Unnatural Acts: Harvard’s persecution of gay students in 1920

The Takeaway

Story from The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.

In 2002, in a search for a story to fulfill a homework assignment, Harvard student Amit Paley stumbled upon a reference to “secret court files, 1920” in the institution’s archives. Paley initially found that the school was unwilling to give him access to the files, but after finding a clause in the school’s bylaws that granted him a hearing, he was given a significantly redacted version of their contents. The files turned out to reveal the institution’s investigation of 38 men for “deviant behavior” and “homosexualism.”

After six months of restoring the file’s contents with a team of reporters, Paley learned that in 1920, an investigation was initiated after the suicide of sophomore Cyril Wilcox and the subsequent discovery of letters referencing a gay lifestyle among Wilcox’ friends. The school found 14 men guilty of “homosexualism,” nine of whom were students, one was an alumnus, and four were not affiliated with the university. Those that were students were expelled, and all were told to leave the city of Cambridge and were blacklisted.

“Unnatural Acts: Harvard’s Secret Court” is based on the story Paley uncovered, and was conceived and directed by Tony Speciale. The play, which he says is about “youth and vibrancy and survival,” is being performed in New York at Classic Stage Company (CSC). According Speciale, the story fits CSC artistic director, Brian Kulick’s definition of a classic story, a story that “refuses to stay still — it has to be told — and I think […] the five suicides last fall came up, and this story will repeat itself probably a hundred years from now.”

Speciale hopes that people in positions of power like leaders of institutions, organizations, and religious groups, see the play and gain a better understanding of marginalized groups. Speciale says, “Everyone can relate to being an outsider at some point, and having a secret, and having that secret be turned inside out and made public.”


“The Takeaway” is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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