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What Would Edward Sagarin Think? Or Donald Webster Cory?

06/29/2015 03:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

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The last time I saw Edward Sagarin was nearly 50 years ago in a diner on East 23rd Street, a short walk from the Empire State Building whose iconic tower was lit in rainbow colors this weekend in honor of the Gay Pride festivities taking place further downtown. I'm thinking of Dr. Sagarin, who was my sociology professor and something of a mentor in the 60s, in the wake of Friday's monumental Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. If his soul is looking on from somewhere in the cosmos, he is surely as astonished by that turn of events as he would be to find himself in an afterlife in the first place.

Memories of Sagarin arise at times like this, when I reflect on the astonishing progress that has turned gay people from social pariahs desperate to keep their identities concealed to proud marchers in parades and marriage partners with their spouse-kissing images all over the media.

When I was one of Sagarin's students at the City College of New York, gay marriage would have been as much a futuristic fantasy as a novel by Kurt Vonnegut or Ray Bradbury. This was before the Stonewall Riots, when homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association and gays were routinely arrested for solicitation in the very streets the Gay Pride parade now winds through. Civic passions were inflamed back then, but the incendiary issues had to do with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, not anything related to sexual orientation. Public commentary on that matter was reserved for comedians who took jabs at Liberace and tossed off gags that would now seem Neanderthal, about "sissies" who were "light in the loafers."

Edward Sagarin, a diminutive man, with a humped back caused by scoliosis, was in the middle of the civil rights and anti-war battles. As an impassioned warrior for peace and the disadvantaged, he was a mentor to me and other young activists. It was his private exhortations that gave me the courage to march and to spend one Christmas vacation in Georgia helping rural African-Americans register to vote.

But while his politics were radical, courageous and highly vocal, he also carried a secret that he could not reveal. It is a point of history worth reflecting upon.

At one point, my closest friend used the occasion of an assignment in Sagarin's course on the sociology of minority groups to tiptoe out of the closet. The professor returned the paper with a note asking my friend to see him in his office. In that meeting, he assured my friend that he was not alone, that in fact millions of ordinary men who led productive lives and appeared normal in every way also carried the same tortured secret. He suggested that my friend attend the next meeting of the Mattachine Society, the first homosexual advocacy group in the country. The featured speaker, he said, would be Donald Webster Cory, the author of a groundbreaking study called The Homosexual in America.

A heroic figure in the gay underground, Cory had written an insider's account of homosexuals as a despised minority, sociologically similar to ethnic and religious groups that suffered from overt discrimination and the denial of civil liberties.

When my friend arrived at the Mattachine Society gathering, he was stunned by what Dr. Sagarin told him he would see: a crowd of older, ordinary men -- the sort of folks he saw every day on the subway, in offices, on television. In an instant, he felt less alone and less of a freak. Then the featured speaker was introduced. The audience rose for a standing ovation. My friend peered over the shoulders in front of him and saw, striding to the podium, the gnome-like figure of... Edward Sagarin.

He was Donald Webster Cory. He had invented the pseudonym as an homage to Corydon, one of the fictional gay characters created by the French author and Nobel laureate, Andre Gide.

After his speech, in which he called for the decriminalization of homosexuality, Sagarin-Cory took my flabbergasted friend aside and asked him to keep his secret identity to himself. While Donald Webster Cory was a famous and outspoken homosexual, Edward Sagarin was just another middle-aged college professor with a wife and child in Brooklyn. Cory's royalty checks were mailed to a post office box.

The story was too juicy to keep to himself; my friend quickly shared it with me. For our two remaining years at college we honored our professor by keeping the secret -- a remarkable feat for rebellious young potheads who got their kicks by blowing people's minds -- because we had enough good sense to know that exposure would destroy the life of a good man. Not even a liberal college in the most liberal of cities could be counted on to not make his life miserable.

I lost touch with Dr. Sagarin a few years after graduating. His subterfuge ended in 1974, when he was outed as Donald Webster Cory at a sociology conference. Sometime later I heard that he'd been denied tenure, and that a bitter controversy followed that decision. I also learned, to my astonishment, that he had become a critic of the burgeoning gay rights movement. An expert in the sociology of deviancy, he clung to the notion that homosexuality was a pathology caused by childhood dynamics and argued that there was no such thing as a "well-adjusted homosexual." The irony that this firebrand who had preached a radical response to war and racism would be derided as a reactionary by the very movement that his heroic alter ego had helped to spawn was, to put it mildly, difficult to comprehend.

Edward Sagarin died of a heart attack in 1986, at age 62.

Thanks largely to lessons I learned from that kind, idealistic, troubled man, I was able to understand the complex dynamics of my best friend's sexual identity at a time when most straight men were bewildered, if not horrified, by knowing that someone close to them was gay. The lesson proved enormously useful as, over the decades, others dear to me emerged from their closets. Now, as I watch the celebratory coverage of the Supreme Court decision, I project into the future when people will wonder why anyone ever objected to gay marriage, and I traverse back in time to the repressed professor and the bold author of The Homosexual in America who inhabited the same body. Neither one could possibly have imagined that a moment like this could take place in the lifetimes of people who knew their secret.

And I believe that Sagarin knew that I knew his secret, or at least suspected I did. In one of his classes, he assigned a reading from Donald Webster Cory's book. During the discussion, overtaken by a mischievous impulse, I asked the professor what he felt about a certain point that Cory made in the section we read. He met my gaze, smiled slyly and said, "Cory and I are of one mind on that."

I wish he were here to see how far we've come since he lived in fear that someone like me might reveal a fact of life we now see celebrated by, of all places, a White House lit up like a rainbow.