Harvard establishes chair (named after Rhodes Scholar) in gay and lesbian studies

Professorship is being billed as a turning point in the prestigious university's history
Ed Pilkington
The Guardian
Cambridge, MA

Harvard University has taken a step towards shrugging off its image as a fusty straight-laced academic institution by endowing America's first named professorship of sexuality.

The chair in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies introduces a discipline still in its infancy into the heart of the country's academic establishment. Its supporters claim that the move by one of the world's most august universities will send a message to other institutions globally that "queer studies", as some call it, has finally arrived.

The new professorship is also being billed as a turning point in the history of Harvard.

"For 25 years we've been in somewhat antagonistic position to the university, pushing it to recognise lesbian and gay rights. Its recognition of the professorship marks a totally new sense of the relationship," said Warren Goldfarb, a Harvard philosophy don.

The chair has been backed by a $1.5m (£920,000) gift from the university's 4,600-strong caucus of gay men and lesbians which will fund an eminent visiting scholar to teach at Harvard on a rotating basis. Some 275 donors supported the campaign.

The chair is named after FO Matthiessen, a prominent Harvard literary professor who was seminal in the early days of the now ubiquitous field of American studies. He contributed to the revival of interest in Henry James and wrote influentially on TS Eliot, DH Lawrence and Walt Whitman.

Matthiessen was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and while making a transatlantic crossing in the 1920s he met the American painter Russell Cheney. They forged a relationship that would last for 23 years, living together in Maine and Boston.

Matthiessen's sexuality remained an "open secret". But his devotion to Cheney - he once wrote to his partner that "you'll give me balance, a touch with life" - was fully visible to friends. He went as far as seeking approval for the partnership from fellow members of Skull and Bones, the secret fraternity he joined as an undergraduate at Yale.

Cheney died in 1945, leaving Matthiessen distraught. With pressure also mounting on him over his socialist convictions from Joseph McCarthy's House committee on un-American activities, he jumped to his death from the 12th storey of a Boston hotel in April 1950, aged 48.

The naming of the FO Matthiessen visiting professorship of gender and sexuality, to give its full title, may inspire some controversy in that during his life Matthiessen was not himself entirely frank about being gay.

Tom Parry, former president of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus, said that Matthiessen was for his day as openly homosexual as he could have been, entertaining friends as a couple with Cheney in their Boston home.

"At the time he was [a] very progressive champion of women's rights, and in today's context he would be delighted to be associated with gay and lesbian rights," Parry said. He added that the organisers of the new chair had received several letters from Matthiessen's former students, now in their eighties and nineties, supporting the association.

Advocates of the new academic programme admit that it represents a scramble to catch up with rival universities. As Parry put it: "Harvard has been fairly far behind other institutions" in its pursuit of sexuality studies.

The first university to adopt gay and lesbian studies is thought to have been the progressive City University of New York in 1986.

After a sticky start, Yale also has a large discipline. It initially turned down an offer to endow a chair made by Larry Kramer, the playwright and Aids activist who wrote the screenplay to Ken Russell's film version of Women in Love. The university later accepted, tail between legs, $1m from Kramer's brother Arthur to set up a programme.

Courses at Duke, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Berkeley, New York, Brown and Rutgers universities have also tended to be ahead of the game.

With its new chair, Harvard hopes to regain the initiative.