Books

HARVARD’S SECRET ANTI-GAY COURT

In 1920, America’s top university tried to rid itself of homosexuals

BRIAN BETHUNE November 14 2005
Books

HARVARD’S SECRET ANTI-GAY COURT

In 1920, America’s top university tried to rid itself of homosexuals

BRIAN BETHUNE November 14 2005

HARVARD’S SECRET ANTI-GAY COURT

Books

BRIAN BETHUNE

In 1920, America’s top university tried to rid itself of homosexuals

ON THE NIGHT of May 13, 1920, a Harvard student committed suicide in his family’s home in Fall River, Mass., the town made famous 28 years before by Lizzie Borden. Cyril Wilcox had been sent home from the university because of poor grades, but he also had other troubles on his mind. The evening before he killed himself, Cyril confessed to his older brother, Lester, that he had recently ended a love affair with an older man in Boston. In the days after his death, Lester opened letters that arrived for Cyril—letters that placed his brother firmly inside a flourishing gay subculture at America’s most prestigious university.

In an era when suicide and homosexuality were both family disgraces, many relatives would have burned the correspondence and done their best to bury all knowledge of the scandal. But as William Wright shows in Harvard’s Secret Garden, a dramatic account of a powerful institution run amok, Lester was no ordinary bereaved brother. He was highly intelligent, violent-tempered and morally censorious—and just one of several remarkable individuals whose behaviour turned a family tragedy into a crisis, one that caused further suicides and affected the lives of others for decades to come.

Lester, convinced that Harvard’s moral rot was the cause of his weak little brother’s suicide, stormed off to see Cyril’s ex-lover, thrashed him and extracted from him a list of every gay Harvard man he knew. Next stop: the university. There, Lester was gratified to find the authorities in complete agreement about the drastic measures necessary. Harvard struck a secret court, grilled 30 sus-

pects on everything from their friends to their masturbation habits, drummed nine of them out of the university, and thenbeing Harvard—rather than destroying the 500 pages of trial transcript, stamped “secret” on the file and put it in the university archives, where it was found 82 years later.

Key to Harvard’s over-the-top response was the second incandescent personality in Wright’s story. Harvard president Lawrence Lowell was as blue-blooded as they come. The town of Lowell, Mass., is named after his great-great-grand-uncle; the nearby town of Lawrence after his maternal grandfather. The distinguished astronomer Percival Lowell was his brother. Lawrence Lowell’s imperiousness was legendary, and was shared by his staff—legend has it that an unexpected visitor to Lowell’s office was told, “Thepresident cannot see you; he is in Washington seeing Mister Coolidge.”

When the Wilcox story reached him, Lowell was engaged, as he often was, in saving the world. He was a Republican and a supporter of the League of Nations, championed by U.S. Democratic President Woodrow Wilson but despised by his own party. In May 1920, Lowell was feverishly trying to square that circle when he abruptly abandoned high politics to harass a handful of gay men. It was Lowell who personally removed from university records the name of a young gay instructor, disappearing the man from Harvard history as effectively as Stalinist photo erasures later did in the Soviet Union. And it was Lowell who, in a separate homosexual scandal, gave the following advice to a long-serving professor who had thrown himself on the president’s mercy: “If I were you, I would get

a gun and destroy myself.”

Author Wright moves easily through Lowell’s patrician Ivy League world. Now 75 and gay himself, Wright graduated from Yale in 1952, during one ofhomosexuality’s deepfreeze periods. “I was so self-closeted at Yale that I would have fled any gay group that approached me,” he told Maclean’s. “But I knew they were there—very secret, more secret than 30 years earlier, but there.” Wright still isn’t sure why Lowell reacted the way he did. “Maybe he spent all his gay compassion on his sister and had none left for his undergraduates.” Throughout his lifetime, in fact, Lawrence spoke with pride about his eccentric, fat, cigar-smoking lesbian sister, Amy, a talented poet whose fame today eclipses his own. Wright is less sure about what Lowell thought privately.

But displaced homophobia is only part of Wright’s explanation of the secret court’s ruthlessness. Enter remarkable personality No. 3. Ernest Roberts, one of the correspondents whose letters to Cyril Wilcox precipitated the crisis, was the son of a powerful Boston politician. He was also openly, even flamboyantly, gay, to an astonishing extent for his time. Roberts’s very existence was an affront to Lowell and his court; what they learned of his parties— attended not just by Harvard men but town boys in drag, and sailors—enraged them.

Throughout its proceedings the court vacillated between agreeing with the most enlightened opinion of the day, that homosexuality was innate—albeit an innate pathology-and with the notion that it was a moral

‘MAYBE HE spent

all his gay compassion on his lesbian sister and had none left for his undergraduates’

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contagion. The academics were bitterly hostile to Roberts but contemptuous of the two or three essentially straight men caught up in their sweep, 20-year-olds guilty of nothing more than a few fumbling encounters with gay roommates in Harvard’s women-less world. All were expelled: Roberts because he further angered the court with his candidly insolent accounts of gay sex, the heterosexuals because they foolishly appealed to the court’s mercy. Yet one of the gay men, Stanley Gilkey, who went on to the welcoming world of Broadway theatre, knew already the hypocrisy demanded of him by straight society. He boldly lied his way through his trial, evading expulsion.

What really distinguishes the secret court in the annals of his country’s hypocrisy and homophobia, Wright says, is its vindictiveness. When Eugene Cummings, whose family had struggled to finance his five years at Harvard, was expelled just days before completing his degree in dentistry, he immediately killed himself. Undeterred by that tragedy, the court carried on with its moral cleansing. For decades afterwards, prospective employers curious about the applicants’ time at Harvard were given the full dirt. Many of those expelled, Wright reports, never found fulfilling work, something he believes contributed to two later suicides.

Harvard is a very different place now, dedicated to human rights and home to a flourishing, above-ground gay and lesbian community. Its current president, Lawrence Summers, who—after making some controversial remarks earlier this year about women and science—can testify to the political power wielded by the university’s minority groups, told Wright he looks on the secret court as a cautionary tale. “I ask myself repeatedly, ‘Are we administrators doing anything now that will look bad in 80 years?”’But Wright isn’t so sure the bad old days are gone forever. Sometime in 2005, he notes, after research for his book was finished, all references to the secret court were mysteriously erased from the ^fD’SSECRET university archives’ william Wright; online catalogues. (U Fenn; $34.95