Halperin receives death threats
By Jeremy Hylton
David M. Halperin, professor of literature and faculty adviser to Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Friends at MIT (GAMIT), received death threats last weekend apparently in connection with his involvement in gay and lesbian issues. An anonymous male caller made a series of six threatening phone calls on the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 25.
The calls, left in Halperin's voice mailbox, referred to Halperin's sexual orientation and used many obscenities. "When Monday comes I'm gonna kill you, so you better not show up to this school," was one of the few publishable things the caller said. At one point he also said, "I hope all of your family dies."
At the same time a caller, identifying himself as John, left two messages asking for information about the "gay and lesbian association." He left a different phone number in each message. Both numbers were identified as Burton-Conner dormitory room phones. The students at these numbers, however, are not believed to be involved.
Halperin believes that the messages left by "John" were from the same person who made the threatening phone calls. "It certainly sounds like the same person," Halperin said. In both one of the threatening messages and one of John's calls, the word "association" was mispronounced as "cessation."
Two of the threatening calls also began in Spanish. "It was fashionably bilingual," Halperin said.
The Campus Police are investigating the incident. Detective David P. Diamond, who is in charge of the investigation, declined to comment on the case. Halperin also contacted the Cambridge police, but they will not carry out an investigation unless asked to do so by MIT, he said.
The threats have had little effect on Halperin's daily schedule. He has not received any more calls, and the threats have not been acted on. "The police say I should not take it lightly. I myself am not personally much upset by it," Halperin said.
Though Halperin has been very visible in the movement to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the Reserve Officers' Training Program, he does not believe the calls are related to this. He thinks that the caller got his phone number from one of the posters for the gay and lesbian studies prize.
He also guesses that the calls were not made by a member of the MIT community, because the caller referred to GAMIT as the "gay and lesbian organization."
Though she did not believe "we can rule anything out yet," Campus Police Chief Anne P. Glavin felt that Halperin's assessment that the call was not made from campus was "the best guess."
An example of
The incident is not an isolated one, according to Halperin. He said he hoped his experience would "make people aware of the kind of the systematic harassment that visible gay men and lesbians face on this campus."
"We've had very few in my recollection that have been reported to [Campus Police]," Glavin said, commenting on incidents of harassment of gay and lesbian students at MIT. She could not recall any specific cases, nor did she have a list available.
However, Mary P. Rowe, special assistant to the president, said, "I recall some ugly threats in writing. We've certainly had death threats . . . but never from anyone on campus."
Professor David Thorburn, also in the literature section, received three harassing phone calls after he spoke against ROTC's policy barring homosexuals.
"I simply argued very forcefully that the military's regulations about gays were offensive and intolerable, and ran counter to MIT's stated commitments," Thorburn said.
A week later Thorburn received three voice-mail messages. "I don't think anyone said they were going to kill me," he said. "They said, `We're going to get you, you fag lover.' " Thorburn said the incident was not repeated, and he did not report the calls to the Campus Police.
"I now regret not having done that," he said. "I realize now in a way how strong certain forms of irrational homophobia are in the community."
Thorburn, commenting on both his own experience and Halperin's, said, "It's somewhat surprising to me that these calls were made. What this incident does illustrate is . . . how powerful and disturbing a tendency this is."
Neither Thorburn nor Halperin were aware of any related incidents involving the MIT faculty, but Thorburn said harassment of homosexual students is not uncommon. "Gay and lesbian students have told me about a trivial level of harassment that I've always been disturbed by," he said.
The MIT community must take a more active role in combating homophobia, according to Halperin. "Another reason to bring it up is to indicate that the MIT community make more strenuous and systematic efforts to eradicate homophobia on our campus," he explained.