A vibrant homosexual subculture thrived on Harvard’s campus in the 1920s until a suicide prompted a witch-hunt, kept under wraps for 80 years.
In 1920, an undergraduate at Harvard University, Cyril Wilcox, took his life. In the days thereafter, his brother came into possession of letters that made it plain Wilcox was part of a vigorous homosexual community. Wilcox’s brother took the letters to the Harvard administration, demanding action. Wright (Born That Way, 1998) exposes the venom unleashed by the college. It is the “why” that vexes Wright. Here was Harvard’s president Lowell—brother of renowned lesbian poet Amy Lowell—a man who could bring a cultured hand to the situation: calm, humane, discreet, experienced. Why did he act like an ox? Surely the secret court was not so naïve as to believe homosexuality was a rare isotope. Homosexuality was part of Harvard campus life: undergraduates, grad students, faculty and staff. Wright is agog at the court’s overreaction. The court, but Lowell in particular, treated the circumstances as if they were some contagious evil. Why would these urbane, well-traveled, educated men believe this poppycock? Wright suggests some sensible conjectures: that homosexuality was still considered depraved, if not a sin, and if Harvard was a bastion of rectitude, if it couldn’t be quashed there, then where? And the burgeoning polyglot student body, did this too represent the status quo under siege? The consequences were dire; more suicides followed the inquisition, and Harvard continued to smear the accused for years thereafter. While some of the author’s comments fail to mesh (“freshmen,” he writes, “were cowed by the majestic university that had deigned to accept them,” though earlier he notes that “until the 1960s it was as easy to enter [Harvard] as any other college”), they don’t take away from the narrative.
Harvard betrays itself and Wright’s restrained telling staples a condemnation square on the school’s forehead.