The son of a conservative Christian family, and a devout Christian himself, Sheehan Scarborough spent much of his early life struggling to reconcile his sexuality and “very conservative” religious upbringing.
The son of a conservative Christian family, and a devout Christian himself, Sheehan Scarborough spent much of his early life struggling to reconcile his sexuality and “very conservative” religious upbringing. By Cynthia Guo

Soul on the Line: Sheehan D. Scarborough '07 and his Office of BGLTQ Student Life

Sheehan D. Scarborough '07 aims to make the Office of BLGTQ Student Life more intersectional, “expanding the notion of what a BGLTQ student looks like, what they believe, how they operate in the world.”
By Andrew W. Badinelli

On National Coming Out Day, 2006, the Harvard Dorm Crew office was divided. One of the two staffers was excited. The other, Sheehan D. Scarborough ’07, was not.

“Doesn’t a day like this put undue pressure on people to come out before they’re ready?” Scarborough asked. The staffer shrugged. “Straight guys just don’t get it.”

“I’m not straight. I’m gay,” Scarborough replied, nervous.

“No, you’re not,” said the staffer. “Really?”

“Really.”

It was the first time that Scarborough, then a junior at Harvard College, had told anyone the truth about his sexuality. As part of a conservative Christian family, and a devout Christian himself, he’d spent much of his early life struggling to reconcile his sexuality with a “very conservative” religious upbringing.

“I spent a lot of time resisting the idea of being gay,” Scarborough reflects.

Exactly 10 years later, on Oct. 11, 2016, Scarborough recounted his coming-out story in a sermon for Memorial Church Morning Prayers. No longer a nervous, closeted college junior, Scarborough had become an outspoken advocate for BGLTQ students.

Today, he uses his personal story to connect with them: “I have found that when students know that I identify as gay, [it] helps them see me as a potential resource and ally for coming out, or starting that journey,” Scarborough says. At the time of the sermon, Scarborough had recently been named the Interim Director of BGLTQ Student Life. On Feb. 6, 2017, he became the permanent Director.

The position comes with a short history marked by frequent change.

On Feb. 6, 2017, Sheehan D. Scarborough became the permanent Director of BGLTQ Student Life.
On Feb. 6, 2017, Sheehan D. Scarborough became the permanent Director of BGLTQ Student Life. By Cynthia Guo

The Office of BGLTQ Student Life has appointed three different directors in just five years. It’s occupied two different locations (with plans in motion for a move to a third). It’s grown and expanded, becoming rapidly more ambitious in its goals.

Scarborough is similarly ambitious: He aims to make the Office of BLGTQ Student Life (colloquially known as the “Quoffice”) more intersectional, “expanding the notion of what a BGLTQ student looks like, what they believe, how they operate in the world.” As part of that goal, he wants to create spaces for students to reconcile their faith and sexuality. He hopes also to connect with students who may not be out—at home, at Harvard, or both.

“Honestly, this is a large part of why I took this position: To really encourage and support and help students who are at all stages of acceptance or experiencing and exploring their BGLTQ identity,” Scarborough says.

He remembers hesitating to participate in BGLTQ life as an undergraduate. “There were times I wanted to plug into the community, I wanted to go to a dance, or I wanted to know what was going on on campus, but there were a lot of barriers for a lot of reasons,” Scarborough says. “Some of that related to family, some of that related to—for me at least—not feeling comfortable with what was… a burgeoning acceptance of an identity.”

Before Scarborough took over the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, he was a student who could have used it.

LEAVING HOME BASE

When Scarborough talks about his work, he brings up his childhood.

Though he was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Scarborough grew up in Abington, a suburb just outside the city. His parents, who didn’t attend college, had moved the family for the better educational opportunities Abington offered.

But for Scarborough, the move also meant being the only black student in his predominantly white elementary school, a transition he describes as “jarring.” It was hard, he says “coming from being around family and friends, where there’s a sense of a shared culture, a shared being.”

A classical music-lover, Scarborough would memorize Bach and “play” it from memory in his head when he didn’t have access to a recording.
A classical music-lover, Scarborough would memorize Bach and “play” it from memory in his head when he didn’t have access to a recording. By Cynthia Guo

Instead, Scarborough and his family found community back where they had started, centering their lives on an evangelical Christian church in the Philadelphia city proper. Scarborough’s grandparents lived “just around the corner,” and his immediate family attended services every Sunday. He describes that area of Philadelphia—Germantown—as “home base.”

Scarborough found his church to be at once comforting and challenging, a place where he made most of his friends growing up, but also where he felt fundamentally out of place. “I was kind of an unusual, weird kid,” he says. “I was unlike most of my friends at church, most of my friends at school.”

A classical music-lover, Scarborough would memorize Bach and “play” it from memory in his head when he didn’t have access to a recording. He was poetically-inclined, too, and his creative side caught the eye of high school teachers who recognized potential.

“As people took an interest in me, which I’m very grateful for, a lot of opportunities opened up that may not have otherwise,” Scarborough says.

One of those opportunities, of course, was Harvard.

He began his time in Cambridge cleaning bathrooms as part of the Fall Clean-Up freshman pre-orientation program run by Dorm Crew. Scarborough’s mother had encouraged him to sign-up, saying he “was a naturally neat person anyway.”

Scarborough continued working for Dorm Crew throughout his college career. Later, he would be named one of the head captains. He describes Dorm Crew as one of the most significant parts of his college experience.

“Like I said, it was about the discipline, and a way to earn money, which I really needed, but also a great group of friends and a great social environment for me,” he says.

Though not an athlete in high school, he became a reliable team-member in intramural sports for Hollis Hall, his freshman dormitory. “Sheehan had this wonderful quality of being willing to try new things, and he’s so talented that he just picks up anything that he happens to try,” says Farhang Heydari ’06, who lived across the hall from Scarborough and later became his roommate in Dunster House.

Heydari recounts a time when he and Scarborough agreed to round out a team for an intramural basketball game. Ten minutes into the game, Scarborough accidentally bumped into a female friend on the court, knocking her to the ground.

“He was just mortified over the whole thing because Sheehan is the nicest, most gentle soul you’ll ever meet,” Heydari says, laughing. “It turned out fine, we’re all still friends to this day, but that’s the last time I can remember Sheehan playing basketball.”

Off the court, Scarborough studied government. Inspired by the fallout after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the American military engagement in the Middle East that followed, he sought to understand foreign policy conflicts at a deeper level.

“I knew that I was very interested in the history of that region and the quote unquote religious conflict,” Scarborough says. “[I wanted] to understand how that had come to be, and to be part of whatever peace movement could come from it.” Scarborough and his friends, most of whom studied government or international relations as well, would stay up late into the night debating America’s role in foreign engagements.

Sheehan Scarborough holds a putty knife he used when working for Dorm Crew throughout his college career. Scarborough describes Dorm Crew as one of the most significant parts of his college experience.
Sheehan Scarborough holds a putty knife he used when working for Dorm Crew throughout his college career. Scarborough describes Dorm Crew as one of the most significant parts of his college experience. By Cynthia Guo

Harvard also provided Scarborough with an opportunity for self-reflection. He was on his own for the first time, and spent much of his first three years on campus struggling to find himself. “I had more space to think about being gay, to think about these tensions [between religion and sexuality],” he says. “Something started to unravel a bit, and I think that unraveling was productive in the long-term, but in the moment it was challenging.”

During that time, Scarborough felt too uncomfortable to express his sexuality publicly. “I just wasn’t at a point, until very late in my college career, to feel comfortable doing that, or even feel that that was something beneficial to me,” he says. He found himself facing “dark days” as he tried to make sense of what he perceived to be two incompatible identities.

“It’s a remarkable disjunction that winds up festering inside your soul if you can’t reconcile different aspects of your identity,” Scarborough says. “For me, that was religion and sexuality.”

During his senior year, Scarborough came out. Doing so changed his life.

He felt more visible, more seen. He met someone he was interested in. He opened up to other BGLTQ students about his struggles, and they opened up to him. He gained a new sense of self-confidence. Scarborough had found a community he never thought he would, and he loved it.

“Sexuality is sexuality, and it’s an important part of the human experience, but before senior year, it wasn’t part of my experience,” Scarborough says. “But I learned so much that year.”

He did so, however, without any institutional support. During Scarborough’s time as an undergraduate, BGLTQ life at Harvard was student-organized. Queer groups hosted parties, organized events, and helped to connect BGLTQ students with one another. However, there was no university-run institution devoted to queer issues for not-out or questioning students.

“I think students at this point can almost take for granted that there is a BGLTQ Office at all, because every undergraduate here has only been here when that office has existed,” he says. “I remember a time when there wasn’t any office.”

‘GOING BACK INTO THE CLOSET’

On Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010, an unidentified male Harvard student was walking down Garden Street from the Radcliffe Quadrangle when three men began following him and harassing him with homophobic slurs. Eventually, they chased him into a nearby side street, and demanded his wallet and phone. The student, fortunately, escaped the situation physically unharmed.

The incident was labeled a hate crime.

At the time, Harvard was the only Ivy League university without either an institutional BGLTQ resource center or a paid, full-time BGLTQ coordinator. Instead, the only BGLTQ support on campus was centered around the Queer Resource Center (QRC), a privately-funded student-run organization located in the basement of Thayer Hall.

Soon, students rallied for an expansion of space allotted to the office. In a Crimson article from 2010, Elizabeth C. Elrod ’11 said the QRC was so small that holding meetings there was like “going back into the closet.”

One month later, though not directly in response to those incidents, then-Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds convened a working group on BGLTQ Student Life. The working group was comprised of students, administrators, and faculty. After meeting regularly between Oct. 2010 and March 2011, it submitted a final report

In 2010, a new working group on BGLTQ Student Life was tasked with assessing existing resources available to BGLTQ-identified students and determining their needs going forward. In April 2011, recommendations for the space were accepted.
In 2010, a new working group on BGLTQ Student Life was tasked with assessing existing resources available to BGLTQ-identified students and determining their needs going forward. In April 2011, recommendations for the space were accepted. By Cynthia Guo

Recommendation number one: Hire a full-time Director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life.

The following September, the College announced the appointment of Lisa “Lee” Forest to the position of Director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, but on Oct. 29, 2011—just three days before she was set to begin—Forest turned down the job for “personal and professional reasons.”

Emily J. Miller, now the Title IX Coordinator for Harvard College but then a member of the working group, was named Interim Coordinator of the new office. “It was a little disappointing that we were without a full-time director,” Miller says. “But I really valued that experience and I’m so grateful for the students who helped get the office off the ground that year.”

Then, in July of 2012, Van Bailey was named the first permanent director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life. The position was filled, over a year after it was created. One of the first people Bailey would work with would be Scarborough.

‘AN ABOUT TIME’

By 2010, just three years after his graduation, Scarborough had returned to Harvard to study at the Divinity School. The move was motivated by questions he still had about himself. “I’ve never been able to reconcile my whole religious identity with my other identities, and Divinity School was an opportunity to explore some of why that was,” Scarborough says.

Troubled by a feeling of “deep melancholy” associated with his religious background, Scarborough sought to make sense of his situation through study of the Bible. “I wanted to be able to wield the sword that had been wielded against me, but not wield it against anyone else,” Scarborough says, pausing for a moment. “I think reclaiming is a good way of putting it.”

While studying at the Divinity School, Scarborough worked as a freshman proctor and residential advisor in Hollis, Holworthy, and Pennypacker Halls. Over the seven years he has worked as a proctor since, Scarborough has earned a reputation for being thoughtful and caring.

Scarborough at the door of his suite in Pennypacker, where works as a proctor. Over the seven years he has been a proctor, Scarborough has earned a reputation for being thoughtful and caring.
Scarborough at the door of his suite in Pennypacker, where works as a proctor. Over the seven years he has been a proctor, Scarborough has earned a reputation for being thoughtful and caring. By Cynthia Guo

“He immediately made me feel comfortable,” says Mattie M. Newman ’17, who lived in Scarborough’s entryway during her freshman year. For Newman, who at first had trouble with the transition to life at Harvard, Scarborough became a one-man support system. Over time, he helped her realize that her background—one marked by a small town, a lower income, and medical issues—was a strength rather than a weakness. “I remember when he was introducing himself to us he said he was a tall, black, gay man who was a student at the Divinity School… He really owned himself,” Newman says. “I think he projected that onto all of his students.”

During his first year as a proctor, Scarborough noticed students who struggled to reconcile their faith and sexuality and decided to address this unmet need. Together with Julie A. Rogers, his classmate at the Divinity School, fellow freshman proctor, and Memorial Church Seminarian, Scarborough founded the “Faith and Sexuality Initiative,” which sought to provide support, events, and advice for students who felt a challenging tension between their religious identities and their sexual ones. “We both had heard a lot of students who identified as BGLTQ who… felt really rejected by their faith traditions, but also were still really longing for [one],” Rogers says.

“A lot of times if you’re a religious person, there’s a sense that going into a queer space you have to leave your religion at the door, and vice versa,” Scarborough says. “We wanted to both explore why that is and give people an opportunity to think and feel and experience religious services that are [also] geared towards [the BGLTQ community].”

Rogers describes Scarborough as a “wonderful collaborator,” and says that he provided an invaluable service to students who had previously gone unheard. “I have not found anyone in my life who is as sensitive and I think trustworthy as Sheehan,” she says. “He really, really cared about the students, and brought a lot of counseling skills, a lot of gentleness, to the work of the Faith and Sexuality Initiative.”

The Initiative often worked out of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life in Boylston Hall. Scarborough would use it when students wanted to talk to someone privately. “The partnership with the BGLTQ office was an important [one] so that [the Faith and Sexuality Initiative] could have a broader impact,” Scarborough says.

THE OFFICE IN TRANSITION

As Interim Director, Scarborough returned to work at the Office of BGLTQ Student Life at its temporary home of 7 Linden Street.

The office left its original home in Boylston last year, and now shares a space with the Bureau of Study Counsel until renovation of the basement of Grays Hall is finished. Once completed, Grays will be the permanent home to both the Office of BGLTQ Student Life and the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, one of the other offices under the broad umbrella of the Office of Student Life. Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair says the hope is to have the project completed in the fall of 2017.

The Office of BGLTQ Student Life left its original home in Boylston Hall last year, and now shares a space with the Bureau of Study Counsel until renovation of the basement of Grays Hall is finished.
The Office of BGLTQ Student Life left its original home in Boylston Hall last year, and now shares a space with the Bureau of Study Counsel until renovation of the basement of Grays Hall is finished. By Cynthia Guo

This geographic transition for the Office of BGLTQ Student Life comes as the broader Office of Student Life changes its staff. O’Dair started as head of the Office of Student Life in August, after the departure of former Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde early last year. Emelyn A. dela Peña, the former assistant dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion, left her post this past October, and the search for her replacement is still ongoing.

Scarborough sees this time as a moment of opportunity for the Office of BGLTQ Student Life. He wants to build on past successes while also responding to the changing needs of BGLTQ students at the College.

Nicholas P. Whittaker ’19, a Crimson Editorial Columnist, says he would like to see more of a focus on intersectionality as the Office of BLGTQ Student Life moves forward in assessing students’ needs. “It’s okay if right now, for example, the Quoffice just doesn’t know what queer black people or queer people from working class families need,” he says. “But [they should be] opening themselves up to having those conversations and thinking about how to tailor events to fit those identities.

Scarborough shares Whittaker’s concerns. “I think this is absolutely an opportunity to reframe. I want to make sure, first, that we know what all the needs are,” Scarborough says. “[So that] whatever we are reframing, whatever we are moving forward to do, it is connected back to serving the student population.”

Scarborough plans to increase the office’s work in the College’s residential communities, which he says have a unique opportunity to provide support for BGLTQ students that his office does not.

“I think in many ways the residential experience is the crux of the Harvard experience - it’s what makes Harvard, Harvard,” he says. “Because not only are you taking classes, but you’re actually living and learning with students from all walks of life and backgrounds. [We] know that students don’t always come to [the Office of BGLTQ Student Life].”

To that end, Scarborough is planning to meet with residential proctors and tutors to discuss ways they can support students who may be struggling with issues related to their sexuality. “We are a locus of expertise, we are a locus of support, and a center for BGLTQ student life,” he says. “It’s our job to make sure that anyone in a position to support students has [that] competency as well.”

For Scarborough, proper support for students means recognizing this diversity of needs among BGLTQ students. “Through my work on the Faith and Sexuality Initiative, it was abundantly clear to me that BGLTQ identities cross every intersection there is,” he says.

As director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, Scarborough hopes to reboot the Faith and Sexuality Initiative and connect with a subset of BGLTQ students he thinks are often ignored. Though the original program primarily concerned Christianity, Scarborough wants to expand its reach to additional faith communities by working with different chaplains, including the new Muslim chaplaincy that University President Drew G. Faust announced in a letter at the end of January.

“In having emphasis on all aspects of intersectionality, religion and seeing how people’s other identities are intertwined with it is important,” Whittaker says.

Nico W. Tuccillo ’19 says he hopes that the Office of BGLTQ Student Life will partner more with student organizations. “I think… it would attract more people, and could be less intimidating for people because it’s not ‘come to this BGLTQ event’ it would be ‘come hang out with BGLTQ students while we do something together,’” he says. “I think if the Quoffice tried to connect more with those groups, it would encourage students to get to know it.”

Scarborough is excited to work with student groups on campus, regardless of whether they are explicitly focused on queer life. “That kind of creativity is exactly what I’m looking for, and that’s what I want my approach to the office to be,” he says. He recognizes that many BGLTQ students do not only express themselves through queer-oriented organizations, and that many also find meaningful experiences through the arts, athletics, or cultural and affinity groups.

“To assume that one set of programming or one set of ideologies represents that entire group is probably one of the biggest mistakes you can make as someone in a position to support students,” Scarborough says. “I don’t want us to miss supporting students because we have an expectation that BGLTQ students are a particular way.”

He also wants to connect with undergraduates who may not feel comfortable expressing their BGLTQ identity at all, saying that support is necessary for “all stages of outness and non-outness.” Scarborough acknowledges the inherent difficulty of connecting with students who may be closeted or intimidated by engaging with queer life at Harvard: “There are some students who will never want to come into the Office of BGLTQ Student Life,” he says. “[They] still need support.”

Scarborough and his team are planning programming tailored to those students. He speaks enthusiastically about “Coffee and Chat,” where anyone—BGLTQ or not, out or not—will be able to meet with one of the Office of BLGTQ Student Life student interns and and get involved in BGLTQ life in a casual setting. “We want to organize [opportunities for students] to explore without necessarily doing that in the presence of a lot of people,” he says.

Scarborough does not want students to have to face their problems alone. “Not being out can be very isolating,” he says.

UP NEXT

There seem to be obvious ties between Scarborough’s first college experience and his second. Closeted for his first three years at Harvard, he did not participate in the limited student-organized activities and social events available to him. From the sidelines, he watched as BGLTQ student life at Harvard went on without him.

Back at the College, Scarborough will construct programming designed to meet the needs of students facing many of the same problems that he did in college. When asked if his personal life inspires his work, he laughs. “Too much, maybe.”

But Scarborough sees his emotional investment as a plus. “I learned in Divinity School… that some work will put your soul on the line, in a good way,” he says. “There will be so much of you invested in the work that the work becomes you.”

Scarborough was recently gifted a sculpture made of keys to symbolize his opening of doors for students.
Scarborough was recently gifted a sculpture made of keys to symbolize his opening of doors for students. By Cynthia Guo

There is something pleasantly cyclic about Scarborough’s journey. As an undergraduate, he wrestled with his identity. As a graduate student, he studied it. As an administrator, he will channel it to counsel and connect.

That said: By the time this story is published, Scarborough will have been the permanent Director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life for all of three days.

During interviews, he spoke in suppositionals and hypotheticals, of aims, goals, and hopes. For now, he’s still a would-be changemaker.

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