Turning Crimson

When being gay could get you thrown out of Harvard

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By Gavin Kleespies

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n May of 1920, a young man in Fall River killed himself. While this was tragic, it had not come without warning. What was shocking was the involvement of administrators at Harvard University. The facts that led up to the suicide and its destructive aftermath remained unknown to the public for more than 80 years until an investigation by the Harvard Crimson uncovered the story and moved the university to unseal the records.

The young man had not been a great student. In his short tenure as an undergraduate at Harvard, he had gotten failing grades, had been put on probation, and was close to being asked to leave when he had a breakdown and was allowed to withdraw for health reasons. It appears he took his own life shortly after moving back in with his family.

His death set in motion a series of events that ruined the careers of several other Harvard students and also embroiled a tutor, a young professor, and men from Boston. What they were accused of, and how they were linked to the young man from Fall River, was homosexuality or homosexual acts.

Before his suicide, the young man told his brother he had been involved in an affair with an older man in Boston. Then, afterward, two letters arrived at his home, one from a classmate and another from a recent graduate, both confirming that the man had been involved in homosexual relationships.

The older brother tracked down the lover in Boston, who, though he denied involvement in the suicide, gave the names of others. The brother took this information to the administration at Harvard. By the end of May, Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell had appointed a five-man committee to investigate the rumors. Known as “the Court,” the committee proceeded to interview and recommend discipline for a number of students, staff, and community members for being gay, ending their Harvard careers.

The records of the Court were sealed for 82 years until the Crimson investigation, when some 500 pages of documents were released. The notes and transcripts were then adapted into an original screenplay and short film by local filmmaker Michael Van Devere, Perkins 28, based on actual testimony from the court and using Harvard undergraduates to reenact it.

Gavin Kleespies is director of programs at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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