Campus & Community

Groundbreaking professorship in LGBT studies

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Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus gift endows F.O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship

Harvard has received a $1.5 million gift from the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus (HGLC) to endow the F.O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality. Harvard Overseer Mitchell L. Adams ’66, M.B.A. ’69, will inform participants at the annual HGLC Commencement dinner that a campaign spanning several years has reached its goal. Named after the distinguished gay Harvard faculty member F.O. Matthiessen (1902–50), the professorship represents the first endowed named chair in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) studies in the country.

“This is an extraordinary moment in Harvard’s history and in the history of this rapidly emerging field,” Adams said. “And because of Harvard’s leadership in academia and the world, this gift will foster continued progress toward a more inclusive society.”

Harvard President and Lincoln Professor of History Drew Faust said, “The Matthiessen Professorship is an important milestone for LGBT studies at Harvard. We are grateful for the work and generosity of the Gay and Lesbian Caucus, whose members have been integral to establishing the professorship and tireless in their support of this burgeoning area of scholarship.”

The professorship will enable Harvard to regularly invite eminent scholars studying issues related to sexuality or sexual minorities — particularly the LGBT community — to teach in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) for one semester. Each year, the dean of the FAS will ask faculty members with interest and expertise in LGBT studies to nominate candidates for the position.

This announcement signals another major milepost in an effort by faculty, students, and alumni to bring LGBT studies to greater prominence at the University. In the fall of 2003, the FAS faculty unanimously approved the relaunching of women’s studies to become the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS). As a result, undergraduates are now able to concentrate in the field on one of two academic tracks offered by this degree-granting committee — LGBT studies or women’s studies. After this vote had been taken, HGLC decided to build on what the University had accomplished.

Founded in 1984, HGLC maintains and seeks to expand a network of members who serve and advocate for Harvard’s LGBT community. With a membership comprising 4,900 Harvard and Radcliffe LGBT alumni, faculty, staff, and students, HGLC drew on an energized and interested constituency to raise the needed funds. HGLC members Mitchell Adams and Kevin Jennings ’85 (who is also a Harvard Alumni Association elected director) served as co-chairs for the campaign. Ultimately, the funding goal was reached through a combination of gifts from members of the Harvard community and from the Open Gate Foundation (a private foundation created by HGLC in 1987). The foundation used a portion of a substantial bequest from the estate of Harvard Medical School faculty member Edmund C. Lin, Ph.D. ’57, to complete the gift. Terms of the bequest, which is managed by the Open Gate in coordination with HGLC, specify that it should bring outside speakers to Harvard. Lin had been a longtime donor to the Open Gate and member of the HGLC.

The campaign was initiated by Warren Goldfarb ’69, Ph.D. ’75; Robert W. Mack ’71, J.D. ’74; and Thomas H. Parry ’74. This original working group determined that a visiting professorship would advance LGBT studies at Harvard by exposing students and faculty to cutting-edge ideas as leading thinkers rotated through the position. Moreover, the visiting professorship will introduce to Harvard new scholars who might join WGS as it expands in the future. The Matthiessen professorship will also help grow the field of LGBT studies as these distinguished visitors return to their home institutions with new ideas gained from their interactions in Cambridge. While the chair may reside in any FAS department, the position will generally be associated or directly affiliated with WGS.

Bradley S. Epps, professor of Romance languages and literatures and of studies of women, gender, and sexuality, played a critical role in the drive to create an LGBT studies program at Harvard. He said, “This gift significantly strengthens WGS and moves Harvard closer to a position of leadership in LGBT studies. We will build on the foundation established by HGLC to become an even stronger program.”

HGLC suggested naming the professorship after F.O. Matthiessen because of his unique status as a prominent Harvard scholar who also demonstrated an inspiring commitment to his life partner. Matthiessen stands out as an unusual example of a gay man who lived his sexuality as an “open secret” in the mid-20th century. He and his partner, the artist Russell Cheney, were together for 23 years until Cheney’s death in 1945. By 1950, despondent over Cheney’s loss and having been investigated for his political beliefs by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities, Matthiessen leapt to his death from the window of a Boston hotel room.

Although his life was cut tragically short, Matthiessen’s work in American studies has long been seen as groundbreaking. In the academic and literary community, he is considered by many to be the pre-eminent American literary critic of the first half of the 20th century. His most notable publications include “American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman,” widely regarded as the foundational text in the field, and “Henry James: The Major Phase.” He also chaired the undergraduate program in history and literature at Harvard and was the first senior tutor of Eliot House.

While LGBT studies is a relatively young discipline, a growing number of institutions have begun offering compelling programs based on scholarship related to sex, sexuality, and sexual orientation. Martin B. Duberman, Ph.D. ’57, is credited with founding the first university program in gay and lesbian studies, at the City University of New York in 1986.

The field has since flourished, with scholars contributing new knowledge from a variety of perspectives, including the history of LGBT social movements, cultural representations of sexualities, and sociocultural constructions of sexuality and sexual differences.

“LGBT studies is an example of the interdisciplinary approach at the leading edge of academic inquiry today, and is producing new and important understandings of the subject,” said Michael D. Smith, dean of FAS and John H. Finley Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “I am grateful for these funds, which will allow us to attract outstanding scholars in this dynamic field.”