The 1997-98 academic year was undoubtedly a year of firsts for LGBTQ+ representation at Harvard.
The year saw the first gay wedding at Memorial Church, Harvard’s first same-sex couple as faculty deans, and the first openly gay member of the University’s second-highest governing body, the Board of Overseers.
It was also one of change for Harvard’s queer advocacy groups, whose organizational structures evolved — sometimes in ways laden with controversy.
Caroline E. Cotter ’98 – a former member of the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance – said developments in LGBTQ+ advocacy and representation during her time at Harvard were reflective of larger movements across the country.
“There was a lot happening in the outside world that was definitely creating change,” Cotter said. “We have more power when we have a stronger community. So I think that was just being reflected in colleges probably across the country.”
Jennifer T. Tattenbaum ’98, who co-founded a group for queer women on campus as a student, said while 1998 wasn’t a turning point in LGBTQ+ advocacy on campus, her goal was simply to “feel comfortable” while “being open.”
“It was the work that we did back then that has made the world more accepting today, I think,” Tattenbaum said.
“I was living openly and through that, I believe that’s an act of advocacy,” Cotter added.
The BGLTSA – now called Harvard College Queer Students and Allies – faced numerous changes in its leadership and organizational structure in 1997-98.
That year, the organization split into six “daughter” groups: GirlSpot, a forum for women; Quest, a confidential peer group; Cocktail, a forum for men; Spectrum, a group for queer students of color; QUAG, a group dedicated to political action; and the Transgender Task Force.
Tattenbaum, who co-founded GirlSpot, said these new groups emerged from a need for greater inclusivity and representation within BGLTSA.
“There was no women’s community on campus — like lesbian, bisexual, anything — and very few women went to the BGLTSA group because it was really dominated by guys,” she said. “We wanted to just try to make a space where women would know if they went, there would be lots of women there.”
Former co-chair of the BGLTSA Lauralee Summer ’98 similarly recalled a lack of women’s representation. Summer said that this led her and some other board members to host a women’s art exhibit in Adams House in early 1998.
The exhibit received pushback from BGLTSA Vice Chair David A. Campbell ’00. As tensions rose, Campbell was impeached by the body’s board in February 1998.
In March 1998, Campbell wrote an op-ed in The Crimson claiming these new groups were “splintering” BGLTSA, criticizing leadership’s decision to expand the concerns of the organization.
But the formation of the daughter groups ultimately seemed to draw more support and enthusiasm than resistance among queer students. BGLTSA representatives rebuked Campbell’s criticisms in a responding letter and defended its role in facilitating “dialogue between its diverse membership.”
Tattenbaum said the daughter groups ultimately strengthened BGLTSA by providing space for queer students to find peers with similar identities.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the community became stronger by having subgroups,” she said. “The BGLTSA did a good job acting as an umbrella organization, but I think there are people who would not have been involved at all if they hadn’t found their niche.”
Philosophy professor Warren D. Goldfarb ’69 — one of Harvard’s first openly gay faculty members and the president of the Open Gate, which provides funding for activities benefiting LGBTQ+ students — said fissures in the organization were a “periodic occurrence” because not all students wanted to be represented by the BGLTSA, which was politically active and occasionally described as radical.
“I can’t tell you how many times this happened, but I do know that my organization has funded a number of split-off organizations, which all disappear within two or three years,” Goldfarb said. “They don’t have any staying power because the BGLTSA, it has this long history — it tends to remain.”
Another change to the BGLTSA was the 1997 addition of the “T,” which stands for “transgender.” The request came from the College’s first openly trans student, Alex S. Myers ’00.
“I think people were happy to broaden the identity of the group because it was people that already identified as queer and weren’t included in the actual title of the group,” Summers said.
In the summer of 1997, Memorial Church’s policies changed to permit the officiation of same-sex weddings, five years after longtime Memorial Church Pusey Minister Reverend Peter J. Gomes came out as gay.
Robert L. Parlin ’85 said that prior to the announcement, he and his partner Benjamin “Bren” Bataclan, who were planning on getting married, didn’t know when and where they would do so.
“I immediately went to the church officials and said we’d like to sign up, and it turned out we were the first,” Parlin said. “It was so exciting to do it at my alma mater — a beautiful, beautiful place.”
The ceremony was held on April 18, 1998 — a beautiful day, Parlin recalled. The couple had a large, traditional Catholic ceremony accompanied by musical performances from friends and poetry readings. After the event, they walked into Harvard Yard.
“It happened to be some kind of parents’ weekend,” Parlin said. “They kept coming up to Bren, my husband and I, asking where the bride was.”
Tattenbaum recalled that “people really freaked out” over Parlin and Bataclan’s marriage, backlash that was “dismaying” to see.
“I don’t remember students being bothered by it at all, certainly not the students I knew. It seemed more like community alumni, folks like that who were bothered by it — by the symbolism of it,” she said. “It was reflective of the community and homophobia at large, which was also part of the community and campus life.”
Another significant moment in LGBTQ+ representation at Harvard was the appointment of Diana L. Eck and Dorothy A. Austin as the first same-sex couple to become faculty deans at Lowell House in 1998.
Goldfarb didn’t recall any negative blowback from students, and she remembered their eventual wedding at Memorial Church as “beautiful” and “absolutely packed,” with a parade of people moving to the reception held at Lowell.
According to Goldfarb, former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, who appointed the couple, was worried about pushback from alumni but was surprised by the lack of criticism after the announcement.
“He said he got maybe two or three letters from cranky old alumni and that was it,” Goldfarb said.
Cotter, a resident of Lowell House, recalled feeling “really happy” about Eck and Austin’s appointment as faculty deans. She said Lowell at the time “didn’t feel like a queer-friendly space,” so she was “really excited” to see the shift.
The election of Sheila J. Kuehl in 1998 as the first openly gay or lesbian person to the Board of Overseers also increased queer representation on Harvard's campus.
Though Kuehl said she didn’t believe her presence as a queer person changed the body itself, she said her election may have provided affirmation for queer students.
“I think it was important in ways that I didn’t know but always imagine when people talk about role models,” she said.
Kuehl, a 1978 graduate of Harvard Law School, was recruited to run by LGBTQ+ student organizers.
“Students were happy, at least when I first talked to them about running, that I was an attorney and I was a civil rights attorney,” Kuehl said. “That seemed to also go with what they had in mind in the larger picture.”
“It wasn’t just ‘Oh, you’re queer,’ it’s that, ‘Oh, you’re working on queer things,’” Kuehl added.
Tattenbaum said Harvard’s support of queer students amid strides in advocacy and representation seen in 1997-98 “fell short,” but no more than other institutions or the world outside the University.
Harvard, she said, aims toward “teaching students to be part of the dominant culture,” which means it is inevitable that it will fail in “making space for everyone’s unique culture.”
“I still felt like it was a good place to be a gay person. It was kind of like the world at large. It wasn’t like a warm embrace, but it also wasn’t discriminatory — or actively discriminatory — or putting people down or making them feel uncomfortable,” she said. “It didn’t feel like it was contested on campus as to whether you could be openly gay.”
Still, Cotter said political backlash in recent years against trans individuals demands concern.
“We cannot be complacent about the progress we’ve made. So I think it’s great to look at why the progress was being made back in the 90s but also realize the fight isn’t over,” she said.
“These are rights that we cannot just take for granted,” Cotter added.
—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.