Trigger warning: Mention of acts of violence committed against LGBTQ+ people.
When Benjamin H. Schatz ’81 went to retrieve his books from his locker in between classes as a student at Harvard Law School, he found singed, charred paper on the ground: remnants of the articles he had taped to his locker. “People would sometimes put articles on their lockers. Most people didn’t, but I did. I had a bunch of queer articles on my locker,” he recalls. “And someone set it on fire.”
Although the Law School’s administration often responded to similar incidents with statements condemning bigotry, in this case, officials gave a muted response to the incendiary attack. “When my locker was set on fire, they issued a statement condemning property damage, and I was not having that,” Schatz says. “So I made a big fuss, and the Dean of Students and I developed a most unfriendly relationship.”
As an openly gay Harvard student during the ’80s, Schatz faced attacks from all sides.“Everybody on campus knew who I was because I was basically homosexuality personified,” Schatz says. “It was like, ‘Oh look, there’s homosexuality walking down the street.’”
“I was in The Crimson probably 100 times in a year as a very visible spokesperson on an issue that had not received much visibility at all,” Schatz says.
Practically from the moment he arrived on the Law School campus, Schatz had found his home in the Committee on Gay Legal Issues. He knew he would join from the moment he applied to the Law School. “That was preordained as far as I was concerned,” he says.
Harvard Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal declined to comment for this story.
COGLI was founded in 1978 and grew amid a fraught period for LGBTQ+ people in America. In 1981, three years after the club’s founding, the first cases of AIDS were diagnosed, sparking intense stigma against gay men in the United States. In 1982, for the first time in history, the military explicitly banned gay and lesbian people from enlisting. In 1986, the Supreme Court case Bowers v. Hardwick federally outlawed consensual gay sex. LGBTQ+ students entering law school were forced to grapple with how they wanted to engage with a system that, in many ways, actively worked against them.
Since its inception, COGLI has served as a center for LGBTQ+ advocacy at the Law School. The organization has spearheaded policies ranging from banning military recruitment on campus to including sexual orientation in Harvard’s non-discrimination policy. Moreover, the very existence of this group gave visibility to LGBTQ+ students at the school, allowing them to challenge homophobic stereotypes and bring LGBTQ+ life to light. The organization, renamed Lambda in 1993, has shaped some of the most critical years of LGBTQ+ activism both on and off campus. The group started with around ten students and has now grown to over 200 members, making it one of the most prominent student groups at HLS.
Membership in COGLI was not, however, without risk — particularly in the group’s early years. Former and current members of the organization faced backlash from their peers during their time at HLS. Others feared that their association with the group would lead to reduced job opportunities, rejection from corporate law firms, or failed background checks for government jobs.
Despite the challenges its members have endured, Lambda continues to invest in the safety of LGBTQ+ students at the Law School in the face of events such as the violent threats sent to LGBTQ+ Harvard affiliates over email last August and a series of opponents to same-sex marriage hosted on campus in recent years. Gabrielle “Gabe” L. Crofford, a current Lambda officer, expresses her concern for this “battery of scary homophobic incidents on HLS’s campus that definitely have a lot of queer students asking ‘are we safe here?’”
Just a few weeks ago, an HLS student was allegedly assaulted and called a homophobic slur on the Law School’s campus by another student. At an institution where many LGBTQ+ students still feel threatened, investigating the development of its flagship LGBTQ+ advocacy group can illuminate the ways that students have harnessed the power to protect themselves from a climate that threatens to crush them.
The stories behind COGLI’s evolution demonstrate how visibility becomes an instrument of justice and how justice can be at odds with the law.
Barbara A. Kritchevsky came out as lesbian during her undergraduate years at Middlebury College. Upon arriving at Harvard Law School in 1977, however, Kritchevsky struggled to connect with other LGBTQ+ law students.
“There wasn’t much visibility,” Kritchevsky recalls. “I think gay people at Harvard had no idea who else might be gay, or if they were alone.”
Though rumors circulated about professors’ sexualities and feminist groups on campus discussed topics adjacent to queerness, the LGBTQ+ community at Harvard Law School largely existed away from the public eye.
“There was a lot of isolation,” Kritchevsky says.
Louis A. Bradbury, who attended the Law School a few years before Kritchevsky, recalls that there were a few spots where LGBTQ+ people in the know could meet each other, though “it was very surreptitious and scary.”
One night, Bradbury recognized a classmate at a gay bar in Boston. “I said, ‘Oh, my god,’ and I left in a panic,” Bradbury says. “And on the way home, I realized, well, what was he doing there?”
In 1970, Bradbury attended a clandestine meeting for LGBTQ+ law students in the Harkness Commons. The windows were covered in brown paper bags to prevent the attendees from being outed.
“Many, many people walked by and tried to peer in,” Bradbury says. “It was kind of like, ‘who’s gay?’ And I don’t know if it was the gay people looking at who else is gay or what, but that was the environment.”
In 1978, Kritchevsky attended a talk at the Law School by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at the time, Warren E. Burger. “His conservative bent was certainly at odds with what a lot of us thought,” she says. Before the talk began, Kritchevsky noticed fliers laid out on the seats. The fliers were printed in black and white and went largely unnoticed by many of the event’s attendees. In bold, simple text, they announced the first meeting for an organization called “COGLI.”
Kritchevsky was one of the few students that attended that first meeting. There was “a little nervous energy” in the air, Kritchevsky recalls. The attendees were surprised to learn who among their peers identified as LGBTQ+, with students “sort of looking at each other like ‘Oh, you?’”
At the meeting, Kritchevsky remembers José Gómez, COGLI’s founder, outlining his motivations for creating the organization. “‘This is an issue whose time has come, and we need to get protection,’” she recalls him saying.
Gómez, remembered by his peers as “extraordinarily gentle,” was a force to be reckoned with. After graduating from the University of Wyoming, he studied Latin American literature in Nicaragua on a Fulbright scholarship, volunteered for the Peace Corps in Brazil, and worked alongside César Chávez before attending Harvard Law School at 34.
Between his first and second years at the Law School, Gómez clerked at the San Francisco-based National Gay Rights Advocates, where he learned the ins and outs of LGBTQ+ civil rights litigation. When he returned to HLS, Gómez wanted to create a similar group to incite change on campus. “We are not a social club,” he told the Harvard Law Record in 1978. “We are a group of gay and non-gay students very concerned about the growing national attack on the civil rights of gay people. We are organizing in order to provide legal assistance to gay legal defense groups, particularly on issues and causes around the Boston area.”
COGLI’s initial years were marked by a string of successful advocacy initiatives. In collaboration with other Harvard students, the group convinced the Law School administration to include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policy.
A month after COGLI was founded, Gómez and Kritchevsky met with Eleanor Appel, the head of the Law School’s career placement office, to urge law firms that recruited on campus not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. “It was probably the first thing I did at law school that was sort of advocacy and trying to make a difference institutionally,” says Kritchevsky.
Gómez wore a suit to the meeting; Kritchevsky wore a skirt. “We wanted to look as traditional and non-threatening as possible,” she explains.
At first, Appel politely listened to their concerns; however, mid-way through the conversation, Kritchevsky recalls that Appel told them: “‘Well, you can’t expect a firm to hire you,’ — and she’s looking at José — ‘if you show up to the interview wearing a dress.’”
“In the moment, it wasn’t as surprising as something like that would be today,” Kritchevsky says. She recalls that, despite his exasperation, Gómez kept his cool and re-explained COGLI’s objectives to Appel, as if he were “spelling it out to a three-year-old.”
Despite initial administrative resistance, COGLI eventually succeeded, even achieving national acclaim. “At Harvard Law School, gays have acquired considerable clout,” Time Magazine wrote in April 1979. “The school now will not allow any law firms that discriminate against homosexuals to use its placement service for employment interviews.”
COGLI attained another major victory when it successfully demanded that Harvard Law School ban the State Department and military from recruiting on campus. “The State Department and the military had policies of never, ever hiring someone who is gay or lesbian,” Mary B. Whisner, who graduated from the Law School in 1982, recalls. COGLI began circulating a petition around campus, which amassed signatures from the student body.
The petition succeeded, and in 1979, Havard Law prohibited the military from recruiting on its campus. “The administration did form a policy that they could not interview in the law school itself,” Whisner says. “And so they would still come close to campus, but they would interview at a nearby hotel.”
Although COGLI had a united front when advocating its first few initiatives, its members later found themselves divided on what exactly their activism should look like. Some members, who Schatz dubbs the “radicals,” favored a more aggressive approach to activism. Others, who he referred to as the “militant moderates,” opted for a more subtle technique. “The ‘militant moderates’ believed in incremental change through respectable means,” Schatz explains. “And the rest of us were a lot less concerned about respectability.”
Evan Wolfson, who graduated two years before Schatz, reflects on a similar tension within the group. “This new crowd came in their first year just more assertive and confident, and it was almost like a slight generational shift even though we were roughly the same age,” Wolfson says.
Wolfson says members of the group fought over what “openly gay” should mean and how COGLI should approach its advocacy.
“Almost all of us hated each other,” Wolfson says. “Just because you’re fighting for good things, just because you’re an activist, it’s not always going to be pleasant.”
While members of COGLI were fighting together for the same ultimate goal from the outset, this family was — like any — not without its growing pains. Ultimately, Wolfson attributes these clashes to an important time of maturing for everyone involved, noting that many of those people have remained both his friends and fellow activists until this day.
After finishing law school, Wolfson worked as a prosecutor at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. On nights and weekends, he also worked as a pro bono attorney for Lambda Legal — an LGBTQ+ civil rights organization unrelated to the advocacy group at HLS — during a “cataclysmically terrible time for gay people” in the ’80s. With his long-standing passion for marriage equality, which was the subject of his third-year law paper, Wolfson founded the organization Freedom To Marry, where he served as president, advocating for same-sex marriage until the Supreme Court victory in 2015.
Schatz also worked in areas of LGBTQ+ rights, but after a few years working as an attorney, he made what he calls “one of the more improbable Harvard Law career shifts.” He became a singing drag queen, where, he assures us, he was accepted as a gay person.
“I applied to Harvard Law School with a goal of becoming Martin Luther Queen,” Schatz tells us. “I never went to law school because I loved the law. I went to law school because I wanted to be involved in queer social change, and I thought a Harvard Law degree would be an effective way of doing it.”
“Law involves great creativity,” he says, “but essentially, it involves coloring within the lines. And I always like coloring outside the lines.”
To this day, he still writes for his dragapella group, the critically acclaimed Kinsey Sicks — referencing Alfred Kinsey’s Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, where a rating of six indicates that a person is “exclusively homosexual.” “I’m the last person to comment on what it’s like working in the legal profession because I got the hell out,” he says with no remorse.
Schatz refers to HLS as “a corporate law factory.”
“It was sort of like an assembly line,” he says. “You’re all headed in one direction, or if not, you were definitely swimming upstream.”
But he doesn’t regret going to law school. “The Harvard Law degree was actually seriously a help in terms of being a drag queen. So it wasn’t all to waste,” he adds. “A Harvard Law degree was a very expensive gimmick, but it got us attention.”
Reflecting on his time at Harvard, Schatz tells us, “I try not to think about Harvard Law School to this day. It was an extremely painful and unpleasant time. I put up a good fight and I’m proud of putting up the good fight, but it shouldn’t have been like that.”
Like Schatz, Kritchevsky believes that the law is not the only way to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Instead, she argues that one of the most powerful ways to fight for the LGBTQ+ community is simply to be visible.
Kritchevsky highlights the psychological damage caused by hiding one’s identity. “People didn’t understand how much of a toll it can take on people to be closeted and to not be able to talk about what everybody else can talk about,” she says. “If everybody else has been talking about their spouse, but you can’t, that, by definition, makes you an outsider.”
Kritchevsky cites a sentiment communicated by Harvey Milk — the first openly gay politician elected to public office in California — on the importance of coming out. “You have to be visible so people realize gay people aren’t this weird thing that’s hiding under a rock that they have to be careful to stay away from,” she says.
Kritchevsky pushed for visibility outside of Harvard’s campus by speaking in Boston high schools and colleges about her identity as a lesbian. “We just answered questions about being gay, because, at this point, many people thought they had never met a gay person,” she says. “Certainly, nobody who was out.”
Some of the students’ questions were teasing — one student asked Kritchevsky if she drank orange juice, alluding to the boycott of Florida orange juice by those who took issue with the homophobic views expressed by its spokesperson, Anita Bryant.
Others asked more thought-provoking questions. “One person I remember was like, ‘When you graduate, will you consider yourself a gay person who happens to be a lawyer or a lawyer who happens to be gay?’ I’m not sure I ever understood that.”
Kritchevsky is still fond of her stint as a high school speaker. To her surprise, her visibility benefited more than just the students she spoke to. “It turned out that a lot of the people who invited us were closeted teachers, at least for the high schools,” she says. “I remember some teachers sort of whispering to us about how glad they were we could be there.”
But visibility is not always easily established. Five years after Kritchevsky graduated, posters put up by Schatz and other COGLI members were taken down by the Harvard Police. “The homophobia we’ve encountered is having the opposite effect of that intended. I think we all feel a little more determined and a little more proud,” Schatz told the Harvard Law Record at the time of the incident in 1983.
Still, COGLI helped many LGBTQ+ students find tolerance and acceptance at the Law School.
“In the law school community, I found myself widely accepted,” Steve Sayers, who graduated in 1981, says. “We did have a few of our posters ripped down. But that was really a small minority.”
Moreover, visibility was not always desired. Many COGLI members feared that corporate law firms would refuse to hire applicants who openly identified as LGBTQ+.
These professional anxieties became apparent when members of COGLI decided to include a group photo in the school yearbook. Some members feared that, by revealing their affiliation with COGLI, they would stunt the careers they had been working towards for the past three years.
Although Kritchevsky was proudly out to her family and friends, she worried that the COGLI photo could hurt her professionally. “I was concerned about getting a job with a firm,” she says. “I don’t know that law firms would look at the yearbook, but that was the fear.”
Whisner says concerns about the photo and other publicizing involvement with COGLI stemmed from the culture at highly-coveted law firms.
“A lot of people in Harvard Law School want a particular type of legal career, and law firms, especially at the time, were pretty conservative socially,” Whisner says. “They expected certain behavior by associates and judged people. While you have your summer job, and we have the summer barbecue, do you bring the right sort of date? People were really nervous about their careers.”
Whisner navigated this dichotomy in her own life: though she was out in her social circles, she says she downplayed her lesbian identity as she built her career.
“It’s interesting for me to look back on my life and realize how sometimes I was a little bit closeted,” Whisner says. “All my family and all my friends knew that I was a lesbian, but on my resume, I would always say that I was editor-in-chief of the Harvard Women’s Law Journal, I was managing editor, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t usually say that I was vice president of the Committee on Gay and Lesbian Legal Issues.”
In an experiment that illustrates Whisner’s point, Schatz created two resumes: both included his education at Harvard College and the Law School, but one was a “gay” resume with his leadership and organizing work in the field of LGBTQ+ issues, and the other was a “blank” resume that listed more benign activities such as college theater. “I got something like a 23 percent interview response rate for the empty resume, and a 3 percent for the gay resume,” Schatz says. Other COGLI members, Schatz remembers, disapproved of his professional experiment, claiming his actions were dishonest.
“Well that’s how you prove discrimination,” he says.
In 1984, Whisner became a fellow at the Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship Program at the Georgetown University Law Center. The fellowship placed Whisner at a job with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a civil rights group based in Washington D.C. Despite the organization’s progressive initiatives, Whisner was cautioned about revealing her sexuality. “A person at the Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship program advised me not to mention that I was a lesbian right away because the man who would be my supervisor, she didn’t know how he would react,” she says.
Eventually, Whisner came out to her supervisor, and he responded amiably. Still, her initial hesitance reflects broader fears of COGLI members who were entering the professional world.
Despite the risks, many were set on using their degrees to effect positive change for LGBTQ+ people.
Ruth Colker ’78, another founding member of COGLI, arrived at Harvard Law with those very goals. “I always wanted to be a lawyer,” she says. “I wanted to save the world. That was the traditional view in the ’70s, going to law school to save the world.”
Nowadays, however, members of Lambda feel that their LGBTQ+ advocacy helps, rather than hurts, their career prospects.
Just as the professional world has become more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, COGLI too has become more inclusive in the scope of its activism. In its early years, COGLI limited its advocacy to the protection of people on the basis of sexual orientation, and did not fight for the inclusion of transgender and non-binary people.
Colker also recalls a lack of intersectionality within COGLI. “Other than José, I believe everybody was white,” she says. “I just don’t even remember there being any discussion of race. And I certainly didn’t know anyone who identified as trans in those days.”
The organization was renamed “Lambda” in 1993, referencing the Greek letter that has long symbolized the gay liberation movement. The new name more aptly encompasses their current identity as “a community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and allied students at Harvard Law School.”
Lambda’s original mission has also shifted with the times. Although Gómez once declared that COGLI was not a social club, community-building has become more central to its goal, especially during the pandemic.
“It ended up being a really good home base,” says Jake H. Hummer ’17 of his time in Lambda during the years of virtual law school. “It was great to have this dedicated space, a community that was really bringing everything together in terms of how we identify ourselves.”
Crofford, one of the current campus advocacy co-chairs, thinks of the past year at Lambda as an exciting celebration of being back together.
Law School professor I. Glenn Cohen remarked on the academic shift towards inclusion. During his career, Cohen has noticed a push towards including LGBTQ+ identities and issues in courses and academic work. “We have a great number of openly gay faculty now,” he says. “So things are quite different.”
Alexander L. Chen, a former student of Cohen and member of Lambda since 2012, has made strides for trans inclusion both within Lambda and HLS more broadly. He founded the first LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic at HLS, where students take on legal projects in impact litigation and legislative and policy advocacy. He currently serves as both the founding director of the clinic and a lecturer at the law school. He teaches a class called “Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, and the Law,” which interrogates the intersections between these concepts over time. Commenting on Chen’s work, Cohen remarks how the clinic has created a vital space to address LGBTQ+ issues in a way that wasn’t institutionalized within the law school curriculum before.
For Chen, the clinic is a way for some of the nation’s top law students to better understand civil rights work, even if they ultimately decide to work at corporate firms after they graduate.
Discussing the clinic, he says, “The hope is that students who feel motivated to understand what’s going on in the field of LGBT rights — to understand what they want to do in their own lives — are able to benefit from not just learning about it in the classroom but actually going out and doing it.”
“I’m pretty sure this is one of the only jobs I would have taken in legal academia,” Chen says. “What was exciting about Harvard as a distinctive opportunity is that the Harvard clinical programs tend to be very impactful in the fields that they’re in.”
Through the clinic, Chen has built a space where Harvard Law students have successfully litigated for the inclusion of trans people’s chosen gender markers on birth certificates in West Virginia and for the protection of trans or gender non-conforming residents in the New York City shelter system.
“A really big part of what drives me is hoping that we can make that kind of difference in the lives of our students and how they think about who they’re going to become,” Chen says.
D Dangaran, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 2020, also sees the clinic as an incubator for new LGBTQ+ legal talent. “The clinic is an excellent place to look at the future of the next generation of LGBT activism at HLS,” they say.
Dangaran was involved in both Chen’s clinic and Lambda during their time at the Law School. In Lambda, Dangaran was a firsthand witness to how the group dynamics have shifted over the years. They described two camps reminiscent of the “radicals” and “militant moderates” that Schatz first described. However, Dangaran notes that debates in the group today often focus on intersectionality and race.
Dangaran joined Lambda in 2017, after what they describe as a “revolutionary election year” for Lambda’s board. The two new co-presidents were both people of color, and they wanted “to make Lambda more political, more aware of these intersectional issues, more community service-minded, and more racially diverse,” Dangaran recalls.
Dangaran says that the co-presidents faced pushback from “older members of the group who had seen it the year before, when it was led by, I’d assume, cisgender and white members, who wanted it to be more fun, wanted more regular socials, etc.”
“Lambda was overall very white,” Dangaran says.
Amir Ashour, one of the current Lambda co-presidents, wrote in an emailed statement, “We certainly acknowledge that Lambda’s board is not the most diverse on campus. As a POC myself, I was hesitant to run to be the Co-President. This is something that we acknowledged on the very first board meeting and we continue to try and find ways to address it.”
Ashour pointed to supporting Lambda’s diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging chairs, co-sponsoring events with other student advocacy groups, and allocating ten percent of the student budget to supporting QTPOC, the Law School’s student group for queer and trans people of color, as examples of a push for inclusivity within Lambda.
When Dangaran was on the Lambda board, they also worked towards inclusivity by spearheading intersectional initiatives that combined queer interests with anti-racist and feminist struggles. They organized a conference called “Fighting the (Q)arceral State,” which focused on the compounded violence queer people face in the prison system.
“For all of us, the police state is harmful,” Dangaran says. “But for queer people and trans people, specifically, it is just so much more harmful.”
Dangaran’s other projects on the Lambda board include building an advocacy network for sex workers, aiding people with name change services in Cambridge, and lobbying against the Trump administration’s transgender military ban.
“I remember going really early before classes started,” Dangaran says. “And just writing on every single whiteboard in the main building, ‘Trans Lives Matter.’”
Though Dangaran had doubts about the group’s lack of intersectionality, Lambda proved to be willing to adapt and served as a powerful platform. “It was very easy for me to do the work that I wanted to do in Lambda, and the organization was supportive of my prison abolitionist and trans interests,” they say. “Lambda was ready and willing to make necessary change.”
Dangaran also credits Lambda with helping them find their specific interests in the vast field of civil rights advocacy. “I do think that Lambda helped me figure out what I want to do,” they say. Now, they work as a litigator protecting the rights of trans people held in detention centers, pursuing the interest in prison abolition that they first cultivated in law school.
Dangaran admits that ultimately, they were put off by what they saw as inertia from other members. “Your involvement in Lambda could literally be showing up and hanging out and listening to people talk and never doing anything on your own,” they say. “It didn’t feel like the right organizing space for me because people weren’t all on the same page about what it was going to be.”
Ashour emphasized the importance of social events while also acknowledging that social events are not mutually exclusive with political advocacy. “For us, Lambda should be a place for both those who join with the primary purpose of having a community and for those who want to advocate for certain issues,” says Ashour. “Both are equally welcome in the community.”
While COGLI’s history begins in 1978, the history of the LGBTQ+ community at Harvard Law School stretches back farther than we can know. To immortalize the voices of this history, Geoffrey C. Upton, who graduated from HLS in 2003, compiled an oral history of LGBTQ+ students at the institution. He interviewed alumni from as early as the 1940s. More history doubtlessly exists before then as well — voices absent from the archives.
Even in the ’70s, Kritchevsky was aware of her place in a long history that spirals out before and after her. She tells us about a conversation she had with a closeted librarian who worked at a Catholic university, about 40 years her senior, whom she met at a protest in Washington D.C. “She was like, ‘Oh, things are so good for you,’ and at the time, I think it was true,” Kritchevsky says. “Things were so open compared to what they were for her.”
Despite this progress, the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is by no means linear. Fifty years later, we are living in a time where we continue to see new bans on gender-affirming healthcare, the introduction of ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills, and a rising number of anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes. Groups like Lambda are critical to the survival of progressive policies. With a platform as large as Harvard’s, every move matters, because every step will echo for years to come.
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