Gay at HLS: A Brief History

Geoffrey C. Upton ‘03 presented the following history, an excerpt from his third-year paper, at Lambda’s 25th Reunion Conference in 2004.

It was October 1978 at Harvard Law School, and two second-year students – José Gómez ‘81 and Barbara Kritchevsky ‘80 – were making their way up the steps of Pound Hall. They were to meet with Eleanor Appel, head of the career placement office and a powerful force on the scene of legal recruitment. Appel, it was rumored, was single-handedly responsible for setting the salaries offered to summer and first-year associates at firms across the country. But on this October day, Gómez and Kritchevsky weren’t thinking about salaries. They were heading into their meeting with a simple request, but one that had not yet been uttered within the hallowed halls of Harvard Law: they wanted Harvard to insist that employers that came to campus not discriminate on the basis of whether students were gay. Just one month before, Gómez had founded the first gay student group at the Law School, which he called the Committee on Gay Legal Issues, or COGLI for short. Now he was the group’s president, and Kritchevsky one of its first members.

At first the meeting seemed to go well. Appel listened cordially as the students explained why they were there. But it soon became clear that Appel didn’t quite get it. Kritchevsky recalls the day well, almost 25 years later: “We’re just giving our whole spiel and [Appel] is being sort of nice and then she says things like, ‘I don’t think you can expect the firm to hire you if you show up for the interview wearing a dress.’ And then she said, ‘People who have sex change operations, I can’t understand that either.’ … I was just thinking it was horribly ignorant and sort of wondering if it was a joke, and then thinking, how dumb can you be? Do you really think that’s what we’re interested in, having guys show up to law firm interviews wearing dresses?”

The students were shocked that a Law School administrator could be so naive about what it meant to be gay, Gómez recalls: “I couldn’t believe that I had heard what I had heard. I didn’t know that there were people at this level in the administration of a school like Harvard Law School that would still have those stereotypes.” The students left Appel’s office having made no progress, but determined to take the fight elsewhere. They knew that with time, effort and determination, Harvard – and the nation – would recognize the justice of their cause.

The history of gay students at HLS is largely a secret one. Were there any homosexual men in the first class to enter the school, in 1817? Who was the first faculty member to experience or act on same-sex desire? How many of the portraits on the walls of Langdell Library and Pound Hall depict men and women who, today, might be openly gay? These are questions we may never know the answers to, and not for lack of trying. For most of Harvard Law School’s history – at least until the 1950’s – same-sex desire was something to be hidden from public view. It was a crime and a mental illness, a condition to be condemned for or cured of – not accepted and celebrated.

Before attitudes about homosexuality began to undergo gradual change in mid-20th century, the men of Harvard Law who had feelings for other men often sought psychological help. They tried various forms of treatment to attempt to rid themselves of their desires, and when those therapies failed, they resolved to suppress their feelings by force of will — anything so that they might be able to get married and have a family and career, like everyone else. Some gay HLS students chose to take their own lives rather than continue living in torment. But even those who tried hardest to repress their feelings for men were rarely wholly successful. Whether in each other’s dormitory rooms, elsewhere on the Harvard campus, or in bars and clubs in Boston, homosexual men at the Law School found furtive ways to accommodate their desires without risking the successful careers they counted on as Harvard-trained lawyers. For decades students went to great lengths to make sure no one knew what they were up to when they rode the T downtown late on a Saturday night, or when they would invite other men to spend the night in Holmes or Hastings Hall.

During this long period of silence, Harvard Law School was a formal, competitive, distinctly male place. There were no female students or professors, and in the mid-20th century, the Harvard Law School Wives’ Club – led by Dean Erwin Griswold’s wife Harriet — reminded students that women stood apart from the professional world of the law. The Law School classroom was dominated by force of personality, an environment in which students were awed and cowed by their older male professors. The bonds between professors and students were what one gay professor would later call “homosocial”; as in other all-male settings, such as the military, the bonds enabled and maintained a dominant masculinity, yet were laden with sexual suggestion. Indeed, while homosexuality may seldom if ever have been spoken about, the Law School was pervaded by a tension between men that for some professors and students was likely an embodiment of, or a thinly-veiled substitute for, pent-up sexual energy. For some professors, this sexual energy may have been less veiled than it was for others; in the ’50s and ‘60s, for example, students both gay and straight thought it curious that two professors were roommates, even though they were both older men. Other professors were rumored to be homosexual based on effete mannerisms or because they were long-time bachelors.

Eventually, starting in the 1950’s, as gays and lesbians began to slowly develop a social and political identity and to form groups like the Mattachine Society, it became possible for the gay students of Harvard Law School to abandon, or at least to dwell less on, their hopes of turning straight. Instead, they started to form social bonds with one another. These relationships were often confined to the bars in Boston where they usually met, but sometimes extended to the Law School campus, with groups of gay students meeting socially in dorm rooms and forming a veritable, if loosely organized, gay “underground.” In the early 1970’s, some Harvard Law students also began to take notice of, and become a part of, a new gay student organization at Harvard College.

By the late 1970’s, with gay activism percolating around the country, one student, José Gómez, took the initiative to establish the first official gay student organization at the Law School. Within months, the Committee on Gay Legal Issues found itself tabling in Harkness Commons, lobbying the administration regularly and making a stir almost weekly in the pages of the Harvard Law Record. The new group embarked on several successful campaigns, such as the effort to get the Law School to enforce its anti-discrimination policy against the military and other on-campus recruiters, and, joining forces with other Harvard students, to have sexual orientation included in the university-wide anti-discrimination policy.

Then, in 1982, a wave of a half-dozen out, confident gay students arrived at HLS, determined to make themselves known on campus. Unlike their forerunners, these students had been out in college, and were already schooled in gay campus activism. Over the next several years, they put those techniques to work at HLS, keeping gay issues in the public eye through provocative posters, panel discussions and other events. These students, in the Class of ‘85, pressed their professors to think and talk about the implications of homosexuality throughout the law, and tried to make straight students question their own prejudices and stereotypes. These were also the early years of the AIDS crisis, and this group of young activists would later become leaders of the legal and political community fighting the disease. At the same time, two Harvard Law professors were already at the forefront of gay rights litigation. Laurence Tribe and Kathleen Sullivan (herself an alumna of the Class of 1981) litigated a line of cases that ended with a major defeat – the Supreme Court’s 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, upholding the constitutionality of sodomy laws.

For many, Bowers was a sign of how far the nation still had to go in accepting gays and lesbians. Whether in response to the decision, or to increased concerns about job security — especially after the stock market crashed in October 1987 – gay students at HLS grew quieter about their sexual orientation. The number of out gay students on campus plummeted from several dozen in 1985 to just a handful two years later, and those who were out found themselves hard-pressed to maintain any visibility at all on campus. On the other hand, if Bowers left some in the gay community dejected, it also empowered a new generation of GLBT students to enter the law. These students showed up at Harvard in the fall of 1987 and 1988 angry about Bowers and about the Reagan Administration’s perceived inadequate response to AIDS, and empowered by the radical tactics of newly-formed groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation. At Harvard, they set out to again raise the profile of the gay and lesbian student community, in part through highly controversial posters and by speaking their minds in class.

But GLBT students weren’t the only angry or radical ones at Harvard Law in the late ’80s. For much of the decade, the law school faculty had been deeply divided between Critical Legal Studies scholars on the left and more traditional scholars on the right. In 1989, Professor Robert Clark, a conservative, was appointed the school’s new dean; after several impolitic comments and controversial decisions – particularly on tenure appointments – the school hit a boiling point. Numerous GLBT students of the Class of 1992 joined and helped lead a large coalition of students demanding increased faculty diversity, and were willing to engage in civil disobedience to get it — although concerns about the lack of an openly gay faculty member took a backseat to issues of gender and race. In fact, however, the Class of ‘92 contained the largest group of openly gay students ever at Harvard Law. So while some GLBT students focused on faculty diversity, others continued to re-energize the HLS gay community, lobbying for a course on sexual orientation on the law (if only to be taught by visiting faculty), creating new social and political programs to support the now-sizable community on campus, and, upon graduation, creating a gay and lesbian committee of the Harvard Law Alumni Association.

The gay community at Harvard Law was so large in the early ’90s that it effectively splintered into two: one openly gay and politically active, centered on the student group – now called the Committee on Gay, Bisexual and Lesbian Legal Issues, or COGBLLI — and another group of students who thought everything about COGBLLI was silly, starting with the organization’s unwieldy name. These students saw being gay as a private, social identity, rather than a public, political one, and an uncomfortable rift developed between the two groups, poisoning relations among some in the gay community.

In 1993, another wave of gay students enrolled at HLS. This group, part of the Class of ‘96, lacked the internal tensions that had divided the Class of ‘92, perhaps reflecting a greater social trend. For the gay community at the Law School , the mid-90s were a fairly comfortable time, with the student group — now renamed Lambda — organizing speakers, dances, and even a GLBT volleyball team. By 1993, American society in general had seen a major change in attitudes toward homosexuality: Bill Clinton had run for president on a platform of acceptance in 1992, gay characters began to appear in popular television shows, and mainstream companies had begun advertising in the gay press.

But then an odd thing happened: the number of openly gay students at HLS started to plummet. Each of the classes of 1997, 1998, and 1999 had fewer than a half-dozen openly gay students, and the Class of 2000 had exactly four. The drop-off was so obvious that gay students started looking for a reason. One widespread explanation was that in the wake of the combative activism of the early ’90s, the Dean had instructed the Admissions Office to turn away students likely to cause trouble — thereby keeping out openly gay activists. It is also possible that openly gay students chose not to apply to HLS, as Yale and NYU law schools developed reputations of being friendlier to non-traditional students. Whatever the cause, the effects of the diminished gay presence at HLS were noticeable. Efforts to get an openly gay member on the permanent faculty, already sporadic, lost force, and by 2001, the school was one of the few of its size to offer no course on sexual orientation and the law.

The rapid decrease in the number of openly gay students on campus also coincided with the rise of the conservative law student movement. At Harvard, as at other law schools, the Federalist Society had become a well-funded, well-organized critic of traditional liberal attitudes toward the law. At Harvard, they were joined by the Society for Law, Life and Religion, a conservative student group that took public stands against abortion and homosexuality. For the few out students who remained at HLS in the late ’90s, therefore, the challenge was two-fold: not only did they need to work hard just to maintain visibility on campus; they also had to respond to not infrequent assaults from a vocal conservative student base. Even as the nation continued to make strides in accepting gays and lesbians, it got so bleak to be gay at Harvard Law that members of the Class of 2000 felt as if they might be the last of a dying breed.

But, fortunately for HLS, they weren’t. The classes of 2001, 2002, and 2003 saw a slow rebound in the numbers of out gay students on campus. Although Lambda remained small and comparatively quiet, with an emphasis on social activities, this was in part a reflection of the fact that a growing number of out, GLBT students felt comfortable being openly gay at the Law School without joining the student group. Whereas, a decade earlier, some gay students had spurned the organization as too political or too public, it was now seen increasingly as but one among many groups vying for students’ attention. Not until the summer of 2002, when Harvard gave in to the Bush Administration’s demand that military recruiters be allowed back on campus – undoing the very first victory won by the Committee on Gay and Lesbian Legal Issues – did a sense of urgency and focus reinvigorate the HLS gay community.

The new military recruitment policy coincided with a dramatic upturn in the number of out students at the Law School, first in the Class of 2004 and then, more markedly, in the Class of 2005. One result was a dramatic, highly publicized rally on the steps of Langdell Library in October 2002, protesting the school’s decision on the military issue; meanwhile, the group’s membership began meeting more regularly and organizing more events than it had in nearly a decade.

While Lambda’s activism has failed thus far to change Harvard’s policy on military recruitment, the gay community on campus appears, for the moment, to have turned yet another corner in a 25-year history of waning and waxing activism. Off-campus, Harvard’s GLBT graduates continue, day-by-day, to have an outsized impact on the world. Just this summer, one recent alumna was part of the legal team that convinced the Supreme Court to hold sodomy laws unconstitutional, 17 years after Bowers v. Hardwick. Other alumni/ae are making change, too; Harvard Law’s GLBT alumni/ae include two of the most prominent openly gay elected officials in the country; the nation’s first openly gay or lesbian federal judge; several of the nation’s top authorities on sexual orientation and the law; and many, if not most, of the leading courtroom advocates for gay and lesbian civil rights. In addition, a large number of openly gay Harvard graduates have become powerful and senior partners at the nation’s premier law firms.

In the end, the story of GLBT students at Harvard Law School is less about oppression than it is about indifference. Rarely, in the many decades that self-identified homosexual students have been at Harvard Law, have they felt a sense that the school itself or anyone representing it was overtly homophobic. Nor have gay students been subject to much hostility from straight students, as incidents of harassment have been few and far between. That said, Harvard Law has seldom if ever gone out of its way to make its GLBT students feel comfortable as gay men and women. For, more broadly, the school has always put a premium on intellectual and scholarly achievement, and has rarely seemed interested in how people spend their time outside the classroom or who they are as people. When being gay was something that needed to be kept under wraps, this indifferent attitude helped students lead dual lives, and allowed them to keep their private lives private. When, however, gay men and women emerged into the light of day in the ’80s and’90s, students found the school’s entrenched elitism and indifference frustrating and counterproductive.

The HLS gay community has also fluctuated in size greatly over the last five decades, with the number of openly gay, politically involved students ranging from a handful to more than a dozen. Whereas other minority groups at the Law School have waged consistent struggles in an effort to effect change at the school, the gay community has seen bursts of activity every two to five years since 1978.

Meanwhile, the fact that Harvard graduates have taken the lead in gay and lesbian legal positions and become path-breakers in positions where gays and lesbians had never openly been may not be surprising, given that there are few legal fields in which Harvard Law School does not dominate. But the fact is that many of the men and women who have broken barriers by being out on the job were fully closeted while at the Law School , or only beginning to come out; others were not yet out even to themselves. Perhaps, therefore, it is only when Harvard’s rarefied atmosphere, with its elitist indifference to matters of sexual orientation, has been left behind-and when its graduates have found themselves in more hospitable settings-that the gay men and women of the Law School have been able to come into their own.

Regardless, as Harvard’s gay alumni/ae have gone into the legal world and changed it, those changes have in turn affected the experience of the younger generations. As gay men and women made their presence known at law firms, and rose to those firms’ highest ranks, they became involved in and even responsible for hiring – and sent the message that it was okay to be openly gay in the recruiting process. As Harvard’s gay alumni/ae began producing scholarship in the field of sexual orientation and the law, they created and built an academically respectable niche in which many students now work. Finally, Harvard’s gay and lesbian alumni/ae have affected the School itself in more tangible ways – by serving as members of its Alumni Association, its Visiting Committee, and even of the University’s Board of Overseers. And to the extent that Harvard’s gay men and women have experienced discrimination, hostility or, at a minimum, indifference to their plight, one hopes that their involvement in the school’s future will help make it a safer, warmer, better place for all.