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Gay History – May 23, 1920: The Harvard Secret Court Gay Witch-hunt

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”

Are today’s Harvard students and faculty and Summers truly ignorant that there was a time, not long ago, when campus orgies were grounds for expulsion? In some colleges, bringing a member of the opposite sex into one’s dorm for purposes of sex can still get you expelled. As for homosexual parties, they still mean immediate severance from the Armed Forces of the United States.

What is revealing about this episode is not what was done in 1920, but that an Ivy League president feels compelled to apologize for it in 2002. Does Summers realize what he is saying?

He is declaring that homosexual sodomy, even orgies, in the dorms at Harvard are protected social conduct, fully consistent with the moral character expected of students. Harvard’s moral values are now the values of the San Francisco bathhouse.

Harvard’s code is now based on Summers’ values, which hold that the old moral code of Christianity, which teaches that sexual relations between men are unnatural and immoral, is “abhorrent and an affront to the values of our university.”

Harvard has not only turned its back on its Christian past, it has just renounced its Christian roots as poisoned and perverted.

If Harvard is educating America’s leaders, this country is not Slouching Toward Gomorrah, we are sprinting there.

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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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