On February 29, 2012 — in front of packed rows of students, policymakers, and nonprofit leaders — Lady Gaga and Oprah Winfrey stood on the stage of Harvard’s Sanders Theatre and officially launched the Born This Way Foundation.
The foundation, established by Gaga and her mother, partnered with Harvard’s Berkman Center, the California Endowment, and the MacArthur Foundation explore methods for fostering a “culture of kindness, bravery, acceptance, and empowerment,” according to a press release at the time.
However, some affiliates were not there to see Gaga or Winfrey. As the two celebrities entered the gates of the University in limousines, a group of Harvard affiliates stood in the frigid weather holding signs that read, “Harvard Expelled Gay People in 1920” and “Harvard Persecuted Gay People in 1920.”
The affiliates — part of a movement titled Their Day in the Yard, launched in 2010 by then-anonymous Extension School student Jennifer M. Grygiel — were holding a demonstration in honor of a seldom-addressed aspect of Harvard’s history: the Secret Court of 1920.
A covert ad-hoc tribunal that had bypassed the University’s traditional disciplinary bureaucracy, the Secret Court remained largely unknown on campus until then-undergraduate student Amit R. Paley ’04 published an investigative report in The Crimson’s Fifteen Minutes Magazine in the fall of 2002. His article was the result of a six-month effort by Fifteen Minutes to gain access to 500 pages of redacted files.
It all began on May 13, 1920, when undergraduate Cyril Wilcox was found dead in his bedroom after asphyxiating gas — a common method of death by suicide at the time. Following his brother’s death, George L. Wilcox, Class of 1914, traveled to Boston to question Harry Dreyfus, whom he had discovered was his late brother’s lover. After finding and beating Dreyfus, and extracting from him names of others involved, he went on to inform then-Acting Dean of the College Chester N. Greenough, Class of 1898. From there, the Secret Court was born.
The clandestine Court — helmed by Greenough, and comprised of five administrators — ultimately went on to try dozens of University affiliates over a two-month period, finding 14 individuals “guilty” of either being involved in or proximate to what Greenough termed “any homosexual act.”
In a letter to the father of Joseph E. Lumbard, Jr., Class of 1922, one of the students mandated by the Court to leave campus, Greenough conceded that, though Lumbard was “innocent of any homosexual act,” he was “too closely connected” with those who were guilty. He explained that Lumbard was reported to have attended a party with other men under suspicion, and served as a “link in the chain” by facilitating communications between individuals, according to the initial investigative report.
During these trials, the Court presided over interviews, many of which included personal questions related to topics like sexual relations and masturbation.
Beginning June 4, 1920, Greenough — backed by then-University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877 — decided on “guilty” verdicts for 14 of the men tried, seven of whom were college students and four of whom were not affiliated with Harvard. Convicted students were not merely expelled from campus; they were also mandated to depart immediately from the city of Cambridge.
Two of the men tried and convicted by the Court — Eugene R. Cummings and Keith Smerage — died by suicide on June 11, 1920, and Sept. 8, 1930, respectively.
In 2012, the demonstrators at Their Day in the Yard urged attendees of the Born This Way Foundation’s launch to recognize the history of the Secret Court.
Following the demonstration, the group of affiliates proceeded to the office of former University President Drew G. Faust, presenting her with a petition demanding that the University award the victims of the Court with posthumous honorary degrees. In an interview with The Crimson in September 2010, Faust acknowledged the history of the Court, but emphasized the importance of focusing on future actions.
“What should Harvard do about things in the past? Issues like excluding women or Blacks? There’s a long history — how do you think about what the past has been?” Faust said. “What I’d like to do is to direct our attention and learn from the past in order to inspire ourselves to be better in the future, because the present and the future is what matters.”
Others believe addressing the University’s homophobic past by awarding posthumous honorary degrees to victims of the Court is essential for an equitable present and future.
Grygiel — the founder of Their Day in the Yard and now a professor at Syracuse University — continues to hope for the conferral of the honorary degrees.
“If there’s an injustice, it’s still an injustice until it’s corrected,” Grygiel said.
The Secret Court of 1920 was unknown to most faculty and students before Paley exposed it in 2002, according to Lecturer on Education and Public Policy Timothy P. McCarthy ’93.
“I certainly had never heard of any of that. And most people I knew had never heard of anything like that,” McCarthy said. “It produced a kind of reckoning with Harvard’s own institutional complicity, not just in queer history, but in the persecution of queer people, and then the erasure of the history of the persecution of queer people. It forced not just a reckoning, but a recognition.”
Two consecutive University Presidents — Lawrence H. Summers and Faust — have resisted the awarding of posthumous honorary degrees to victims of the Court.
McCarthy, who has championed the awarding of the degrees, said the University’s rationale — that it does not provide degrees to those who did not complete their education — runs counter to its past actions.
“This isn’t that these folks decided to leave,” McCarthy said. “These are people who were pushed out of the University because there was some speculation that they were engaged in what was called at the time ‘unnatural acts,’ that they were suspected of homosexuality — none of them were caught in the act.”
University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment this month on the possibility of awarding posthumous honorary degrees to victims of the Court.
Others at the University have experienced the history of the Court by being surrounded, quite literally, by monuments to figures from that era.
Harvard Divinity School and Study of Religion professor Diana L. Eck — who served as faculty dean of Lowell House from 1998 to 2018 — said she felt as though she were “living with Lowells,” surrounded by their portraiture while residing over the House with her wife Dorothy Austin.
Eck — who noted that Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s sister, Amy Lowell, was herself romantically involved with actor Ada Dwyer Russell — said she and her wife hosted a “queer tea” every year to signal to BGLTQ students that they were welcome in Lowell House.
“The fact that [Lowell] was president during the time of the Secret Court and the purge of these gay men was very disquieting,” she said. “It became very much a part of the story that we told about Lowell House whenever we had new sophomores, junior events, seniors dinners, faculty dinners.”
The history of the Secret Court has attracted the attention of scholars beyond the gates of Harvard — and even the United States.
Mia Liyanage — who recently completed her Master’s degree at Oxford University — accessed the original files of the Secret Court of 1920, the redacted versions of which were made available to Paley in 2002. Her scholarship on the ad-hoc tribunal not only examines the punitive proceedings of the Court, but also focuses on locating moments of what she terms “queer euphoria” in the written exchanges of the convicted men with friends and family.
“What is central about the Secret Court is that it is an extremely rare example where within the umbrella of a persecution narrative, there is actually unadulterated evidence of positive queer identity, queer euphoria, queer community,” she said. “You get a very rare, unfiltered look into the way these men thought about themselves.”
For Liyanage, the identification of joy and agency in these men’s accounts are important not merely for the historical analysis of this moment, but also for the study of BGLTQ rights at large.
“Most archival evidence that points to queerness as a broad concept is pejorative for want of a better term — it is based on persecution,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges to queer history scholars for the future liberation and empowerment of the modern-day queer community, which I think is a central pillar of most queer historians’ work, is finding the agency in those records.”
Grygiel — who began Their Day in the Yard anonymously during their time as an Extension School student — first learned about the Secret Court around Commencement, with the awarding of the annual Eugene R. Cummings Senior Thesis Prize in LGBT Studies. Upon further examination, Grygiel realized Cummings was one of the students who had died by suicide after his encounter with the Secret Court.
“That’s when I learned about the history of the Secret Court. And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really terrible. Why aren’t we doing more about that?’” they said.
Grygiel said they would like a formal investigation made into the tribunal.
“This is such an egregious matter — we need a full investigation, and that hasn’t happened. And so I want a report,” they said. “We need them not to just say, ‘Sorry,’ but did it persist for many years? How many students were impacted? And how will the University be clearing their names, and making this right?”
Grygiel pointed to the fact that other individuals who willingly dropped out before completing their Harvard undergraduate education — including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates — have received honorary degrees.
A petition on Change.org created in 2012 by members of Their Day in the Yard that called for the awarding of posthumous honorary degrees has amassed 24,653 signatures.
Since Their Day in the Yard, others at the University have contributed to building the momentum of honoring the history of the Secret Court.
Secret Court 100 — a group formed by Harvard students and faculty in 2020 to acknowledge the centennial of the Court — aims to inform affiliates about the Court’s history, achieve institutional recognition of the Court, and promote a safer, more supportive environment for BGLTQ students across the University.
Last year, to honor the centennial, Secret Court 100 organized a number of virtual panels as part of an event series titled “Secret Court 100: Harvard’s Queer History,” which united students, professors, and alumni to explore the past and present experiences of BGLTQ individuals at Harvard and beyond.
The group’s website also outlines institutional demands that include the conferral of posthumous honorary degrees to the victims, the establishment of an endowed commemorative fund for queer history research, and the removal of the portraiture of Greenough, the former Acting Dean, from Dunster House.
Russell H. Reed ’20, one of the founders of Secret Court 100, said the idea for the group emerged from conversations with McCarthy.
“I was probably in my sophomore, if not junior, year when I found out about it,” he said. “I started talking to friends about it, and nobody knew about it. I spoke to faculty who had never heard about it, too. I was really surprised.”
For Reed, some of the most memorable moments with Secret Court 100 were not just the panels, but also the planning meetings in which students and faculty came together to foster a collaborative space.
“We all got together in the BGLTQ Office,” he said. “Quite a few of us were together — there were 10 to 15 of us in this room, all smushed in. And we started talking about what this history was, what we wanted to do, what it meant. What was really exciting about that conversation for me was that it felt like this really unique experience, being around so many other engaged and a really diverse group of queer students, faculty, and administrators.”
Students involved in the Secret Court 100 split into subgroups, each delegated distinct tasks. For Diego Garcia Blum, a student at the Kennedy School, the work was focused on outreach. In the days following the 2020 presidential election, Garcia Blum wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Blade to inform readers of the history of the Secret Court and urge them to support President Joe Biden, who promised to sign the Equality Act. The proposed act would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
“We need to realize that it was part of Harvard’s policies back then, and own that. And I think moving forward, being able to use that story to highlight the mental health issues that come with being young and coming out of the closet, being bullied in different places especially because you’re LBGTQ,” Garcia Blum said.
“We want to honor the people that were harmed by the Secret Court,” he added. “We want to honor the fact that they didn’t deserve that, that they were part of a witch hunt for nothing but who they were.”
One hundred years after the Secret Court, past and present Harvard affiliates continue to cite the necessity of increased institutional support for BGLTQ students.
Paley — who later served as president of The Crimson and is now the CEO of The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention service for queer youth — said some of the ways schools and universities can support BGLTQ students include committing funding for BGLTQ offices, normalizing the sharing and respecting of pronouns, establishing all-gender restrooms, and prioritizing mental health care.
“An issue that is very relevant — and particularly relevant to LGBTQ people, and that ties into many of the stories of the students that were impacted by the Secret Court — is the importance of mental health support and suicide prevention efforts for all students, particularly people of marginalized identities, and specifically LGBTQ people who are at much higher risk of suicide than folks who are not,” Paley said.
Current Harvard students also said they would like to see more resources dedicated explicitly to BGLTQ needs.
GSAS Student Council president Alexis G. Turner — a Ph.D. student in the History of Science — said while they support ongoing advising initiatives for graduate departments, they would also like to see the hiring of staff members whose sole responsibility is to support BGLTQ students. Such roles already exist at other institutions, according to Turner.
“As long as the GSAS administration is not given the budget from above to do what they need, all of their initiatives are going to be putting band-aids on a larger problem,” they said.
In an emailed statement, the student organization LGBTQ@GSAS said recent surveys of graduate students have illuminated the need for increased institutional support for BGLTQ students.
“In previous years, the administration has declined to commit these resources citing the lack of quantitative data,” the statement reads. “The data are now available, and we are impatient for action and to work with our allies in the administration to secure the resources LGBTQ+ students and students of color need to thrive at Harvard.”
Ann Hall, a spokesperson for GSAS, said the School is assessing recent student mental health data and actively working on solutions.
The GSAS Office of Diversity and Minority Affairs currently works with Diversity and Inclusion Fellows to support student groups, including BGLTQ students. The University’s Office for Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging hosts drop-in chats for BGLTQ students as well, among other initiatives.
For Grygiel, it is significant that the Court occurred within Harvard’s gates. Grygiel points to Harvard’s institutional influence as an additional reason why it should award the degrees, thereby setting an example for others to follow.
“The thing about Harvard is that it’s renowned — it’s Harvard. They’re a leader in not just education, but our society. And so if Harvard can’t get it right, how can we hope that other institutions will?” Grygiel said. “That’s why it’s very important to hold Harvard accountable, for them to keep being pressed on this topic. And I still think that they have not made this right.”
Paley said that while honoring the history of the Court, it is also important to recognize that there are stories similar to the Secret Court that will never be revealed.
“We happen to know about the Secret Court of 1920 because it was written down and recorded, and through a series of relatively unusual reasons, these notes were kept and were not destroyed,” he said. “But the Secret Court and the discrimination that those students face was not unique. There were many, many other examples of that. We just don’t know what they all were, because they were either not recorded, or they were recorded, but then the documentation was lost or destroyed.”
McCarthy said the reluctance of University administrators to acknowledge the history of the Secret Court suggests a fear that “other histories will be unearthed” — ones that bring to the fore hardships faced by other marginalized groups including immigrants, low-income students, and people of color.
“My response to that is, ‘And? Why is that a problem?’ That is a project of reparations. That’s a project of repairing, of restoring, of honoring, of reconciling, of reckoning with the institution’s own complex history,” he said. “And that’s what we should be doing, is shining a light on that. And certainly as a historian, that’s my job. That’s what I was trained to do.”
“And so we’ll continue to do that, regardless of whether or not the Harvard administration accepts our argument or awards these degrees posthumously,” McCarthy added. “We’ll keep telling the truth — we’ll keep pressing for justice.”
—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.