Honoring Victims of the Harvard Secret Court of 1920

One hundred years after the horrific events of the Harvard Secret Court, the United States still lacks federal discrimination protections that would have prevented this tragedy. 

On May 23, 1920, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, then president of Harvard University, convened a clandestine, five-person tribunal that became known as the Harvard Secret Court of 1920. The charge? Eight students, a recent graduate, and an assistant professor were all suspected to be gay. The court destroyed the lives of those it tried. One hundred years after the horrific events of the Harvard Secret Court, the United States still lacks federal discrimination protections that would have prevented this tragedy. 

The story of the Harvard Secret Court starts with the tragic suicide of Cyril Wilcox, an undergraduate student at Harvard, who shortly before his death acknowledged his homosexuality to his brother, George. Steeped in grief and blaming Cyril’s homosexuality for his death, George used letters that had been written to Cyril by several of his companions at Harvard to convince Acting Dean Chester Noyes Greenough to investigate homosexuality at the school. Shortly after, the Secret Court was born. 

“Have you ever participated in unnatural acts with a man,” asked the court. The students implicated in the affair were called in one by one and accused of participating in homosexual activities before being expelled. Among the victims was Windsor Hosmer, a graduate business student who had interrupted his undergraduate studies at Harvard to serve in the Ambulance Corps with the French Army in World War I; Ernest Roberts, a World War I veteran who hoped to be a doctor; and Eugene Cummings, a gifted dentistry student who took his own life shortly after being expelled.

Stories such as the one of the Harvard Secret Court might seem to belong in a dark history we left behind, but that could not be further from the truth. Earlier this summer, Union University in Tennessee rescinded a student’s admission to the school after administrators learned he was gay. Campus Pride has compiled a list of schools that openly discriminate against LGBTQ people. Some universities, like Liberty University in Virginia, even subject suspected LGBTQ students to the harmful practice of so-called “conversion therapy,” which seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation. 

According to The Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey of LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, LGBTQ young people face mental health disparities and significantly high rates of attempting suicide. Discrimination experienced at school contributes to these problems. The survey found that 61% percent of transgender and nonbinary youth report being prevented or discouraged from using a bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity at their school. 

This must change. The Equality Act would prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in a wide variety of areas including public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit, and the jury system. After the Act passed the House of Representatives in 2019, President Trump announced that he would not support the bill. It is unconscionable that such protections are still not in place today. The Equality Act must be passed now. 

Although the White House states that it opposes LGBTQ discrimination and that it only refuses to sign the Equality Act because it infringes on “parental and conscience rights,” its policies tell a different story. Since he came into power, President Trump has rescinded Department of Education guidance encouraging LGBTQ students to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity, has banned transgender people from serving in the military and has even defended people who fired their employees simply for being gay at the Supreme Court. The Trump administration’s empty declaration of standing against LGTBQ discrimination while actively engaging in such discrimination is a perfect example of the Orwellian ways that LGBTQ bigotry hides and thrives today. 

We must meet the challenge that history is presenting us and elect a president that will sign the Equality Act, which Joe Biden has promised to do. In the centennial of the Harvard Secret Court of 1920, let us remember the court’s victims, their unjustified pain and suffering, and honor them by casting our votes for leaders who will finally implement policies putting an era of such damaging discrimination behind us.

Diego Garcia Blum is student body president at Harvard Kennedy School, the Policy Chair for Secret Court 100, and a member of the National Board of Governors of the Human Rights Campaign.