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Gomes, Peter (1942-2011)  
 
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Minister, educator, and author Peter Gomes courageously came out publicly as a gay man after a issue of a student publication at Harvard University led to tension on campus. Afterwards, he lent his eloquent voice to the cause of equality for gltbq people.

Peter John Gomes, born May 22, 1942 in Boston, was the only child of Peter Lobo Gomes and Orissa White Gomes. His father, a native of the Cape Verde islands, came to the United States as a young man and found work in the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts, eventually earning a job as a superintendent. Gomes's mother, the daughter of a Baptist minister, was a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music.

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Gomes's parents valued education. They took their young son to the museums of Boston, had him take piano lessons, and provided him with stamp-collecting and science kits. Each night, his mother read to him from classic works of literature.

Religion was also an important part of family life. Orissa Gomes was the organist and choir director at the local, mostly white, Baptist church. After Sunday services, young Peter Gomes often "played church" in the family's basement, redelivering the morning's sermon--"with considerable improvements," according to his mother--at an improvised pulpit made of cranberry boxes.

At the age of twelve, he preached his first sermon in church. "Church is for me what the basketball court is for most black kids: a place where my imagination was unleashed and I was given free rein on a stage," he stated.

Nevertheless, as a teen, Gomes was unsure that he had a religious vocation. Upon graduating in 1961 from Plymouth High School, where he was the president of his class, he enrolled at Bates College, a Baptist institution in Lewiston, Maine, as a history major. He received the Theodore Presser scholarship in music throughout his years at Bates and supplemented it by working as the organist and choirmaster at the First Congregational Church in Lewiston.

In his senior year, Gomes applied to a graduate program at the Winterthur Institute with an eye to becoming a museum curator. Around the same time, however, one of his professors of religion recommended that he spend a year at Harvard Divinity School first.

Gomes graduated from Bates in 1965 and entered the divinity school that fall. Finding the courses stimulating, he remained there for three years, completing his Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1968. During his student years at Harvard, he won the preaching prize and was the chairman of both the Worship and Publications committees.

Once Gomes graduated, he was recruited by the Tuskegee Institute to join the faculty as a history instructor and director of the freshman studies program. He also became an assistant in the ministry at the campus chapel.

Gomes was well-liked by the students and enjoyed his work at Tuskegee, where, he stated in 1996, "he would have been happy to stay . . . for the rest of his life," but in 1970 he was invited to return to Harvard as assistant minister of the college's Memorial Chapel. In 1974 he was appointed both Pusey Minister of the Memorial Chapel and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals.

Gomes became an integral part of college life at Harvard. "From Freshman Sunday to the benediction at commencement, his is the first and last official voice that every Harvard student hears, and one of the few whose words will be remembered," wrote Robert Boynton in The New Yorker in 1996.

Gomes's preaching and distinctive voice--which Boynton described as "a rich baritone . . . three parts James Earl Jones, one part John Houseman"--earned him attention beyond the Cambridge campus. He was chosen to give the benediction at Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1985, and he gave a sermon at the Washington National Cathedral as part of the ceremonies surrounding that of Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, in 1989.

Two years later, Harvard became embroiled in controversy when a conservative student magazine, Peninsula, devoted 56 pages to articles condemning homosexuality. Most of the undergraduate authors were Roman Catholics.

Immediately after the publication appeared, an openly gay student had a homophobic slur written across his door. A group of gay and lesbian students, incensed by both the magazine articles and the targeting of the gay student, organized a protest to be held in the Harvard Yard and invited Gomes to participate.

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