As William Wright points out, homosexuality in the 1920s was a no-win state of existence. The repressive atmosphere of the day all but ensured that public knowledge of gay men and derived solely from outbreaks of scandal. Thus when, in 1920, Harvard University officials discovered a small gay underworld among their undergraduates, a severe response might have been expected. But, as Wright shows in Harvard's Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals (St. Martin's, $25.95), the university went the extra mile to be cruel -- not only convening a secret court, which expelled most of the students involved, but also sharing the students' records with other institutions for years to come. Any courses one had taken at the university were wiped out -- and even then a young man would have to explain away a blank spot in his resume. Several students committed suicide in the aftermath; others never had careers worthy of their talents. Some turned out not to be gay at all but rather sexual opportunists in a puritanical time. The whole sorry episode resurfaced a few years ago thanks to investigative work by the Harvard Crimson -- as well as the tantalizing label that an archivist put on the files containing the Court's records: "The Secret Court of 1920."

-- Dennis Drabelle