The Secret Court is legendary at Harvard University when in 1920 a tribunal of administrators joined to investigate charges of alleged homosexual activity among its students. After several weeks of painful interviews, nine students were expelled for being gay or perceived as being gay. One even committed suicide after the school discovered that he was having an affair with another man.
It may sound more like a terrible plot of an antiquated suspense novel, but this lavender scare was all too real. It was a witch hunt that ruined the lives of many promising young men at one of the nation’s most esteemed universities. And, according to a few recent students and faculty, it’s a scourge that continues to blemish the university’s reputation – especially if you consider that Harvard counts many gay scholars, writers and leaders among its alumni, including Barney Frank, William S. Burroughs and Wallace Stevens.
Today, more than 2,500 students, alumni and supporters at the university have signed a petition saying they would like to see each the expelled students receive honorary degrees:
• Donald Clark
• Eugene Cummings
• Kenneth Day
• Stanley Gilkey
• Joseph Lumbard
• Ernest Weeks Roberts
• Edward Say
• Keith Smerage
• Nathaniel Wollf
“These students were not only forced to leave the university, they were also ordered to leave Cambridge, Mass.,” says Kaia Stern, a faculty member who created the petition. “Two of the students were allowed back (Gilkey and Lumbard), but the rest were not – one killed himself over the ordeal – Eugene R. Cummings. He was only 23-years-old and three weeks away from graduation. We are also disturbed to hear that Harvard pursued and persecuted these young men for over 30 years.”
One of the signers of this petition – Timothy Moriarty – says, “As a gay man who attended an Ivy League school, it is important for Harvard to more proactively and fully respond to the wrong that was done – to honor the students and their families, even this long after the fact.”
Tomorrow (Feb. 29) students and staff are expected to rally outside Harvard’s Sanders Theater where Lady Gaga and Oprah Winfrey will be holding an event to launch the pop star’s Born This Way Foundation.
“We’re challenging the Harvard community to live up to its mission to ‘liberate students to explore, to create, to challenge, and to lead … to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society,” says Stern. “It’s time to ensure these seven students receive justice and are honored officially by the university with posthumous degrees.”
A book was written – Harvard’s Secret Court by William Wright – that details the suppositions, interrogations and painful impact the gay witch hunt had on students who were expelled – even decades later.
“As a Harvard alumnus,” says Frederick Brown, “I believe justice delayed is justice denied. Justice for these men has been delayed too long. I would be proud to have all seven as fellow alumni.”