secret court in 1920 to question students about the suicide of sophomore Cyril Wilcox.
The questions weren't about Cyril's death. They focused on a letter that connected Cyril to a gay scene at Harvard. Dean Greenough said the discovery was "unspeakably gross" and that it "tainted" the college. He took quick action. All students found to be gay would be expelled.
Eugene Cummings had studied five years to become a dentist. The senior wouldn't graduate. A note was added to Eugene's file: "Proved guilty, but took ether upon receiving news. Died on morning of June 11, 1920."
Back then, students like Cyril and Eugene were silenced by shame. Today they speak proudly.
How open are we?
In America we have Glee on TV, gays in the military and same-sex marriage in six states — but not the other 44. In some 30 states, workers can be fired just for being gay. Gays don't have full rights in most countries. Even the oppressed oppress gays. The deaths of Cyril and Eugene in 1920 were repeated in 2010. There was a rash of gay teenage suicides across America last fall.
Back in 1920, a mother spoke out when her gay son was expelled from Harvard: "You could have done much good," she wrote to the dean, "had you perhaps had a little less sense of justice and a little more of the spirit of Jesus in your heart."
That Harvard mom of 1920 represents the true religious traditions of love and compassion. She also represents the true Harvard tradition.
Speech, then openness
The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus is composed of more than 5,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Harvard and Radcliffe alumni/ae, faculty, staff and students. HGLC was formed in 1984 to pressure Harvard University to include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy.
Speech is what has moved Harvard toward openness — not just for gays, but all the people who weren't welcome on campus at one time. Today's diverse graduates will export their values of tolerance to the world, negotiating solutions for the many injustices that still exist. Imagine the power of their education.
This post was adapted from a May 20, 2011 article in USA Today by Joel P. Engardio who graduated last May with a Master of Public Administration degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.