The Ivy Coach Daily

June 2, 2024

LGBTQ+ Life at Harvard University: Past, Present, and Beyond

Previously Published on October 12, 2011:

LGBTQ+ life at Harvard is as varied as the student body as a whole. At a school with an undergraduate population that sits at roughly 6,600 students, the number of members in any minority group will, of course, be somewhat limited in number. However, prospective applicants to Harvard should not be discouraged from applying to the oldest institution of higher learning in the nation, which has a long and robust history of LGBTQ+ student life, the details of which would surprise many.

A Brief History of LGBTQ+ Student Life at Harvard

For most of its four hundred-odd year history, Harvard was strictly anti-LGBTQ+. Sure, there were pockets of gay male students on campus, but they had to conduct themselves with discretion, in the shadows. In 1920, the administration conducted an internal witch hunt that resulted in the expulsion of several students for being gay. This culture of intolerance would persist for another half-century before queer students finally fought back. 

By 1984, the Harvard Gender and Sexuality Caucus was formed to advocate for non-discrimination policies on campus, and more progress was just around the corner. A strong LGBTQ+ culture was beginning to flourish around this time in Adams House, one of Harvard’s twelve undergraduate residential communities. In 2009, HGSC funded an endowed LGBTQ+ studies professorship at Harvard, which was considered to be the first of its kind in the nation.

LGBTQ+ Student Life on Campus Today

Today, LGBTQ+ life thrives on Harvard’s campus like never before. A number of institutional resources and student-run groups have been created to support undergraduates, such as the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, the SHADE group for queer students of color, the BGLTQ Business Society, and the Queer Students Association (the largest LGBTQ+ group on campus). Adams House is not necessarily still a hub for LGBTQ+ students, because sophomores can no longer elect to join certain Houses based on affinity, but its unique history of inclusion informs events and programming to this day. This includes an annual drag show which recalls the days that Adams House was affectionately known as the “gay” house. 

For trans students, Harvard maintains an online directory of gender-neutral restrooms, has administrative channels in place to facilitate legal name and gender marker changes, and offers gender-neutral housing options to first-year students. TransHarvard, a trans student event planning group, has hosted an annual trans community celebration on campus since 2022, which lays claim to the moniker “the largest student-run Trans-focused event in the world.”

Where Do Queer Harvard Students Socialize on Campus?

Just because Harvard has a robust landscape of LGBTQ+ resources doesn’t mean that these are the only spaces for community on campus. LGBTQ+ culture, after all, has historically been forged in underground spaces that fly under the radar of mainstream society. So where do LGBTQ+ students at Harvard really socialize, study, and party?

Final clubs, for one thing, are usually not very LGBTQ-affirming spaces. There are some notable exceptions to this rule, with a small number of gender-neutral clubs that have been trying to rewrite the book on queer acceptance in elite spaces, but most LGBTQ+ students on campus would agree that community is largely found elsewhere. Some alternatives that have grown as hubs for queer community in recent years include The Harvard Advocate (Harvard’s student-run literary magazine, the oldest of its kind in the country), The Signet Society (the undergraduate arts society on campus), and the Dudley Co-Op, a student housing cooperative that has historically been a center of campus counterculture.

While none of these spaces are explicitly LGBTQ+, they have reputations for fostering queer culture in a manner that only a current student would be privy to. That’s the trouble and joy of being LGBTQ+ on a college campus: it can take time and effort to find a community, which often exists in the unlikeliest of places. That’s why Harvard’s many traditions, which familiarize new students with the college landscape, are so important: they instill each first-year with the confidence to take campus by storm and walk their own paths on well-trodden ground!

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