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It was sort of odd, learning that I had been the target of a hateful, homophobic email via a campus-wide message from President Bacow denouncing it. But it’s August and fall move-in is underway, which, for an employee in the College Housing Office, means some emails take a little longer to get to this time of year.
More than odd, though, it was anachronistic. I don’t intend to share the email publicly for the same reasons President Bacow outlined, but it felt like something out of my childhood. Growing up in the 90s and 2000s, hate organizations like the Westboro Baptist Church were common fixtures in the media, protesting the funerals for victims of brutal hate crimes like Matthew Shepard or picketing college campuses. They employed rhetoric similar to that which I saw in the email, including references to HIV/AIDS or, now, Monkeypox.
I admit I was initially amused at the thought that someone had gone through the effort of crawling through Harvard websites or list-servs to identify openly BGLTQ staff and faculty and send such a vile screed.
But then I realized there is nothing amusing about it. The last several years have seen a resurgence of hate against queer folks in this country. Pundits and politicians use false rhetoric about “grooming” to erase queer people from school curricula. Far-right extremists target innocuous events where drag performers read to children with threats of violence and hate speech. Hate groups have recently disrupted joyful Pride month events nationwide.
At around the same time I read the email, Boston Children’s Hospital — an institution (and Harvard Medical School affiliate) at the forefront of gender-affirming care for transgender youth — issued a statement about threats its clinicians and staff have received. More than a dozen states have passed laws that target trans people, including by denying them access to life-saving healthcare and barring children from playing sports.
It’s easy to feel insulated from all of this. Harvard has been one of the most accepting and thoughtful spaces I’ve encountered when it comes to supporting queer students and staff. During my six years working at Harvard, I’ve been continually impressed by Harvard’s efforts to make sure queer students are safe on campus. It helps, of course, that we live in Massachusetts — the first state in the U.S. to embrace marriage equality and one known for its political and social progressivism.
But we aren’t insulated, really. Just a few years ago, we saw the “Straight Pride Parade” march on Boston City Hall. That same year, one Harvard University police officer called another a homophobic slur. It’s not clear whether this email was written by a Harvard affiliate, but I don’t doubt that there are some individuals on campus who hold those beliefs.
There will always be more work to do to make Harvard a more inclusive space – work that is inextricable from that of creating a more inclusive society. Harvard does not exist in a bubble. While students are here, they greatly impact the Cambridge, Boston, and Massachusetts communities. After graduating, many of our alumni will become leaders — the people empowered to move their fields, their hometowns, the country, and the world towards a fuller embrace of the BGLTQ community.
That work starts on campus. We can begin by making it clear that hate has no place at Harvard.
To BGLTQ staff, faculty, and graduate students, I encourage you to add your name to the Out @ Harvard list to ensure that queer students know that they are welcome here and have resources they can contact.
To upper-level students, make sure you welcome first-years to campus warmly and remind them that all students, regardless of their identities, belong at Harvard. To all students, stay engaged with the events hosted by the Office of BGLTQ Student Life and BGLTQ specialty tutors and proctors.
Beyond our campus, vote and advocate for politicians and policies that affirm the dignity of all queer people. And, if you haven’t already, register to vote either here or in your home state and request your ballot prior to November’s elections.
A lot has improved since I was younger, but the events of the past few years in our community (and my inbox) are a reminder that there remains much to do. I challenge members of the Harvard community to think about what your role is in advancing inclusion and belonging both on and off campus.
Brian M. Boughton is the Assistant Director of Housing Operations & Student Life IT.
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