A Harvard Secret Court Expelled Gays in 1920s

ByABC News via logo
January 8, 2003, 11:46 AM

B O S T O N, Jan. 8 -- The roaring '20s was a time of experimentation and change, yet homophobia was strong in society and its institutions, even at Harvard.

Today, Harvard University is recognized as one of the more liberal institutions in the country, but back in 1920, things were very different.

While doing research on a another story last summer, Amit Paley, a reporter for Harvard University's Crimson newspaper, stumbled upon a file marked "Secret Court Files, 1920," in the university's archives.

The discovery led Paley to 500 pages of documents that described an underground court that convened to investigate and expel gay students.

Taint Other Students

"Members of the secret court considered themselves to be defenders of morality at the university, and they felt the very existence of people who were gay and even those who knew of homosexuality at the university, were some sort of force that would taint other students," Paley said. "I think they considered it some sort of contagious disease," he said.

The witch hunt began when Harvard sophomore Cyril Wilcox committed suicide by inhaling gas in his family's home. When the Wilcox family found personal letters revealing the young man's gay life at school. They implored the university to investigate.

"They pinpointed the ringleader as a student named Roberts, whose father was a congressman," Paley said. "He used to have parties in his room in Perkins Hall with other men from Boston who came in, people dressed in drag, women dressed in men's clothing," he said.

In all, 14 men were interrogated by the secret court. They were pushed to reveal the deepest and most graphic details of their lifestyle as they were tried for the crime of being homosexual.

Seven college students, a dental school student, a recent graduate and four men who were not connected to Harvard were told to leave the campus and Cambridge.

A member of the secret court wrote a letter to U.S. Rep. Ernest William Roberts after the congressmen's son and the other men were dismissed.