“We were very optimistic about our futures,” remembers Kevin B. Jennings ’85. Jennings sat with a friend in Mather house and, as the end of his sophomore year approached, the two shared their ambitions for the upcoming years. “We had come from small towns and never thought it would be possible to be openly gay.”
Jennings recalls that after chatting for a few minutes, his friend had added, “unless the new disease kills us all.”
“I didn’t know what he was talking about. He pulled out a copy [of] one of the New York gay papers, and showed it to me.” There wasn’t a name or an explanation for what was happening — just a headline about large numbers of young and healthy gay men suddenly developing rare cancers and infections. “We just knew gay men were dying. And dying very suddenly and very horrifically.”
“And it was just terrifying.”
This was how Jennings first found out about human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or HIV and AIDS (though they weren’t named at the time).
On July 31, 1981, The New York Times reported that 41 young gay men in New York City and Los Angeles were hospitalized with Kaposi Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that causes purple skin lesions. It wasn’t until three years later, in 1984, that scientists linked the sudden spate of deaths to a virus — and it wasn’t until a year after that, in 1985, that the existence of the virus was common knowledge. During 1983 alone, when Jennings first learned about the virus, 2,304 people had reportedly died due to HIV-related complications. There was no HIV test and no medicine.
“We were just scared to death and every time you got a cold you thought maybe you had it. You were terrified all the time,” says Jennings.
Peter Gadol ’86 first heard about HIV during his sophomore year, after coming out at age nineteen. “I think that I learned about HIV the same way as a lot of people—a newspaper article.”
“My first experiences with gay pride were also AIDS Walks,” remembers Gadol. “It’s conflated. It’s hard to pull it apart.”
For a generation of gay men at Harvard, this was the backdrop of their college experience. Many students first learned about AIDS as undergraduates and had to metabolize the onset of the epidemic while navigating college.
To cope with both homophobia on Harvard’s campus and fear of the AIDS crisis, gay students in the 1980s and early 1990s created makeshift pockets of support, establishing student groups and seeking out the few supportive faculty members on campus. Without adequate institutional support, gay students were tasked with finding and creating their own advocacy systems, all the while coping with their own fear.
“For a young gay man like me, on some level you just assumed you weren’t going to grow old because you looked around and there were a lot of other young healthy gay men who seemingly were fine and then, a month later, were dead,” remembers Jennings. “No one understood why. No one seemed able to do anything about it. No one seemed to care.”
When Gadol was a junior, he moved into a Mather suite with Jennings and several other friends, including Jake S. Stevens ’86. “I lived with a whole bunch of gay guys, which was unusual at the time,” says Gadol. Their suite was connected by a shared bathroom to a neighboring suite of male students.
One day, the residents of the neighboring suite presented Gadol’s suite with a petition. “They wanted a physical wall to protect themselves from my gay suite,” wrote Stevens in an email. The neighbors, a group of straight men, falsely accused the suite of “doing inappropriate things in the shower.”
“I don’t remember that homophobia being particularly centered on fears of AIDS, but rather a generalized — and at that time very acceptable — distaste for gays and lesbians,” Stevens continues.
The Mather House masters, David J. and Patricia A. Herlihy, rejected the neighboring suite’s request.
Harvard alumni from the 1980s recall a range of administrative responses to homophobia. At best, they were mildly reactive to homophobia. Often, they were indifferent to it. At their worst, they perpetuated it.
In 1981, a University Advisory Committee recommended that the college’s admissions policy ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. This proposal garnered opposition from several voting members. On February 21, 1981, Gay Community News, a local weekly newspaper, reported that Kirkland House Master Evon Z. Vogt Jr. objected to the ban because he suggested that sexual orientation could include rape and bestiality.
As the president of Harvard’s Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Alliance in 1983, Stevens pushed the administration to adopt the policy. “When advocating for protections for gay and lesbian students at a faculty meeting, more than one faculty member stood up to say we were not an appropriate group to have such protections,” remembers Stevens.
In 1985, four years after the committee first considered expanding the non-discrimination policy, the administration finally adopted a more comprehensive admissions policy that included sexual orientation.
But institutional reforms didn’t change the homophobic culture on campus. Lorelee S. Stewart ’87 remembers coming home to her dorm in Winthrop House and finding homophobic notes taped to her suite’s door on multiple occasions. One day, someone slipped into her room and pasted a note reading “die lesbian” on the inside of her bedroom door. “The way Winthrop was set up meant they had to get through a locked door to do that,” says Stewart.
Stewart worried that someone might physically hurt her — the person who threatened her already knew how to sneak into her bedroom. She went to a dean to request a single so that she could have the only key to unlock her door. “He said that he would give me a single but only if I got a doctor’s note saying that this was due to psychological reasons,” she says. Eventually, she moved to the Jordans building in the Quad, then recognized as a small on-campus Harvard co-op.
Stewart had already endured homophobia while seeking Harvard University Health Service resources. HUHS did not respond to requests for comment. Feeling confused about her sexuality as a freshman, she looked for professional guidance in working through a lingering high school relationship. “[The counselor] was asking me questions about ‘Did you kiss this person? Did you touch this person?’ I said ‘no,’ which wasn’t really true, but you get that feeling, you get the feeling that your answer was welcome here or not welcome here,” Stewart says.
“Given how young I was and how confused, I said ‘no.’ And he said, ‘That’s good because that means you’re not a lesbian.’”
Students remember their support network as a collection of individual people and places at Harvard — a makeshift community of clubs, specific houses, professors, and proctors — rather than a cohesive institutional effort.
In the early 1980s, the Gay Straight Alliance and the Radcliffe Lesbian Association merged into one group, GLSA, which became both a prominent social scene and a forum for advocacy.
Adams House was a popular hub for GLSA activities. Robert J. Kiely, master of Adams House from 1973 to 1999, remembers hosting an English class section in Adams dining hall in the late 1970s. After class, a few students stayed behind to chat. The group told Kiely that they were gay and wanted to start a student association recognized by the college. Recognition required a faculty advisor, so they asked Kiely, who happily agreed. The students also needed a meeting space, which multiple other houses had already denied them. Kiely welcomed the students to meet in Adams.
There were a handful of openly gay and lesbian professors and staff members that students remember turning to for advice. But Jennings remembers that “these people played these roles surreptitiously. It wasn’t like the university was actively encouraging them to play these roles, it was like they were doing them almost behind the back of the university.”
In the early 1980s, the Harvard GLSA fought for gay and lesbian visibility on campus. They organized “gay, lesbian, and friend” tables during meals, and they hosted dances in dining halls to fundraise for the club and carve out a queer-centric social scene on campus. They decorated campus kiosks with posters — though Stewart remembers that posters with the words “gay” and “lesbian” were often quickly ripped off.
Thomas B. Watson ’91 founded the Organization for the Advancement of Sexual Minorities, an advocacy group with a mission similar to GLSA’s. The goal of visibility was still pressing in the late 1980s. “At that time, if two guys were caught kissing on campus they might be gay bashed. We put posters of guys kissing all over campus to desensitize people,” says Watson. Other posters showed images of women dominating men and two women kissing, to show “a reversal of traditional roles,” as he remembers.
But, as the number of people who contracted AIDS increased, GLSA dances took on an educational bent, with members passing out information about sexual health and distributing free condoms. Gadol remembers that information about sexual health was often distributed in casual, coded ways. “I remember really clearly this kid from Tufts who was like our age; he had dyed blonde hair and a big white t-shirt… the front, it said ‘relax,’ and on the back it said ‘don’t do it,’ referring to that Frankie Goes To Hollywood song.” The full lyric ends with “when you want to come,” a surreptitious suggestion to practice safe sex.
“That was more of where my interface was,” says Gadol.
In addition to increasing visibility, GLSA established their own avenues of support. Around 1984, Jake Stevens co-founded CONTACT, a peer counseling phone line which still exists today. CONTACT’s founders sought to provide students with a venue to anonymously discuss sex and sexuality with other students. “Although someone could seek counseling through university health services, that was overly medicalized and professionalized,” Stevens says.
And, Stevens adds, HUHS was too public — students could run into classmates or professors, dissuading them from seeking out guidance at all.
Nadja B. Gould, the HUHS mental health counselor who oversaw other peer counseling groups like Room 13 and Response, supervised CONTACT. She trained students who staffed the line to answer questions about sexual health, including HIV testing.
Stewart was also involved and remembers that “it was difficult to make sure that we always had someone answering that phone. We were busy being students. A lot of us were just trying to figure out who we were.”
“In the early days I was at Harvard, AIDS was not in our consciousness yet,” remembers Jennings. “By the time I graduated, it was something that we were very aware of.”
In 1985, the year Jennings graduated, President Ronald Reagan publicly acknowledged AIDS for the first time in response to criticism that he was ignoring the epidemic. In October of that year, Rock Hudson, a strong-jawed leading man of the 1950s, became the first American celebrity to publicly announce an HIV-positive status. The media began focusing on the epidemic that had already caused 12,529 deaths in five years.
That same year, The Crimson reported an HIV-related death for the first time. An MIT graduate student had died suddenly from AIDS-related pneumonia in the fall of 1985. Dr. Warren E. C. Wacker, the Director of HUHS at the time, told The Crimson that the death “likely” would not change Harvard’s current protocol, which then adhered to the CDC’s guidelines for the treatment of infectious diseases. There was no specific University policy for dealing with cases of HIV.
The Crimson reported that Wacker did not “foresee any hysteria about the disease at Harvard.” Wacker told The Crimson that three Harvard affiliates had contracted HIV, and one had died. “We didn’t have a bad reaction to a death at Harvard [of an AIDS patient],” he said.
There wasn’t an FDA-approved medication to treat HIV until the spring of 1987. Zidovudine, or AZT, is a retroviral that delays the replication of the virus. It was a remedy, not a cure, and induced a host of unpleasant side-effects, like bone marrow toxicity, relentless nausea, and severe muscle pain. In lieu of an established preventative medical regimen, healthcare professionals largely just encouraged safe sex practices — a newly coined term that encouraged condom use and discussion of partners’ sexual history.
“I don’t remember any safer sex education; I don’t remember any health services,” says Jennings. “It was like the disease didn’t exist at Harvard.”
Only one of the twelve alumnus interviewed, Leon L. Lai ’91, could recall a specific instance of University-sanctioned sexual health education — a session during his freshman year in 1987. “I think all freshmen had to go to something about safer sex. There was one session. After that, nothing,” he says. “It was like ‘here’s a condom, here’s how to put it on.’”
On top of that, House masters and professors were not equipped to mentor students. Kiely attests (though he couldn’t “swear to it”) that, in his nearly three-decade tenure as Adams House master, he cannot recall receiving information about resources for HIV from the administration.
HUHS did not respond to requests for comment.
HUHS records and public statements from the mid-1980s list a small set of resources available for undergraduates during the period.
After the MIT student’s death, Wacker told The Crimson that HUHS planned an AIDS seminar for later that fall and intended to circulate educational literature about the virus. All official internal memos, policies, and documents from this time are restricted from archival access for at least another decade, but the Harvard University Archives preserve a very thin manila folder with HUHS handouts from the 1980s.
In 1987, HUHS addressed a glossy “Surgeon General’s Report on AIDS” pamphlet to members of the Harvard Community. The booklet greets readers with a photo of the stern-faced Surgeon General. He folds his hands in front of him, and an American flag peeks over his right shoulder.
Beneath the picture, the General writes: “My report will inform you about AIDS, how it is transmitted, the relative risks of infection and how to prevent it. It will help you understand your fears.” The rest of the 34-page pamphlet contains information about transmission, dismissing unfounded fears about casual contact, and presents facts alongside illustrations of the virus that look lifted out of a high-school biology textbook.
An introductory note from HUHS leadership states that “AIDS education and prevention is a major priority at Harvard University Health Services.” It guides readers to a selection of other written material, as well as periodic educational programming.
Three other undated brochures about HIV, produced by the American College Health Association, are also preserved in the manilla folder. The 1985–1986 Official Register of Harvard University state that one ACHA brochure was sent to every member of the college community.
The report outlines Wacker’s other educational efforts, which included speaking to a number of college administrators and staff. He concludes, again, that “it is possible to say that there was no obvious hysteria among either staff or students and that we believe that most of the Harvard community understands the nature of the disease and how to avoid it.”
“There was very much an attitude of Harvard students don’t do naughty things and don’t get naughty diseases,” remembers Jennings. Alumni from the 1980s recall gathering information about the AIDS epidemic from outside sources rather than from the University.
Gadol, Jennings, and Stevens didn’t know any undergrads who were HIV-positive. All three came out in college, as did many of their peers. They were having sex for the first time — often with other virgins. None of the three men needed blood transfusions. They weren’t sharing needles. Only after they graduated college and settled into their adult lives did many of their friends and acquaintances develop HIV.
But the Harvard community included more than just the college. During the 1980s, several Harvard affiliates, including professors, house tutors, and dining hall workers, developed the virus and died suddenly. The circumstances of their deaths were rarely publicly attributed to the virus.
During his junior year, Jennings learned a former teaching fellow had suddenly died. Jennings says that his friend, another teaching fellow, confirmed that the teacher had died of AIDS.
Similarly, Gadol remembers learning about HIV on campus through informal conversations. “When I came back from summer, 1984, and was starting my junior year I remember hearing about a tutor in Adams House who had died, and that was sort of the first time I heard anything and was connecting things myself. Or realizing this was closer to home than not,” he says. `
There was a service for the Adams House tutor in Memorial Church. “There was no mention of AIDS,” remembers Kiely, who was close with the tutor.
The pervasive belief that AIDS only existed outside Harvard Yard prompted Stephen W. Gutwillig ’86 to plan a fundraising event during his senior year.
“I was not, at that point, personally touched except to the extent that it was scary. It felt like we were in a kind of bubble that needed to be confronted and addressed,” he says. “No one wanted to talk about or be confronted with organized queer students, let alone have to talk about AIDS and AIDS transmission.”
So he decided to organize an event that would “normalize response and discussion” about HIV and AIDS on campus.
Gutwillig wasn’t sure how to begin planning a big event so he relied on a medley of friends’ help. He had access to the Loeb Theater through his involvement with the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, which also meant access to the American Repertory Theater offices. “We sort of chose to not ask permission but hope for forgiveness and sort of rifled through the rolodex. We got agents and some stars contact info through there,” he says. He called dozens of celebrities.
In 1986, Gutwillig was dating Gadol, who was president of the Harvard Advocate. Gadol organized the festival’s literary component, securing Allen Ginsberg for a reading. Using the ART office’s contacts, Gutwillig contacted and invited Joanne Kennedy (Ted Kennedy’s ex-wife turned Boston socialite), Kathy Bates (then best-known for starring in an off-Broadway production of “The Normal Heart”, one of the first plays about the AIDS crisis), singer Judy Collins, actress Colleen Dewhurst, and a handful of other celebrities to attend.
“As people made suggestions and wanted to be a part of it, it kind of got a life of its own. Before we knew it, it was a week-long festival,” says Gutwillig.
After the event was largely planned, Gutwillig convinced several people and student organizations to co-sponsor the event, including university president Derek C. Bok. In the 1985-1986 Official Register of Harvard University, HUHS listed the Festival of Life as one of their educational efforts.
“We ultimately didn’t need the administration to pay any attention,” says Gutwillig, “but we ultimately did get President Bok to provide a welcome letter.”
The event started on Feb. 17 in Loeb Drama Center with an event entitled “Women United for AIDS Research and Care.” The rest of the week had five or six events a day, including a student film festival, a jazz nightclub, and a series of educational events. On the evening of Feb. 20, Ginsberg sat atop a Persian rug surrounded by candles and read some selections of his work in Sanders Theater.
The week has mostly faded in Gadol’s memory but he clearly recalls taking tickets at one of the week’s dances. “I just remember this intense feeling of both connection and separation,” he says. “It still wasn’t my world, but my world was becoming that world.”
“There weren’t many people at the protest, but it was beautifully done,” remembers Watson. “I remember smoke.”
Members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, poured fake blood on the sidewalk and chanted "We're here to show defiance for what Harvard calls 'good science'!" outside Harvard Medical School on the first day of classes. It was the fall of 1988 and, by the end of that year, the number of deaths due to HIV-related complications totaled 61,816. The activists wanted the medical establishment to realize their research wasn’t an abstract biological question but a daily reality for thousands of people.
That year, Harvard started to develop a larger infrastructure to deal with the AIDS crisis.
On May 5, 1988, President Bok announced the creation of the AIDS Institute at the Chan School of Public Health. Created and led by Dr. Harvey V. Fineberg ’67, the Institute aimed to focus on clinical research and, eventually, work towards developing a cure.
1988 also saw the emergence of more campus-focused resources. Gould, a psychologist at HUHS and the supervisor for CONTACT, created a support group for people dealing with HIV. The group was a space to communally process personal experiences with and emotions about HIV. There was no formal process for starting the group — Gould only had to ask Wacker, the Director of HUHS, and find a room for meetings.
The group started with just three or four people but grew to as many as fifteen attendees. Gould says the group was largely graduate students and Harvard staff. People came to talk about friends or family with HIV or their own experience with the virus. They met for an hour and a half in the middle of the day, during most people’s lunch breaks, in a small office in HUHS. Gould made sure the room was windowless so the group could be private.
Because the group was intimate, Gould didn’t feel comfortable advertising meetings around campus. “My experience was that most people heard about it through their friends or they were part of some gay organization on campus,” she says.
HUHS’ mental health resources developed alongside its physical health resources. In March of 1993, HUHS physician Peter Zuromskis ’66 helped create the Harvard AIDS Clinic, a medical clinic with services specifically for people with HIV. The clinic was run out of HUHS and had no set schedule. “There were no specific day,” says Zuromskis. “I was there five days a week and so we would expedite access whenever people needed to be treated.”
Zuromskis remembers providing medical support for about 20 patients with HIV, both undergraduates and graduate students. He wanted to protect the anonymity of the patients, and did not keep a record. Like Gould, he relied on word of mouth to advertise the clinic. Zuromskis thought it was “the quickest way to get the information out,” but he also spoke at a few student venues to spread the word.
This decentralization of HIV resources also meant it was hard to discern what was available on campus.
In 1990, Paul B. Franklin, a second-year art history Ph.D. student, was selected as a new resident tutor in Winthrop House. As the “Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian issues” tutor, he was part of a recently-established program across six houses to provide resources to gay, lesbian, and bi students.
“I’m lucky that I had professional advice to offer to these youngsters,” says Franklin. “Harvard made tiny baby steps in our direction, and I was incredibly thankful for that and happy. That said, it was not an easy place to be gay, and it was an even more difficult place for someone to be HIV-positive.”
Franklin recalls one introductory training session for “Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian issues” tutors, but does not remember any University-sanctioned training that dealt specifically with HIV.
“I remember being very hesitant to send students to Health Services,” says Franklin. When students came to Franklin with concerns about their sexual health, he would send them to Cambridge Health Clinic, which provided anonymous HIV testing, as well as other clinics in the Boston area. HUHS offered confidential HIV testing in 1990, but it did not offer anonymous testing until 1996.
Confidential medical tests appear on medical records while anonymous tests do not. “All medical testing is supposed to be confidential,” explains Denise McWilliams, a Boston-based lawyer who handled multiple HIV-discrimination cases in the 1980s. “But confidential testing means your insurance company knows about it.”
This possibility deterred many from taking the test.
Lai remembers a common rationale against getting tested: “If you have an incurable disease, which, from ’87 to ’91, there was no treatment, and if you got the disease, and people found out, you could be some kid, like Ryan White [hemophiliac who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion] who’s like 10, 11 years old, has never hurt anybody in his life, has never had sex with anybody in his life, and, still, these crazy street people will fire bomb your house, throw bricks at you, throw you out of the school, throw paint at you, threaten to kill you. If you have a diagnosis of HIV, there’s no protection against pre-existing conditions. You would lose all your health insurance,” he says.
“So why would you get tested?”
The Harvard AIDS Initiative dealt with the virus on a cellular level, the AIDS Clinic sought to alleviate physical symptoms, and the HUHS Support Group helped those affected cope with acute grief. Despite these institutional support structures, many resources still seemed to exist underground — and they granted little respite from the day-to-day, lingering fear of the virus and the persistent presence of homophobia.
Throughout the 1990s, Harvard slowly started to meet students’ demands for a more centralized set of resources, thanks in part to the urging of AIDS Education and Outreach, an early-1990s student group. Still, there was a decade’s worth of college students whose understanding of their sexual identity was inextricable from the epidemic.
Around 1990, members of BGLSA used funds from a dance to buy pink triangle pins. ACT UP, one of the most prominent AIDS activism groups during the crisis, adopted the upright pink triangle as their logo. Activists put triangles on black posters. Under the triangles, they proclaimed “SILENCE = DEATH” in bolded white letters.
Lai remembers handing out the pins to students on campus. “Initially, the idea was if you wore the pink triangle, you would be part of the community. We would recognize each other.” Lai says the pins eventually became “hip” — even his straight friends started wearing the pins. “It made you feel good. It made you feel like okay, I’m safe here.”
Soon after GLSA started handing out the pink triangle buttons, the members of a conservative magazine called Peninsula started handing out their own pins: blue squares, the antithesis of the pink triangle.
“Of course there’s always a spoiler,” Lai says.
There were no consequences for the Peninsula members.
“Being raised by Harvard in the eighties was like being raised by wolves. Not mean wolves, but kind of you were on your own,” says Lai. “But I wasn’t furious at them for it.”
Twelve hours later, after digging up and sitting with his undergraduate memories, Lai emailed a clarification: “When I said how I responded or felt about the administration’s attitudes towards things, that is with a lot of time and retrospection... I wasn't stupid, but I had still hoped for something better from people that I looked up to and that I expected to have a stronger moral core.”
Even though the virus affected alumni more immediately once they left Harvard, they first heard about and contended with the epidemic as undergraduates. The resources that were — and weren’t — available shaped their first experiences with the crisis.
“What if your roommate, one of your best friends, and your first partner all died from a disease which didn’t even exist as far as you know when you’re a freshman?” says Jennings. “That’s what happened to me. I think of them all the time — whenever I’m at Harvard, whenever I’m at a reunion, I think of these guys who were killed in their very early adult lives by HIV.”