I remember lying on the linoleum floor of my dorm room, pen in hand, thinking of what to write in my Class of 2024 Journal, gifted to us by the administration to help document our first few months on campus, the Fall of 2020.
There was of course the excitement of living alone for the first time, in a new city, with new people. The awkwardness of having to microwave my cold meals in my roommate’s microwave. The courtyard conversations about Black Lives Matter and the Ruth Bader Ginsburg memorial at Harvard Law School. Mourning the death of reason, of kindness, of empathy. The slow, naive realization that power meant what those with power could get away with. And despite my deep sigh of tepid relief on November 7th, 2020, an unbearable self-awareness of my absence of efficacy lingered.
I’ve been feeling this way again recently.
From talk show segments to New York Times columns, the alarm — no, fear — surrounding the rising number of people, particularly young people, who identify as BGLTQ has somehow spread everywhere. I can’t help thinking: “this is not going to end well,” because history is rather unkind to groups of “scared” people who frequently talk about the extinction of a majority group (in this case straight people) they belong to.
There is a troubling history of this country of civil rights battles being won and then quickly undermined and rolled back.
The most notable example of this phenomenon is of course what followed reconstruction. In the aftermath of the Civil War, three reconstruction amendments were passed and the American army maintained a presence in the South to enforce the newfound rights that formerly enslaved people had won. This period was far from enshrining complete equality but it did see the election of this country’s first Black senators and governors, positions that wouldn’t be filled by Black people for nearly a century after.
Despite the progress that came about from this period, or perhaps because of the progress, the anti-slavery Republican party, agreed to withdraw the remaining federal troops out of the South in the Compromise of 1877 in exchange for the victory of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1876 Presidential election and 100 years of racialized terror in the form of Jim Crow ensued.
The 1960s and 70s employment discrimination based on gender was outlawed, the birth control pill was released, abortion and contraception were legalized, Title IX was passed and women entered universities en masse. These two decades of progress were followed by the Reagan Revolution and the rise of the so-called “moral majority” that celebrated traditional gender roles and decried the advancement of civil rights.
My fear is that the same thing is happening in the civil rights movement for the BGLTQ rights movement. In the 2000s and the 2010s, intercourse between people of the same sex was legalized; Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed; and marriage equality became the law of the land.
This belief that being queer is somehow a social contagion that must be stopped is not new but feels more dangerous than before because we, not just queer people, as a society are at risk of losing the social freedom that has enabled non-straight and non-cisgender to exist openly and honestly.
This newly materialized wave of homophobia and transphobia is currently being felt by public school students and their teachers. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law is only one of the most notable examples of a law intended to make schools less safe and inclusive for BGLTQ students. A horrifying bill passed by the Ohio House of Representatives would allow for “genital inspections” of student-athletes suspected of being transgender.
The 20s can be the 60s or it can be the 80s. It can be a time when we push to make this country one where queer people are not simply tolerated but valued as a celebrated part of society. This transition to a more humane community will require us to think about gender not as something that restricts behavior but as a lens to experience the world.
Despite this onslaught of institutional bigotry, more people than ever before are identifying as gay, bisexual, and transgender and Harvard is no outlier. According to The Crimson’s annual survey of each year’s entering class, Harvard seems to mirror, and perhaps embody this national coming out as a record 28.9 percent of Harvard’s class of 2025 identify with a sexuality other than heterosexual. Yet, The Crimson’s survey also pours cold water on the notion that the rise in queer identification is the product of young people trying to be trendy or cool. While these students decided to share their sexual orientation anonymously with The Crimson, the majority, 60.5 percent of them, have not yet “come out.” We clearly have more to do to make Harvard a place where everyone has the freedom to find themselves in meaningful ways without fear of discrimination.
The longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve realized that Harvard is a microcosm of the enormous potential but also the incredible failings of our world.
From when I first arrived at a Harvard of quarantining in place and forbidden social interactions to now, my perception of college has not been one of the freedom and flexibility I imagined but of deep communal and self-regulation. The feeling that even sliding an inch on the scale of social acceptability is an unacceptable risk for so many who have come so far is palpable.
On the surface, it might appear as though Harvard has gone as far as it can go in terms of combating discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. Massachusetts has some of the world’s strictest human rights laws protecting queer people, and Harvard enforces all of them. In terms of institutional policy, I believe Harvard actually represents the top tier of colleges in terms of its treatment of queer students. The problem lies more with the students themselves.
My hope is that this concentration of homophobia and transphobia will inspire a resistance that gains even more salience. Universities have a chance to be the outlier in a culture deciding to become more bigoted and restricted.
From scientific to social progress, institutions of higher learning have long represented change in America. They are where some of the world’s most outgoing, engaged, thoughtful people all get together in one place and talk about ideas. Education is a liberalizing experience because it allows us to think in new ways and imagine the world differently. Yet, unfortunately, many universities — Harvard among them — have a long way to go in their effort to extend this feeling of freedom and liberty to all their students.
Harvard is still a heavily gendered and racialized campus. Sexuality and gender are not the same thing, but they are entirely interrelated — and the systems that oppress women on this campus also oppress and suppress queer men and non-binary people. One’s gender determines which organizations they can and cannot be a member of, and the specter of race looms large on all aspects of social life here. Furthermore, in the same survey, that percentage of BGLTQ students, also found that more than three-quarters of female and non-binary entering students worried about sexual assault on Harvard’s campus.
When we speak of bigotry and oppression we are fundamentally talking about power, who has it, and who does not. Harvard is an institution with unrivaled proximity, and perhaps, celebration of power. Harvard students might make their school a more open and liberalizing experience by critically analyzing how enforced gendered expectations create and systemically deny people power and agency.
It is because of this remarkable concentration of access and opportunity that gives what happens at Harvard outsized weight in the rest of the world. The way students learn to treat their peers at Harvard will have ramifications we can only imagine. But fortunately, we have the power to do something about it.
Gordon J. Ebanks ’24, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Kirkland House.
This piece is part of The Crimson’s 2022 Pride Month special issue.