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Thursday, February 24, 2011

We All Live Here Together: Coming Out at Harvard

Kevin R. came out to his roommate at the end of freshman fall, the night before he left Harvard for a mandatory year of absence. They had never gotten along, but Kevin was distraught at having to leave and thought his roommate, who was gay himself, would be understanding. “I’d had a bit to drink and I just needed someone to empathize with me, someone who could relate to me at some level,” Kevin says. It was a mistake: Kevin’s roommate betrayed his confidence and told a few of the wrong people.
He has returned to campus after a year working and living with his older boyfriend: a life completely out. “Now I’ve come back to this closeted lifestyle, which sucks,” says Kevin, who didn’t want his real name to be used. “Having to lie and sneak around is no good way to live, and that’s why I have to start coming out.” His eyes are soft between his cheekbones, set deep into the square of his face. He stares purposefully out to space and swallows between sentences.
In high school, Kevin was terrified of making his sexuality public. “I was very worried, scared to death of being outed,” he says. “No one knew.” He told his parents a few months into his year off, but the news was not well received in his conservative family; the first thing his mother did was send him a book called “Christians Turning the Homosexuals Straight.” Things improved over time, however. Kevin says, “They figured out their love is more important than prejudice, I guess.”
Now he has told a few close friends and plans on continuing to come out gradually. Kevin is a varsity athlete and insists that he is not a “snippy-poodle type of gay.” “It’s been a big surprise to everyone I’ve told, so apparently I’m a really good actor,” he says. Last week, he told his current roommate. “He didn’t know how to react,” Kevin remembers. “He kept saying, ‘No one’s ever told me that before, I don’t know, I’m just shocked.’ And I was like, ‘Come on, man, it’s not about you.’”


Timothy P. McCarthy ’93 is a lecturer on History and Literature and on Public Policy, and Director of the Carr Center’s Human Rights and Social Movements Program. He is also a senior resident tutor and LGBT advisor in Quincy House. He sits at his desk in office number six, which has one window looking onto Mt. Auburn St. and one wall taken up by an enormous bookcase: there are clearly far too many books, but the overflow is carefully stacked and picture frames are snugly nestled in between the volumes.
McCarthy was in the closet when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. He remembers being asked by his advisee Marco Chan ’11, now co-chair of the Queer Students and Allies (QSA), whether he was the president of the QSA’s predecessor when he was at the College. “I was a different person back then—a skinny, working-class jock kid who really wanted to get into  a final club,” McCarthy laughs. He came out in grad school in New York City while writing his dissertation on the Abolitionist movement. (McCarthy notes that the phrase “coming out” has an even longer history, dating back to the 19th century, when abolitionists “came out” of their churches in protest against slavery; for him, then, the idea of coming out meant non-participation in oppression, your own or that of others.)
An expert on human rights and social movements, McCarthy believes that the history of queer identity at Harvard mirrors that of America at large. He says that coming out has been an increasingly common form of queer political expression ever since the Stonewall rebellion of 1969, when a series of violent protests and demonstrations broke out in response to police raids of a bar frequented by LGBT people in the West Village. “To announce yourself as gay in a world that was homophobic was to hold people to account, as well as being a demand for acknowledgement,” the historian says.
After the great setbacks posed to the LGBT civil rights movement in the 1980s—above all, the AIDS epidemic and the policies of then president, Ronald Reagan—the 1990s proved to be a crucial decade in Cambridge, Mass., as indeed it was everywhere else. “It was ‘Culture War Central,’” recalls McCarthy. African American Studies and Women and Gender Studies were gaining more recognition as academic disciplines, and LGBT activism was gaining ever more attention.
In 1991, when McCarthy was a junior at the College, a new student publication called “The Peninsula” was inaugurated. The cover of its first issue featured an exploding pink triangle, and most of its 55 pages were devoted to what it called a “bad alternative” to heterosexuality. “These were just hideous articles,” McCarthy says. “They made you ask where the line is between violence and free speech.” The same day of its release, the word “faggot” was scrawled on a student’s door in Lowell House. The response was a rally on the steps of Widener Library, where a number of faculty members came out publicly for the first time—including the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, Reverend Peter J. Gomes, whose announcement was met with cheers from the crowd. McCarthy was at the rally wearing a t-shirt that read “Straight but not Narrow.”
Nine years later, K. Kyriell Muhammad, a doctoral student in religion and an LGBT tutor in Mather House, left the College after his room was the target of repeated acts of homophobic vandalism. He finished his Ph.D. in the Bay Area. The Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA), precursor to the QSA, responded actively. They argued that the administration had not dealt with the issue seriously enough, and they put posters about the effects of gay bullying all through the halls of Mather’s third floor.
Jonathan C. Page ’02, who was a freshman LGBT proctor and chaplain at Memorial Church until last year, remembers the furor over Muhammad’s departure. “At that stage, there was only one out male athlete,” Page says. The BGLTSA was small and socially driven and could take advantage of 18+ clubs such as Ramrod in Central Square. Upperclass housing had been randomized in 1998, so Adams House was no longer the hub of gay life, but queer culture still centered on a small group of students eager to maintain their community.
Now, however, Page thinks there is a false assumption about the ease of coming out—and a whole raft of new challenges for queer students on campus. “The great thing is that the student body is very accepting, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to come out,” Page says. “There’s an assumption that it’s no big deal, but how would you know?”
“When you’re in the closet, every comment that anyone makes is stored in the back of your head—and that person is immediately in your box of non-ally.”
Of course, the last two decades have seen great progressive changes. McCarthy is taking part in the BGLTQ student life working group commissioned by Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds. “Here’s 16 people, including half of University Hall, and they’re all so passionate. That never would have happened while I was on campus [as a student],” McCarthy says. But in the wake of last fall’s string of LGBT tragedies, there is justification for a closer look. “That was like being hit one blow after another,” he recalls. “I was asking myself, ‘Are we still there?’”
So deeply personal are the trials of coming out, it is hard to get a grasp on where we are as a College. Harvard is a famously liberal environment, but here, misery tends to shy away from the spotlight. And McCarthy proclaims with some certainty that “at Harvard, a lot of queer people—perhaps even a majority—are not out.”


Being at Harvard was “pivotal” for the coming out process of Andrew G. Brownjohn ’11, who came to college from a small rural town in upstate New York. In high school, Brownjohn remembers, “The word gay wasn’t associated with anything other than the insult. It wasn’t even an option I had at the time.”
Brownjohn’s prefrosh hosts were a group of seniors in Adams House, one of whom was in the Glee Club and threw a party that weekend. In the Glee Club, which Brownjohn joined when he came to Harvard, he found a community and began to meet openly gay people. “It took a while,” he says, “but it began to dawn on me that I’d been in denial about that part of myself for a long time.”
In the middle of freshman year, Brownjohn felt he might be ready to come out and told a friend from back home. “On finding out that I was gay, he said he didn’t want to be friends with me,” Brownjohn recalls. What followed was a period of real denial, covered up with commitments and distractions. “Being in the closet was not a good experience, because there was no true emotional support—and that was really alienating and painful,” Brownjohn says.
By the spring of sophomore year, however, Brownjohn began to feel more comfortable in his identity, and found affirmation in an unlikely place. While working his job at Lamont Library, he found he enjoyed shelving on Level B in the section labeled HQ: gender and family. Although he did not feel comfortable talking to other people about his questioning thoughts, he found he could open a dialogue with himself by reading books on the subject. Taking Associate English Professor Matthew B. Kaiser’s famous “Literature and Sexuality” class in junior fall was important for him as well. “The things he said about sexual orientation really made me comfortable with the idea that I am a homosexual,” recalls Brownjohn.
Brownjohn did not tell people until the end of junior spring. “Needing to be on the ball all the time for so many things, to have to talk to people about coming out ... I don’t know, I just put it on the backburner,” he says. At the end of that semester he had four final papers and four final exams in the course of two weeks; he spent so long at his desk that he had violent back spasms and had to go to University Health Services on suspicion of kidney stones. “I just realized that I was so stressed out and I’ve been keeping this thing in—and I couldn’t do it anymore,” Brownjohn says of his secret.
When his ultrasound turned out clear, he told his openly bisexual friend from freshman year and then worked to tell as many people in person as he could. Brownjohn kept a list of the first people he told, and thinks he still has it somewhere. His parents told him they loved him no matter what. “It could be biased,” Brownjohn says, “but I felt surrounded by so many people that were a good role model for what I was and wanted to become.” Thanks to this support, he beams, “I’m just comfortable in who I am and in telling people that.”
One person Brownjohn singles out as a source of inspiration is Marco Chan, who in addition to being co-chair of the QSA is tour manager of the Glee Club. Chan has been openly gay since before he applied to college, but he insists that coming out is an ongoing process with ongoing difficulties. “Even if you’re generally out, there are constantly moments of renegotiation,” he says. Each new class, each new group of friends necessitates coming out again—if you decide you want to, that is. One of the most visible members of the queer community at Harvard, Chan chose not to mention his sexuality when on exchange in South America, and he sometimes takes the QSA signature off his e-mail address when organizing the Glee Club’s Spring Tour. “I mean, I’m dealing with churches in the South and I can’t assume,” he explains.
Chan believes that Harvard is generally a reassuring place at which to come out. “Harvard as an administration is incredibly supportive of individuals at every stage of the process,” he says. Yet he admits that there are significant complications. “It’s sometimes difficult to find a space if you only want to be out to some and not others,” Chan says. Because of the QSA’s very public image, people first need to be at a certain comfort level before they will be seen in an LGBT space. “I really don’t know what to do about that,” Chan muses, distracted. “I can’t exactly throw an ‘I’m-not-really-out’ party.”
He knows that many queer students come out but don’t want to be associated with the QSA because they think it’s too flamboyant, too hedonistic. This is inaccurate as well as hypocritical, according to Chan. “That is a very narrow vision of what we do and who we are,” he argues. “And anyway, these people would be asking for tolerance and space while denying that to someone else. People live their LGBT life in different ways: some folks can’t be out, some folks want a limited involvement, and some folks are running around, draping the rainbow flag on the John Harvard statue. We’re the whole spectrum.”
Tim McCarthy believes that much of the coming out process is learning to resist the pressures of the outside world. “There’s a pervasive stigma in society that we grow up with, even in the most liberal of places, and we all internalize that,” he says. “When you hate who you are because you live in a society that tells you to hate who you are, learning to love yourself fully can be a very difficult process.”
It is a complicated issue, McCarthy insists. “That’s why I love studying the humanities,” he exclaims. “Because I know that people are complicated.”
Harvard is a very tolerant place, he agrees, but it also prizes a degree of confidence in people. “When you’ve always got to be a success, well, identity is far more complicated than that,” McCarthy says. “Among queer people, there can be a feeling that coming out entails a kind of vulnerability—and that’s potentially destabilizing in their lives, especially where people are so afraid of being vulnerable.” Everything at Harvard is competitive and exclusive, McCarthy opines, even his public service spring break trip. Students tend to move towards archetypes to find support and acceptance in certain communities. “Harvard is a place where we have a parade of façades,” says the lecturer. “I spent a lot of time here as an undergrad building up those façades, but I think we’re more interesting and complicated and worthy of love if we cast them aside.”

After he came out, McCarthy found that he was frequently asked for advice by others who were questioning. The personal process of coming out became political and relational in a way he never expected. “Being out for me is no longer: ‘Can I endure?’ Being out for me is more: ‘Can I change the world enough so these young kids don’t have to go through what I went through?’” He says that a lot of the undergraduates who come to him are those who can relate to him—particularly athletes, ethnic minorities, and students from religious or working-class backgrounds. “If you go through life, like I did, thinking there’s no one like you and then there’s this new aspect to you, well, that’s a really disorienting experience,” McCarthy says.  “I want to be as out and visible as I can so young people know there is someone out there like them.”
When Miguel Garcia ’12 came to Harvard from Detroit, Mich., he found it hard to settle in. “I’m the first male in my family to ever graduate from high school, so it was really difficult to transition into this environment where it’s hard to find similar people,” he explains. He says that resources were not easily accessible in the communities he associated with. Later, Garcia co-founded “Gay, Lesbian, or, Whatever” (GLOW), an organization that aims to address the interconnected experiences of underrepresented and marginalized identities. “The main focus is the confidential safe space that we provide,” Garcia says. “When I was coming out, I think what I really needed was to have a supportive environment where people could just be honest about their situation.”
Garcia never expected that he would become an advocate in the queer community. “My main goal was to have friends that understood and a place where I didn’t feel like I had to be someone I wasn’t,” he says. The quest for that support structure led Garcia and his friends to establish GLOW, a group with a mandate vastly different from that of the QSA. “Although the QSA’s board is very diverse in terms of ethnicity and race, the interests and discussions were pretty much dominated by the membership—and that means white American males,” Garcia explains. “I do think that if you’re someone who has an identity that’s significantly different than that of a mainstream queer on campus, it is difficult to find support groups.”
GLOW does not ask its members or guests to identify in terms of ethnicity, race, religion or sexuality. Yet Garcia believes strongly in providing channels for queer students to come out in a space where they feel a cultural connection. He explains that different communities can face different challenges. “The Latino culture is strongly Catholic so it’s really affirming to speak to people that were raised in the same faith and struggled with those same cultural issues,” Garcia says. “Black communities are very family-oriented and supportive because of the history of this nation. There’s a strong sentiment in the QSA community that we should reject our families if they don’t accept us, but that’s very difficult when all your protection against racism comes in the family.”
Garcia is also proud of GLOW’s insistence on confidentiality, protecting its many members who do not yet feel ready to come out. Usually, organizations need to release membership lists to the university if they want official recognition and funding, but GLOW was able to bypass the requirement in order to preserve the safe space. “There are a few people like myself who are out and proud but the majority of people want to keep all these issues private,” he says. “Sometimes you just want people to listen and understand instead of being an ambassador.” But that’s not to say there isn’t room for both. In mid-February, the QSA and GLOW co-sponsored an event on race in comedy; Garcia reports that it was a success and says he is glad that the two organizations work well in tandem. “I think that the challenge is to be able to have our individual affinity groups but still rally up together when it’s needed,” he says.
Although he was hesitant to join at first, Garcia was pleasantly surprised by the passion and concern he has observed as a member of the BGLTQ student life working group—particularly by the frankness of members like Tim McCarthy, one of GLOW’s co-faculty advisors. “One time, in the middle of a discussion about the importance of accessible mental health resources, he just said, ‘Wait, what about dating and sex—isn’t that important to everyone?’ I’m really happy we have a team of people like Tim who can honestly talk about all the important aspects of student life,” Garcia laughs.
Garcia is unsmiling, however, when it comes to the way the administration deals with crises on campus. He feels that LGBT issues are treated less earnestly because they are seen as political; he also believes that individual tragedies are too lightly medicalized and dismissed. “GLOW and other support groups have largely emerged from student knowledge of suicide attempts on campus,” Garcia says, counting four stories of serious suicidal episodes that were shared within his private circles. “Though these experiences are not acknowledged or addressed, many of us are well aware of the harsh realities that LGBTQ students of color on campus often face.” There are encouraging manifestations of concern, he says, but denial seems to be part of the greater Harvard culture. “I just wish people would realize that Harvard is not the easiest place for everyone to be, even if they’re not queer, you know?”


“Yeah, the lesbians are all really spread out,” drawls Elizabeth C. Elrod ’11. “A lot of girls come to me and say, ‘I can’t find any other lesbians.’” Elrod herself does not have trouble finding other lesbians: she doesn’t have a girlfriend, she says, but she has a Valentine. This evokes guffaws and a cry of “playa” from her friends around the table in Eliot d-hall. She explains the merits of traveling to other colleges in the area, with one particular standout. “MIT,” she declares, relishing the element of surprise. “Oh, yes, MIT lesbians are very pretty.”
But at first, Elrod says, it can be hard to come to terms with your identity when that identity is not so publicly validated. “It’s hard to come out when you feel like just one person rather than a group of people,” she says. The lesbian community is not particularly visible: when it unites, it does so to go to lesbian bars or to watch “The L Word”—and those things get little exposure on campus. Girlspot and the QSA are working hard to reach out to girls, as is the Women’s Center, but Elrod is sure that “there’s no one place where you know that all the gay girls hang out.”
Elrod had trouble at home when she first came out, but found support in the novice coach of her crew team and in the older lesbian girls that she had met. “It also helped that I was in a relationship at the time,” she remembers, “because I knew obviously I’m super gay.” Even so, says Elrod, “it was a lot of hardship that went on in March of freshman year: I was unbuilding a foundation, so it was a huge upset, the whole coming out process.”
Now, Elrod is out and proud. “Whenever I go to gay clubs and there are guys making out and girls making out, I think it’s so awesome,” she gushes. Often younger girls are referred to her for advice. “I don’t know how much help I can give them, I mean, I’m no expert,” Elrod says. “But it definitely makes the community stronger that way, being self-supported.” She certainly seems to have overcome any doubts. “I remember how I used to wait for a trusting, non-judgmental situation before I told someone,” she muses. “Now I’ve reached a stage where I’m so open and blunt about how much I love a good pair of boobs that no one ever has any doubt.”
Naturally, there are moments when mainstream Harvard culture clashes with Elrod’s identity. “I love the guys from the Fox,” she laughs, “but there was one moment I was there and I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, God, one person here’s not like the others—and it’s me!” She will grind with a friend, she declares, but finds it off-putting when she is expected to do so as performance. A chorus of eager nods circles around the table.
When Elrod came out to her mother at the end of freshman year, it went badly and ended in her mother accusing Harvard of being a “lesbian breeding ground.” Now, Elrod says, she and her mom are moving towards an understanding. “The last time we talked on the phone, she said, ‘If you’re going to marry a woman like you say you want to, then at least she better be a good Christian woman.’ I still wouldn’t say she’s, like, a cool mom—but we’re getting there.”


Susan B. Marine thinks that we don’t talk about sex enough. As assistant dean of student life, director of the Harvard College Women’s Center, and a member of the BGLTQ working group, Marine has been deeply involved in issues of sexuality and gender identity ever since she arrived on campus in 2002. At other colleges there is usually some kind of sex week, she notes, but Harvard students have not managed to organize anything similar. She also regrets the demise of the popular core course “Psychology 1703: Human Sexuality” in 2006. “It’s a lot easier for people to come out if there’s a sustained dialogue about romance and dating and sex,” says Marine. “People don’t know how or when to come out when the people around them all seem to be completely asexual.” The pressures of mainstream Harvard culture cast a long shadow, too, she adds: between professional aims, networking, and social clubs, sexuality often just doesn’t get prioritized.
Kevin R. thinks he usually doesn’t see the people who don’t talk about sex. When he goes out on the weekend, he says, “It’s over-sexed if anything.” He hasn’t heard of WGS (Women and Gender Studies), but he admits that the Saturday night ritual he experiences is designed for straight people. “That’s an America thing, I think,” he explains. “The culture itself is heterosexist. I mean, if you know how to dress here, people think you’re gay. But Harvard’s no different to any other college in the US, and everyone seems to be pretty cool about the whole thing.”
When Kevin told a close friend a few weeks ago, she gushed that he could now be her GBFF: her Gay Best Friend Forever. “I told her, no, I would be her best friend that happened to be gay. I don’t want it to personify me,” he says. “You shouldn’t have to announce it to the world, it should just be whatever.” Kevin looks determined as he describes the reaction of his two best friends at home. One of them reacted well. “When I told him, he said this thing that was really powerful, I would say manly. He said, ‘Even I have questioned my sexuality at times.’” The other one is no longer a friend. “He kept saying to me, ‘It’s your choice, it’s your choice,’” Kevin remembers. “That’s just so ignorant; it’s not a choice. I’ve spent most of my life wishing I wasn’t this way, but I am and now I’ve come to terms with that—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Kevin and his current roommate have not talked about his sexuality since their first conversation on the topic. “He says he’s totally OK with it, but it’s still just weird,” he says.
Tim McCarthy sits in his office surrounded by photos and books. “I believe the arc of the universe bends towards the better but only if we bend it,” he says. The advances in social justice for black Americans in the 60s and 70s didn’t just happen: they were because of the Civil Rights Movement. “Your generation has a real opportunity to start talking seriously about how to mobilize allies,” McCarthy says of those currently in the College. “It’s all about subtle things: not making or allowing others to make hetero-normative or gender-normative assumptions.” He adds that the queer community should be doing a much better job as allies for transgender people.
McCarthy considers himself an ally in the black social justice movement: “Being an ally means stepping up but it also means stepping back and being humble. When it comes to racial justice, I’m more of a foot soldier than a leader,” he says. For McCarthy, this means taking the risk to challenge prejudice when it appears in the private sphere. “People say crazy shit to me all the time about black people, but being an ally means calling them on it,” says McCarthy. “And you get called things, you get not invited back to dinner, you make parties awkward sometimes. But you have to challenge people on their bullshit. And those moments when I didn’t step up, when I stayed silent in the face of prejudice, those are moments I remember—and they haunt me.”
When K. Kyriell Muhammad was being bullied out of the College in 2001, the Mather House community replied with what was called the “Mather House Creed.” The House Committee did not respond publicly to the incident, member Andrea Volfa ’00 told The Crimson. The document hung in the dining room with 300 signatures beneath it, in a House of around 400. Its first words were “We live here together.” It wasn’t enough to keep the tutor, but it was at least a good place to start.
Shortly after he left, Muhammad wrote in this magazine that he responded so extremely because he had always felt so close to Mather’s students: “I felt betrayed by people with whom I thought I had created some sort of social contract. That I was here for them, that I would treat them with respect and dignity and a certain amount of compassion and care. And in return, they would do much the same. Out of all the emotions that swept through me out of that period, I think the betrayal part was the worst.”
His final words to the Mather community, written in an e-mail to all House residents, were these: “I wish you all well, individually and communally, and urge you to hold fast to your principles, however lofty and unattainable they may seem.”


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