To commemorate the centennial of the Secret Court of 1920, Harvard affiliates on two panels last week reflected on past and present issues facing BGLTQ students at the school as part of an event series titled “Secret Court 100: Harvard’s Queer Century.”
In 1920, six Harvard administrators formed the Secret Court, a disciplinary tribunal to investigate and punish ten affiliates for their sexualities. The students were expelled, banned from the City of Cambridge, and received a permanent note on their transcripts. Multiple ultimately died by suicide.
The first panel focused on “Living Histories” and featured Amit R. Paley ’04, the CEO of the Trevor Project and a former president of The Crimson who first broke the story of the Secret Court in 2002.
He spoke at length about his reporting process, from finding an entry in the archives to a back-and-forth with administrators over whether he would be allowed to access the documents. University administrators justified their repeated denials by theorizing that an individual named in the documents could still be alive and wish to keep the information confidential, Paley said.
The Director of the University Library eventually convened a committee that included representatives from the Office of the Governing Boards, the General Counsel’s Office, and the University to decide the matter. They ruled Paley could access the documents — with the stipulation that all involved individuals’ names were to be redacted.
With assistance from colleagues at The Crimson, Paley said he “unredacted” the documents, discovered the individuals’ identities, and reported the story.
After the story broke in 2002, then University President Lawrence H. Summers apologized for the events, calling them “extremely disturbing.”
Harvard faculty Michael Bronski, Diana L. Eck, and Evelynn M. Hammonds — three trailblazing BLGTQ faculty members — spoke alongside Paley.
Hammonds called the revelation of the Secret Court a moment of “moral clarity” for Harvard.
“It was a dark moment, and it needed to be revealed in the light,” Hammonds said. “As a historian, our history is our history. It’s not to be run away from, it's to be understood, to be made public.”
Eck reflected on the connection between the Secret Court and then-President Abbott Lawrence Lowell — the namesake of Lowell House — and her and her wife’s role as Faculty Deans of Lowell House. The pair was the first openly gay, married couple to lead one of Harvard’s houses.
“We as then-House Masters could take into our own public rhetoric the fact that Abbott Lawrence Lowell had participated in this Secret Court,” Eck said.
Paley discussed the Secret Court’s connection to 2020 and to the coronavirus pandemic, which he said has taken a toll on the mental health of BGLTQ youth.
“It’s a very different story of what’s happening 100 years later, but the parallels of LGBTQ young people being thrust into physical spaces with people who do not accept their identities, who are trying to erase them, is very profound and hits me in a very emotional way,” he added.
The second panel included six current students from across the University in conversation. Natalie J. Gale ’21 also discussed the role of mental health in the Secret Court, which was initially prompted by a student’s death by suicide.
“We see this in secret courts, the role that mental health played and the role that the administration’s negligence and real violence there had in ultimately ending the lives of several students involved, just as some of the negligence that we see today is a legacy that continues to drain the life out of many members of our community,” Gale said.
University spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in an email that Harvard University Health Services’ Counseling and Mental Health Services has BGLTQ clinicians and offers a range of BGLTQ-focused group therapy options.
The panels were the first in a series of events to commemorate the centennial, according to organizer Kamille-Dawn C. Washington ’10. The panels together drew nearly 700 registered attendees.
Russell H. Reed ’20, who has been working with Professor Timothy P. McCarthy to plan the centennial since last summer, wrote in an email that the anniversary is an opportunity to “gather, reflect, and demand action from the University.”
Correction: May 31, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of a student organizer. He is Russell H. Reed '20.
—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.
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