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Proposition 8: Remembering Dr. Sagarin and Mr. Cory

08/16/2010 03:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The intense reactions to the Proposition 8 decision--joy on one side, rage on the other--turn my thoughts to the strange, poignant and instructive life of a former professor of mine, the late sociologist Edward Sagarin. If Dr. Sagarin were to somehow return to Earth for a day, he'd be as astonished by the gay marriage debate as he would by the Internet.

In the mid-1960s, when I was one of Sagarin's students at City College of New York, the idea of gay people publicly mating for life would have been, at best, a futuristic fantasy concocted by a satirist like Kurt Vonnegut Jr. It was before Stonewall, when homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association and gays were routinely arrested for solicitation in Manhattan. Civic passions were inflamed then, but over civil rights and Vietnam, not anything sexual. Edward Sagarin was in the middle of those battles, as an impassioned warrior for peace and the disadvantaged and as a mentor to young activists like me.

But while he was courageous and outspoken about his political beliefs, he was burdened by a secret so heavy that it, as much as his lifelong scoliosis, might have been the cause of his humped back. His torment is a point of history worth reflecting upon.

At one point, my closest friend (let's call him Gregory) tiptoed out of the closet in a term paper for Dr. Sagarin's course in minority groups. In a private meeting, the professor told Gregory he was not alone, and that millions of ordinary men carried the same tortured secret. He suggested that Gregory attend a meeting of the Mattachine Society, the first homosexual advocacy group. The featured speaker would be Donald Webster Cory, the author of a groundbreaking study called The Homosexual in America. A heroic figure in the underground gay life, Cory's book was an insider's account of homosexuals as a despised minority, similar to oppressed ethnic and religious groups.

When Gregory arrived at the meeting and saw a crowd of older, normal-looking men, he immediately felt less alone and less of a freak. Sagarin had done him a great service. Then the featured speaker was introduced to a standing ovation, and Gregory saw, striding to the podium, the gnome-like figure of ... Edward Sagarin.

He was Donald Webster Cory, a pseudonym he'd invented in homage to Corydon, one of Andre Gide's fictional gay characters. Donald Webster Cory was a famous homosexual, but Edward Sagarin was an ordinary middle-aged scholar with a wife and child in Brooklyn who knew nothing of his double life.

After his speech, in which he called for the decriminalization of homosexuality, Sagarin-Cory asked the flabbergasted Gregory to keep his secret. That night, Gregory told me the story.

For our two remaining years at CCNY we kept it to ourselves--a remarkable feat for rebellious young potheads who enjoyed blowing minds. But we knew that exposure would destroy a good man's life and career, even at a liberal college in the most liberal of cities.

I lost touch with Dr. Sagarin a few years after graduating. His subterfuge finally ended in 1974, when he was outed as Cory at a sociology conference. Sometime later I heard that he'd been denied tenure. I also heard, to my astonishment, that he'd become a critic of the burgeoning gay rights movement, that he clung to the theory that homosexuality was a pathology caused by childhood dynamics and that he claimed there was no such thing as a "well-adjusted homosexual." That this firebrand who had preached a radical response to war and racism was considered a reactionary by the movement that his very own alter ego had helped to spawn was, to put it mildly, mind blowing. He died in 1986.

Thanks largely to lessons I learned from that kind, troubled man, I was able to understand my best friend's gayness, and later my brother's, at a time when most straight men did not know what to do with such information. Now, as I watch the TV reports about Prop 8, I wish Ed Sagarin were here to see how far we've come since his other identity was fighting to keep gay people from being arrested for dancing together in a bar. The author of The Homosexual in America could never have imagined people arguing about gay marriage on national television.

I also wish I could confirm my suspicion that Professor Sagarin knew I was in on his secret. In one of his classes, he had us read a chapter of The Homosexual in America. During the discussion, feeling mischievous, I asked him how he felt about a certain point that Donald Webster Cory made in the book.

He met my gaze, smiled slyly and said, "Cory and I are of one mind on that."

It would be great to know what that one mind would think about the road we've traveled since he lived in fear of someone like me revealing his secret.