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Today In Gay – May 23, 1920: The Harvard Secret Court Gay Witch-hunt Begins

On May 13, 1920 Cyril Wilcox, a Harvard undergraduate, committed suicide after telling his older brother, George, that he had been having an affair with another man. Shortly after Cyril’s death, George intercepted two letters from a Harvard student and a recent graduate.  George, a clerk at the granite mills in Fall River, decided to act. He tracked down his brother’s former lover, Harry Dreyfus, who lived in Boston. Dreyfus, after he was beaten by George Wilcox, denied responsibility for Cyril’s suicide but gave three names of other men involved: Roberts, Harvard Dental School student Eugene R. Cummings and Pat Courtney, a non-Harvard man living in Boston.

George took these letters to Harvard’s Acting Dean, Chester N Greenough, and shared with him what he knew. After consulting with Harvard President Abbot Lowell, Greenough formed a special five-man tribunal on this date in history which became knownas the “Secret Court.”

The court launched a wide-ranging witch hunt, with Greenough summoning each witness one-by-one with a brief note. The Court’s inquiry was exhaustive, posing questions about masturbation practices, sex with women or men, cross-dressing, overnight guests, parties, and reading habits. The scope of the inquiry soon expanded to area businesses, cafés and bars. Eight students were expelled, ordered to leave Cambridge and reported to their families. They were also told that Harvard would disclose the reasons for their expulsion if employers or other schools sought references. Four others unconnected to Harvard were also deemed “guilty.” The school couldn’t punish them directly, but they did pressure one café to fire a waiter.

In 2002, a researcher from Harvard’s daily newspaper, The Crimson, came across a box of files labeled “Secret Court” in the University’s archives. After pressure from newspaper staff, the University finally released five hundred documents related to the Court’s work, and The Crimson published its findings in November of that year. Harvard’s president Lawrence H. Summers responded to the revelations, expressing deep regret for the anguish the students and families experienced

These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of a past that we have rightly left behind.

“I want to express our deep regret for the way this situation was handled, as well as the anguish the students and their families must have experienced eight decades ago.

“Whatever attitudes may have been prevalent then, persecuting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation is abhorrent and an affront to the values of our university. We are a better and more just community today because those attitudes have changed as much as they have.”

Ultra right-wing conservative commentator Pat Buchanan responded to Summers’s statement by saying that “Harvard embraces bathhouse values”

 

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Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, journalist and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story,

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