LGBT Life at Harvard

Through the Eyes of QSA Co-Chair Marco Chan ’11

By Henry Woodward-Fisher

Harvard is not a place that puts issues of sexuality and queer identity to one side. From the dramatic abbreviation of the “BGLTSA” to the “Harvard College QSA”, to the discussions of the past spring semester surrounding gender-neutral housing and bathrooms and the abstract implementation thereof, to issues of same-sex marriage across the US, to the recent inaugural Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy’s Award for Service to Humanity given to Lieutenant Choi, a distinguished West Point graduate, Iraq veteran and Arabic linguist who was discharged under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community at Harvard seems to rank high in prominence. However, the LGBT community at Harvard is one with many different faces; to put your finger on LGBT life at Harvard is not an easy task. The Voice sets out to answer this simple question: what exactly is the current state of LGBT life at Harvard?

The Transgender Task Force is the premier group at the university aimed at confronting issues surrounding gender non-conforming individuals, creating an educational environment for all members of Harvard, and fostering a safe and welcoming atmosphere for transgender and intersex people at the university. Transgender people at Harvard, although a disappointingly indiscernible community within the College, are supported by a network of active organizations that work to further the trans and queer movement. Events are regularly held across campus to raise awareness of trans-issues and to promote equality and understanding at all levels of the university. Examples of these events are “Trans 101s”, training seminars that are held at Harvard and are available upon request. These seminars aim to make campus life and university policies more inclusive. Other groups at Harvard that represent the diversity of the LGBT community include Girlspot, for lesbian, bisexual and bicurious women; Black Out, aimed at queer black students; and QAF, a group aimed at LGBT Asians. However, by far the most visible assembly on campus–acting mostly as the umbrella for other groups–is the QSA, or Queer Students and Allies.

Whether you want to kick back and relax for that final episode of “The ‘L’ Word” in the Harvard Women’s Center, reminisce about the good old days of “Queer As Folk” at a freshman BGLT study break, discuss relevant LGBT issues in a political forum, or rent a DVD or book from the Queer Resource Center in the basement of Weld, the infrastructure is most certainly in place and does appear to be utilized. At an academic level, LGBT issues are being tackled with more force than ever before. The Women, Gender and Sexuality department, a comparatively young concentration at Harvard, has seen an explosion of popularity amongst undergraduates. The fall semester of 2008 saw the arrival of visiting professor Susan Stryker who taught a seminal class entitled “Transgender History”; the Kennedy School hosted its first annual LGBT political forum this spring.

Marco Chan ’11 is surely the Harvard College LGBT community go-to-man. As well as being co-chair of the Harvard QSA, he constantly pushes new boundaries within the Harvard queer community. Whether it is promoting and organizing parties, informal events, LGBT recruiting events with firms like Barclays, or defending Harvard’s stance on ROTC on national television, Chan always comes through.On this day, Chan sits in the sunny courtyard of Quincy House. He looks a little sleepy, though he says he actually feels pretty refreshed after a twenty-minute powernap. He explains a bit about his role on campus and his experiences working for the QSA.

“I got involved in the campus queer community pretty quick; pretty much right from the start. The summer before I even got in as a freshman I was actually contacted by one of the board members of what was then the BGLTSA about the opening position of a social chair and I thought, what better way to get plugged in on a campus right away?” He pauses at this point as if to search for some higher inspiration, before finally declaring, “And I ran! So I was social chair all throughout freshman year and I’ve been involved with the BGLTSA, what is now the QSA, ever since.”

Chan is waking up a bit now. Nursing a steaming mug of tea between his hands, he squints in the sunlight. When asked what exactly makes Harvard have such a positivist, supportive and how the QSA continues to support such an environment, Chan says, “I think what’s peculiar about Harvard is that it’s a place where, although not everything may be perfect, there is no shortage of people that want to make it better. I think that’s what makes it stand out for me. Through the years the QSA and many, many other people and organizations on campus have been working on things like gender-neutral housing and non-discrimination policies, so I feel like we really need to recognize what’s here today and the environment that we enjoy now hasn’t always been so. It’s been the culmination of a lot of long work, and it’s really exciting for me to be here on this campus and to keep looking at what’s good, what is going to get better, and work with everyone else to make all of those things happen.”

It’s clear that Chan understands the trajectory of the Harvard LGBT community. Of the atmosphere, Chan says that he has made many great friends here, that he has never felt unsafe or threatened. “Certainly there’s always on-going questions of inclusion and diversity, but the fact that we have these conversations and we’re having more and more of them is, I think, a good sign,” Chan says.

The LGBT student body is a visible and active contributor to Harvard’s already vibrant student life community. Fortunately, we live in a time and a place where the sight of same-sex couples holding hands on campus is not uncommon, where students can be open about their true identity along with who and what they love, and where students are free to explore LGBT issues in the classroom as well as in formal and informal social events. There lies a strong sense that great progress has been and continues to be made.

Read on for our Q&A session with Marco Chan on LGBT life at Harvard.

What area of LGBT student life at Harvard do you think requires most attention and what are those challenges?

I think there is always the ongoing challenge that, unlike other communities, the queer community is very difficult to pinpoint to one thing. There’s not one kind of monolithic experience that everyone can attest to. There’s not one way of relating to queer life and queer identity, so I think the biggest challenge by far is making sure that there’s space for everyone in the community, regardless of their interest,

regardless of their comfort, to feel included and to voice themselves, because we have people coming from so many different backgrounds.

Boston’s a city full of universities. What kind of interaction is there between Harvard and other local universities on an LGBT level?

So that’s something that we are continually working on, and it’s always been kind of on our agenda to keep working with other universities, because I believe there are over forty universities and colleges right around Greater Boston. It’s really a city made for students. The challenge of that is to work with all these numbers and to make a connection with so many different groups and so many different people. However, in terms of our social events and even in other things, like apart from parties, even things like movie screenings and some of our discussion panels and meetings – we do actually have significant attendance from other schools. Traditionally we see a bunch of people from Tufts, MIT, BU, Wellesley, Wentworth…a lot of different colleges.

Are there any upcoming events that LGBT students at Harvard should come and check out?

In terms of events that are coming up, this is actually perfect: the QSA is organizing a Queer Town Hall. It’s actually something I’m really incredibly excited about, because it’s going to be a fantastic opportunity for the entire community and all our friends to come together and sit down and say: ‘Before the QSA even starts planning anything for the coming year, before we even set out any sort of schedule or listing, what do you guys want? What is lacking? What’s great? What are you guys looking for? And how can the QSA and the community be organized and function in a way that is inclusive to you and encourages your active participation? What can we do, what are you looking for?’ So I’m really excited about the chance to sit everyone down and have a frank, candid discussion about what needs to happen.

What do you think of the dating scene at Harvard–gay or straight?

Haha. Erm…the funny thing is–I mean this is probably just my perspective on it–I prefer to date on campus versus other colleges, even though there are lots of fantastic guys and other people out there in town, just because of the time issue and I think a lot of other Harvard students feel like this too. Just the fact that you have hours and hours of class in the day, and then you have you meetings and then you everything that you want to go to like visiting speakers, House-life…it’s really hard to peel yourself away. So I guess I’ve never been in another dating situation where honestly like fifty percent of our time isn’t spent reading together or studying together in my room.

At least it’s a worthwhile way to spend time.

At least it’s worthwhile! But you know what? As with anything else at Harvard, there’s a lot of room for kind of a more intellectual connection and that’s something I really appreciate here.

As a Canadian, do you find there is a difference between being gay here and being gay back home?

There is a little bit of difference in the way that the level of political engagement and the way that people engage politically with their queer identity is a little different, because I think the frontlines of the battle for queer rights are more explicitly laid out in the States than they are in Canada. Another way is that obviously, there’s a diverse range of experiences, but I generally don’t hear nearly as, I guess, extreme circumstances as I do here.

For those 21+ students among us, tell us about the LGBT nightlife hotspots of Boston, Massachusetts or the surrounding locale.

So my favorite by far–maybe it’s just because I’m lazy–is Daedalus right across the street from Quincy House on Mt. Auburn. I live in Quincy, so I literally hop across the street and hop back home afterwards at 2am. Fantastic! Thursday nights are pretty much the established…

Gaydalus?

At Gaydalus…drinks are good, reasonably priced, and there’s a huge contingent from all the Harvard schools, not just the College. Apart from that, Guerrilla Queer Bar is always fun and the good thing about that is that you never know who is going to drop by, people from all over Greater Boston and sometimes even further afield. It’s in new places that generally aren’t usually queer-friendly social spaces that, for the night, are.

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