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Courting Complicity: Harvard’s Tolerance of Anti-Queerness

Queer Queries

By Aaryan K. Rawal, Crimson Opinion Writer
Aaryan K. Rawal ’26 is a Government concentrator in Eliot House. His column, “Queer Queries,” runs biweekly on Tuesdays. ​​​​​​​

When I applied to Harvard, I centered my queerness. I discussed everything ranging from my LGBTQIA+ organizing and my hopes to study queer advocacy, to my intense struggle to accept my sexuality’s coexistence with my racial heritage.

But our College didn’t always tolerate applicants like me.

A century ago, then-Acting Dean of the College Chester N. Greenough, Class of 1898, and then-President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, convened secret tribunals to purge students considered “sexual deviants,” leading to two further suicides.

In the 1970s, an admissions officer printed an opinion expressing preferences for straight students over queer students, labeling homosexuality as a “threat to Harvard.”

Throughout the 20th century, homophobia continued to define campus. Flyers for weekly queer activities were defaced with “Necrophiliac Thursday” and “Child Molester Friday”; campus groups attempted to push out gay faculty; and The Crimson’s Editorial Board characterized the QuOffice as a “radical liberal” demand that would lead to a “ridiculously balkanized campus.”

If we fast forward to the present, the College has demonstrated remarkable growth by even considering an applicant who openly celebrated their queer and South Asian identity.

Of course, it is far from a perfectly affirming institution. The College has failed to confront its anti-queer history, neglected to create inclusive LGBTQIA+ accommodations, and struggled to adequately fund queer-centered spaces. But Harvard has fundamentally grown from a deeply anti-queer institution to an outwardly inclusive campus.

This progress seemed to parallel society’s as a whole. Like the College, the United States aggressively stigmatized queerness throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. Just as the College began to transform, the U.S. too began to accept LGBTQIA+ people. The Supreme Court adopted multiple pro-equality decisions, and public majorities began to support same-sex people.

But progress is not linear.

In 2020, ‘only’ three anti-LGBTQIA+ laws were enacted. Since then, opposition to queer people has exploded. In 2021, almost 268 anti-LGBTQIA+ laws were introduced in state legislatures, with 27 passing. In 2022, that increased to 315 introduced bills and 29 enacted laws. This year, nearly 500 bills have been introduced, with a record-high 84 already law.

In short, the College’s relationship with the queer community no longer follows the broader political landscape. For the first time in history, the College’s acceptance of LGBTQIA+ students vastly diverges from broader society’s.

On its surface, this divergence may be a point of celebration. Despite intense pressure, our College is still able to recognize that dignity of queer people.

Our College’s general rejection of anti-trans sentiment is commendable, but it also allows them to slip into complicity. Our leaders can assure themselves that commitments to “inclusive excellence” are satisfied by simply avoiding anti-trans policies.

And indeed they may have been, when society was still on the path to progress. But obligations under inclusivity enlarge as bigotry proliferates, for inclusivity does not merely entail tolerance: It also involves an active rejection of anti-queer policies that implicate our College’s community.

The difficult reality is that Harvard is deeply impacted by anti-queer policy. Today’s discriminatory legislation doesn’t concentrate on LGBTQIA+ partners or service members.

Rather, it directly targets the domain at the heart of Harvard’s mission: education. Of the nearly 500 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills introduced in 2023, 230 of them directly focus on schools. Moreover, 130 of these anti-LGBTQIA+ bills focus on healthcare, with four-fifths targeting gender-affirming care for trans minors.

These bills are not trivial; they radically reshape the lives and educational experiences of young LGBTQIA+ people. My College application, for example, was only possible because district regulations prevented my sexuality from being disclosed to my unsupportive household. But now, my home state’s Department of Education is pushing forced outing policies. Given this hostility, how could an applicant in my position be authentic in a hypercompetitive admissions process driven by qualitative characteristics?

Similarly, applicants in the 11 states with policies that prohibit discussion on LGBTQIA+ identity will no longer be able to express themselves in intellectual pursuits; applicants in the nine states with bathroom bans will attend deeply stigmatizing schools; applicants in the 21 states that restrict trans healthcare will be forced to live their day-to-day life while being denied life-saving care.

In effect, anti-transgender policies are denying a growing number of queer students a fair shot in Harvard’s admissions process. After all, how can students be expected to focus on academics when their very existence is being threatened?

It isn’t just admissions. LGBTQIA+ students will likely find it increasingly difficult to return home, as our home states censor our existence, prohibit essential healthcare, and codify deep stigmatization. Likewise, recent graduates will likely face limited employment opportunities, simply because whole states are becoming unsafe for them.

In short, we cannot ignore anti-trans policies. They directly implicate our institution, whether that be through the trans student whose chances to enter our school are harmed by queerphobic legislators, the freshman struggling to return to a home state that bans their healthcare, or the recent graduate who turns down a dream job in a state hostile to their existence.

For Harvard to meet its obligations to inclusivity, it can no longer simply default to platitudes. It must instead leverage its stature to highlight the adverse educational impacts of anti-trans discrimination and affirm those impacted — or else tolerate an educational status quo rapidly descending into anti-queerness.

Aaryan K. Rawal ’26 is a Government concentrator in Eliot House. His column, “Queer Queries,” runs biweekly on Tuesdays.

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