Why Did Someone Spill Urine on 40 LGBTQ Books in the Harvard Library?

On Sunday, the Harvard Crimson reported that a section of queer books were destroyed after someone poured urine on them.

While the books were reportedly discovered November 24, a report was only filed to the Harvard University Police Department on December 10. According to The Crimson, a library spokesperson said that staff discovered an empty bottle that likely contained the urine next to the damaged books and treated them like a health hazard. The books were taken to the Collections Conservation Lab and only reported to the police two weeks later, after their value was assessed.

On Monday, the Crimson reported that in fact, it was library staff who had spilled urine. According to a statement from Evelynn Hammonds, the dean:

“HUPD has continued to investigate this incident since the initial report and we have learned this morning that the books, while indeed damaged, were damaged by our own library personnel accidentally spilling a bottle of what was reported to be urine that had been left on the shelf. I believe this is an important new fact in the investigation and warrants my sharing it with you immediately. While we should not minimize the seriousness of this incident, HUPD is no longer classifying this incident as a hate crime. This nuance in the facts in the case also explains why library personnel did not immediately report the incident and treated it instead as a prank.”

Hammonds also said that the 36 damaged books would be replaced as soon as possible.

There is a fine line between “prank” and “hate crime” and when urine and a historically marginalized group is involved, that line becomes fairly clear. Especially in light of the fact that there are so many things about this incident that make no sense:

1. The bottle of urine. First of all, what was it doing in the library in the first place? (Was it a water bottle? A medical sample jar? Inquiring minds want to know.)

2. If someone was carrying urine around for a legitimate reason, why wasn’t the lid on? Either it was left by the books with the lid off, which implies someone wanted it to be spilled “accidentally,” or someone removed the lid in order to spill it, which implies a hate crime.

3. Additionally, the amount of urine in the bottle would have had to be significant. 36 books were destroyed. Gawker speculates that even if the bottle was a completely full Nalgene on the top shelf, a stream of liquid that could hit six books a row for six shelves would have to be pretty big. So would a spill that would ruin two rows of 18 books (presumably, the top row would also absorb some of the liquid depending on how they were stacked, meaning fewer damaged books below). And that’s assuming the bottle was knocked over and stayed that way — if a staff member really did accidentally spill it, it seems possible they might have tried to turn the bottle upright, which would have reduced the number of damaged books. Basically: the “accidental spill” explanation makes no sense.

4. Why did it take two weeks to report the books were damaged? What did assessing their value accomplish? If it was a library staff member who damaged them, and the damage was indeed an accident, why was a report filed to the HUPD instead of to whoever deals with internal affairs at the library? Is there a police report if someone cracks the spine of a library book? (I would guess no.)

5. Why does the discovery that the damage was done by someone who works in the library automatically mean the incident isn’t a hate crime?

6. The response from the university emphasizes that the incident was an accident and the books will be replaced. Would the reaction be the same if the books dealt with racial or ethnic minorities? Would it be the same if they were about 18th century architecture?

In their responses to the incident, representatives from Harvard have focused on affirming, as Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesman Jeff Neal said, “the importance of creating a welcoming environment for all students and all affiliates of all backgrounds throughout the Harvard community.”

However, this doesn’t change the fact that 36 LGBT books are off the shelves. It also doesn’t change the fact that, regardless of whether or not it has sexual orientation in its non-discrimination statement, Harvard is still a bastion of hegemonic privilege and, to some degree, its staff are implicated in that privilege.

In an interview with the Crimson, Marco Chan, co-chair of Harvard College Queer Students and Allies, said:

“I am very outraged. It is hard to conceive this as a coincidence when there are 40 books on the same subject. The message that this incident sent to me is that we need more resources not only for the LGBT community but also targeted towards other people.”

While Harvard recently launched a focus group to look at the experiences of queer undergraduates and a Sustained Dialogue Program that examines issues of inclusion, there is currently no dedicated LGBT resource center such as those at similar schools. Incidents like this one indicate that this is a problem.

This is also not an isolated event. In September at Harvard, three men verbally attacked a gay student with homophobic slurs before taking his wallet and cell phone. Homophobic death threats were also discovered on a gay graduate student’s dorm room door. Urine-soaked library books are not on the same level as threats against someone’s life, but they are still a problem, especially in light of the muddled excuses meant to explain them. Saying it was the staff member with the urine in the library is just like saying it was Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the ballroom: it might be what happened, but it’s not a reason. And saying it was an accident just isn’t good enough.

Carolyn Yates is the NSFW Consultant, and was formerly the NSFW Editor (2013–2018) and Literary Editor, for Autostraddle.com. Her writing has appeared in Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Bitch, Xtra!, Jezebel, and elsewhere. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Montreal. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 909 articles for us.

43 Comments

  1. I am so tired of reading these kind of news, I know we shouldnt respond to hate with hate, but I will gladly chop off the genitalia of whoever was involved in this-

    Immature, I know.

  2. I have a theory…

    So right now, I’m basically living in my college’s library (24 hour starbucks 1st floor=best thing ever) because it’s finals season. Going to the restroom can be a big ordeal– you don’t want to leave your computer etc. so you have to carry them with you, basically takes more time than it should. When you’re cramming the last thing you need is wasted time (not spent on the internet) so I bet some dude just peed in a water bottle instead of going to the restroom like a normal human being. Going without sleep for days and consuming an unhealthy amount of starbucks makes for bad decision skills…

  3. Unrelated, kinda, but I read the other day that Harvard has the highest reports of forcible rape of any college or university in the US. I can’t remember the exact number, but it was in the hundreds over the last 3 years and it was well above the second highest…which I also don’t remember. Anyways..yeah…Harvard’s weird.

    • The thing about rape though is the majority go unreported or are reported as different crime stats to make the college look better… So while it is significant that Harvard has that many that are reported it should also be noted rape stats are complicated.

      • You’re completely on point with your comment EV. Harvard has a strong support network for students that leads to higher reporting for rape. The Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response is very visible on campus.

    • When people spend their entire childhood locked away studying so that they can get As on tests, they are not mingling out in the real world, they get very weird socially and interpersonally.

  4. as a student here, trust me everyone is confused. it’s fishy and there’s no denying that. i just hope it can get the administration to take some action given the severe lack of resources for the lgbtq community. the ‘resource center’ located in a hidden-away basement is fully funded by alums and it just makes the university seem like they don’t care. it’s a sad state of affairs when even at a place that proclaims to be as open and accepting as harvard has incidents like these.

  5. Well this one takes the piss. There’s like no way this was an accident…

    Consider Occam’s razor in relation to the following:

    1) Urine is generally deposited in toilets. Nevertheless, large vat of urine of unknown provenance finds its way into the Harvard Library. In very close proximity to 36 books on a sensitive topic. Library worker is re-organizing said books. Worker accidentally spills large container of urine of unknown provenance on 36 books on a sensitive topic in the Harvard Library whilst reorganizing them.

    2) Someone hates the homogays, stores their peepee in a large container, and pours it on LGBTQ books in the Harvard library.

  6. Honestly, I don’t know which to be more disturbed by: someone deliberately pouring urine on LGBT books, or someone thinking “oh! I’ll just carry this open bottle of urine through the library!” Of course, I think libraries deserve even more respectful behavior than churches.

  7. This does sound seriously weird, and not at all likely to be an accident. But I graduated from Harvard 2 years ago, and wanted to say something in its defense because every time a news story comes out with something bad about it, everyone goes “of course this is happening at Harvard, it’s a ‘bastion of hegemonic privilege.'”

    If this incident is a mean homophobic prank, there’s either been a huge surge in homophobia in that time or it’s an anomaly. Not to say that there wasn’t homophobia- gay male students felt uncomfortable being out in certain athletic programs, and there was definitely some homophobic invective from one student leader in the Catholic Students’ Association. But Harvard has actually done a lot in the last 5 years to increase the socioeconomic and ethnic diversity of its students through financial aid, and really tried to foster an open acceptance of GLTB students. That was definitely my experience there, which makes this incident all the more weird.

  8. The story on Gawker states:

    “Harvard University now claims that 36 pee-soaked LGBT books are not the work of a homophobic vandal, but a library employee who accidentally knocked over one of the many open containers of urine that apparently litter their campus.”

    One of the MANY open containers of urine…?

  9. Meanwhile, the undergrad library at my school has a men’s bathroom known as a gay hookup, featured in many a wistful Craigslist Missed Connection.. slightly happier story involving a university library, gays and urine.

    • I have this theory About Life.

      There exists Organic Absurdity and Manufactured Absurdity.

      If one is actually living an authentic life and paying attention, there is enough Organic Absurdity in Real Life to go around….and seconds for everybody.

      Manufactured Absurdity exists because some people have way too much time on their hands, are shit heads or both.

      This story has both.

  10. Who works in a library and would be like, “Whoops! Just knocked over this bottle of liquid onto 40 books!”

    I just can’t envision a scenario where anyone, from a security guard to cleaning staff to book shelvers to librarians, could do this “accidentally”.

  11. As a Harvard undergraduate, I am totally perplexed by this incident. Couple of notes:
    (a) Unless I’m hanging out in urine-free zones, bottles of urine don’t “litter” campus. Why is the college trying to make it seems like knocking a bottle of urine over in the library is the same as knocking a beer over at a party?
    (b) Harvard is one of the most gay-welcoming places I’ve ever been, so the whole incident is very surprising and sad to me.
    (c) If anything, I think this speaks to the university’s shocking and terrifying ability to control what the media writes about them. Harvard has a scary way of shutting down unfavorable news stories very quickly (see: may 2009 drug-related shooting that happened inside a university dorm).

  12. First of all, I am really proud no one has said they are really pissed about this. Terracottatoes came close, but went British/Canadian instead. Respect.

    Second, I used to work at a university library in the South where they would sell PITCHERS of beer for a quarter on some days across the street from the library and we never had a problem with urine in the stacks. That was like a perfect storm of bladder and books and yet no pee.

  13. You know, I didn’t go to a school nearly as fancy as Harvard. I went to a mid-sized midwestern university in a semi-rural area. Hickland, if you will (though, like making fun of my mom, I can say that, but you can’t).

    I’m just saying, in a substantially less sophisticated environment, in which I spent ample amounts of time in the library, that not once did I ever encounter a large open container of urine. I mean, yeah I was stoned out of my gourd a lot of that time, but I don’t think that’s something I would have missed if they were prevalent.

    I’m just going to say, that if you Ivy League school has a problem with ample amounts of random piss bottles everywhere, then that almost seems like a worse problem than admitting there’s homophobia in your staff and students.

    • You’re probably more likely to find people pissing in a bottle at some uber-competitive top-tier school than you would at a state school. They can’t afford to take five minutes away from cramming for finals, so they pee in a cup instead of walking to the bathroom.

      I go to Johns Hopkins and I would be not at all surprised to find a bottle of urine lying under some desk in the library.

      (I must say, though, that the fact that Harvard students might be prone to peeing in bottles while studying doesn’t make this seem like an “accident” to me, though. It hit too many books, students generally study at desks rather than on shelves, and this was in mid-November, likely long after midterms and long before finals.)

  14. Really, who leaves a cup of piss on a library bookshelf? It’s quite obvious that someone intended to ‘spill’ the urine on the queer books… In my opinion its fairly simple to figure out who did it, especially if you already know it was your own damn staff… A simple urine sample of the employees, case closed.

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