to a proliferation of undergraduate publications at Harvard. In 1982, at the time Lavender Portfolio was published, there were 15 student organizations listed in the Unofficial Guide to Life at Harvard under “Communications.” By 1993, that number had grown to 39.
In all, there were five issues of HQ. The final issue, which explored the intersection of race and sexuality, was published in April 1994. The magazine died soon after, lacking “a combination of interest and money,” Gideonse says. Cohen, Dougherty, and Hall graduated that year, and Gideonse and Tiven got tied up in other campus responsibilities — he became an editor of Fifteen Minutes, and she upped her level of involvement at Hillel, where she founded the queer affinity group BAGELS.
After two years, HQ departed Harvard’s dining halls and — like Lavender Portfolio before it — began a half-life of existence in the University’s archives.
As publications made by queer students and intended for a broad audience, Lavender Portfolio and HQ were several years ahead of their time. By the end of the 1990s, though, queer voices had entered the mainstream. Television shows like Will & Grace paved the way for positive, sympathetic representation of gay characters in popular culture.
In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres famously came out on the cover of Time Magazine. Less than a year later, Andrew P. Tobias ’68 came out on the cover of Harvard Magazine.
In 1973, Tobias — under the pseudonym John Reid — had written a book titled “The Best Little Boy in the World.” Billed on Amazon as “the classic account of growing up gay in America,” the book details the pressures gay men face in the mid-20th century closet as filtered through Tobias’ own experiences. Over two decades years later in 1998, Tobias republished “The Best Little Boy in the World” under his real name. He also released its sequel, “The Best Little Boy in the World Grows Up.” And in 1998, he chose to come out to the entire Harvard community.
Craig Lambert, who was Associate Editor of Harvard Magazine at the time, recalls approaching Tobias to solicit the piece. According to Lambert, there was no particular “trigger moment.”
“It was just an important issue and had a connection to Harvard,” Lambert says. “It was something that was in the air, had been in the air for years, and I thought, ‘We oughta treat it.’”
Lambert and the editorial staff knew there was potential for controversy. The magazine, described online as a “separately incorporated nonprofit affiliate of Harvard University,” goes out — for free — to all staff, faculty, and alumni of the University. Harvard affiliates have to actively opt out to stop receiving the magazine.
The size of the guaranteed thousands-strong audience didn’t deter Lambert. “We knew this was an appropriate story, a good story, a story that needed to be told.”
To Tobias, the editors at Harvard Magazine were the “brave ones.”
“I was already out. It was easy and fun for me to do, but I couldn’t lose my job over it or lose a lot of subscriptions,” Tobias says. The article, titled “Gay Like Me,” is a meditation on what it took to grapple with homosexuaity in the 1960s at Harvard. Tobias tells his own story, as well as those of a number of gay classmates, who navigated a Harvard where some students pursued electric shock therapy out of the mistaken notion it might cure their homosexuality.
In the piece, Tobias didn’t hold back. “Some of us kill ourselves, but others (really most, I think) make it through just fine,” he wrote.
The pushback was significant, and alumni put pen to paper to voice a wide range of responses. “It is, I think, the greatest and largest number of, I think, at least published letters that we ever had into any story in the magazine’s history, that I know of,” Lambert says.
In its next issue, the editorial staff of Harvard Magazine printed 21 of the letters received. “To put it mildly, I am appalled, shocked, disgusted, and saddened that your magazine would attempt to depict homosexuality as a normal and acceptable lifestyle… Don’t you have any consideration for Harvard’s historic reputation? I urge you to stop printing such trash,” reads one letter, sent in by a Samuel T. Rhodes.
Lambert says the first wave of letters were mostly hostile. But after readers read those letters, the magazine drew another wave of missives — these “overwhelmingly” positive. Harvard Magazine printed 20 letters in its next issue, and five more in the issue after that.
“I’m still seeing red,” Ellen F. Zaslaw ’63 wrote in the May-June issue. “Tobias’s article didn’t shock me. What shocked me — and stirred in me feelings of unreality that this could be happening in a Harvard environment — was the hostile mail that arrived in response.” The letter concluded: “These are people whose Harvard education has failed them.”
Tobias identified a generational gap. The more disapproving alumni tended to skew older, Tobias says. And “basically anybody under 40 was saying ‘hurray, good for Harvard Magazine for doing this, and hats off to you,’ and all that.”
From national publications like The Advocate and Out all the way to Harvard Magazine, the printed word holds an influential space in the history of queer agitation in the eighties and nineties.
There’s just something about writing it down.
Michael Amico is an alumnus of Dartmouth College and served as editor-in-chief of an intercollegiate queer student publication, called “queer.”, that began at Harvard in the early 2000s.
“Most of my life, I guess, has been trying to find a language to talk about sexual desire in a more complex, nuanced, accurate way, not just with my fellow students — with everyone, my family, with people I meet on the street, with people I hook up with,” Amico says. “With everyone.”
A historian currently at work on a book about gay love stories in the American Civil War, Amico thinks a lot about the expression of desire via the written word. “Sexual desire is premised on not saying and not telling, not because it’s titillating or not because we’re repressed, but because the whole point of sexuality is that the center of it is unknown.”
“But nonetheless, that just means there can be more artful ways to talk about sex.”
Lavender Portfolio and HQ form some of these “artful ways”: physical manifestations of what are, to many, frustrating intangibilities.
When Ted Gideonse and Rachel Tiven arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1992, no one in their class had come out. Both Gideonse and Tiven broke ground by coming out that fall. “By the end of freshman year, besides us, we only knew of nine or ten out students who were freshmen. That is really isolating,” Gideonse says, his voice quiet.
Today’s Harvard is a very different place. In my upperclassmen house, there’s a rainbow flag hanging in the dining hall; signs expressing solidarity — including one reading “Pfoho Tutors Support Our LGBTQ Students” — hang pinned to the doors of House staff.
Asked about the influence of HQ on Harvard’s campus, Dougherty chuckles. “It’s more like hypothetical influence.”
“None of us will ever say it changed the world, but all of us would say that we know it was important, even if we still couldn’t quantify it.”
Correction: Oct. 11, 2018
A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote. It has been updated.
—Magazine writer Frank M. Cahill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @frankmcahill.