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Topics In the News
Celebration and Protest at Harvard
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 02/29/12
Last updated on: 03/01/12
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On February 29, 2012, Lady Gaga and her mother launched their national anti-bullying effort, the Born This Way Foundation, at Harvard University. In connection with the celebration, students staged a rally to demand posthumous degrees for students expelled from Harvard in 1920.

Pop music sensation Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta, with Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra in tow, are celebrating the creation of their Born This Way Foundation, which hopes to combat intolerance while promoting a "braver, kinder world," with a focus on positive change that embraces difference.

Mrs. Germanotta told Abigail Pesta at the Daily Beast, that the focus of the new foundation is on "kindness, not meanness," saying that "bullying is almost overused in the media." The group plans to partner with three other groups--Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the MacArthur Foundation, and the California Endowment to Empower Youth--to help mentor young people.

She described the project as having long been a family goal. "We always talked about doing something together, giving back. As my daughter's career took off, we started having more serious conversations about it. It wasn't so much a 'decision' as something we always wanted to do."

The launch event included a keynote address by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

In connection with Lady Gaga's visit to Harvard, students rallied to demand posthumous degrees for students expelled from Harvard in 1920 for being gay.

The students were expelled by a Secret Court convened by administrators to investigate charges of alleged homosexual activity among its students. The Court was fueled by a desire to rid the university of homosexuality altogether. After several weeks of painful interviews, in which questions were posed about masturbation practices, sex with women or men, cross-dressing, overnight guests, parties, and reading habits, nine students were expelled. They were ordered to leave Cambridge and were reported to their families and were told that Harvard would disclose the reasons for their expulsion if employers or other schools sought references.

Two of the expelled students were later readmitted and ultimately received Harvard degrees, but the other seven found themselves the victims of persecution and of psychological damage.

The witch hunt came to light in 2002, when a classified file containing the proceedings of the Court was discovered in the University archives by a reporter for the Harvard Crimson. At that time, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers issued a statement expressing the University's deep regret for the way the situation was handled as well as for the anguish experienced by the students and their families.

In response to Summers's statement, right-wing commentator and self-satisfied homophobe Pat Buchanan said that "Harvard embraces bathhouse values": "Harvard's code is now based on Summers' values, which hold that the old moral code of Christianity, which teaches that sexual relations between men are unnatural and immoral, is 'abhorrent and an affront to the values of our university.'"

"Harvard has not only turned its back on its Christian past, it has just renounced its Christian roots as poisoned and perverted," Buchanan fulminated. "If Harvard is educating America's leaders, this country is not Slouching Toward Gomorrah, we are sprinting there."

In 2005, William Wright published a book, Harvard's Secret Court, that recounted the investigations and the painful--in some cases, catastrophic--impact they had on the students who were expelled. One committed suicide immediately after being questioned, another ten years later. Although some recovered to the extent that they led productive lives, all suffered severe damage by having been expelled.

Harvard's Secret Court is also the subject of a play by Stan Richardson, Veritas, which was presented at New York's International Fringe Festival in 2010.

A petition at Change.org demanding that the University award posthumous degrees to the expelled students has been signed by over 5,000 students, faculty, alumni, and supporters.

"These students were not only forced to leave the university, they were also ordered to leave Cambridge, Massachusetts," Kaia Stern, a faculty member who created the petition, told Natalie Hope McDonald of Philadelphia Magazine.

"We're challenging the Harvard community to live up to its mission to 'liberate students to explore, to create, to challenge, and to lead . . . to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society," Stern added. "It's time to ensure these seven students receive justice and are honored officially by the university with posthumous degrees."

However, Harvard's administration has announced that the university will not award the expelled students posthumous degrees. "Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences does not award posthumous degrees except in the rare case of a student who completes all academic requirements for the degree but dies before the degree has been conferred," the university said in a statement.

Although it was written before the existence of the Secret Court came to light, the best history of homosexuality at Harvard is Douglass Shand-Tucci's The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture (2003).

The video below explains the goals of the Born This Way Foundation.

In the following video, Lady Gaga answers questions from Harvard students at the launch of the Born This Way Foundation.

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