Being Gay in America

With Brokeback Mountain being nominated for an academy award, I think it’s important to honor how far we’ve come in advocating for gay rights. Philip Goldberg’s article reminds us of just that:

When I learned that “Brokeback Mountain” had been nominated for eight Academy Awards, my thoughts turned to the late sociologist Edward Sagarin. In the 1960s, around the time the fictional characters in “Brokeback” began their love affair, I was a student in Dr. Sagarin’s class at the City College of New York. A diminutive man, with rodent-like features and a humped back caused by scoliosis, he was an impassioned warrior for the disadvantaged, and as I grew into a civil rights and antiwar activist myself, he became something of a mentor.

Sometime in 1964, my best friend used the occasion of a required paper to tiptoe out of the closet. In a private meeting, professor Sagarin expressed admiration for my friend’s courage in writing about his struggle with his sexuality. He told him he was not alone, that in fact there were millions like him, ordinary looking men leading productive lives but carrying the same tortured secret. He suggested that my friend attend a meeting of the Mattachine Society, an early homosexual advocacy group. The featured speaker would be Donald Webster Cory, the author of the groundbreaking book, “The Homosexual in America.” A heroic figure in the underground gay life, Cory had written an insider’s account of homosexuals as a despised minority, similar in many ways to persecuted ethnic and religious groups whose civil liberties had been denied. When my friend arrived at the meeting, he was blown away by the crowd of older, normal-looking men. In an instant, he felt less alone and less of a freak. When the speaker was introduced, the gathering stood to applaud. My friend peered over the shoulders in front of him and saw, striding to the podium, the gnome-like figure of…Edward Sagarin. Our professor was living a double life. He was Donald Webster Cory, a pseudonym he’d invented in homage to Corydon, one of Andre Gide’s fictional gay characters. After his speech, in which he called for the decriminalization of homosexuality and an end to discrimination, Sagarin-Cory asked my flabbergasted friend to keep his secret. While Donald Webster Cory was a famous homosexual, Edward Sagarin was an ordinary middle-aged scholar with a wife and child in Brooklyn. No one knew of his twin identities, least of all his family. My friend pledged to keep his mouth shut.

That night, he told me. We vowed not to tell another soul, and for our two remaining years at CCNY we kept our word—a remarkable feat for rebellious young potheads who liked blowing minds. But we knew how devastating exposure would be at a time when homosexuals were routinely arrested for solicitation. Not even a liberal college in the most liberal of cities could be counted on not to make his life miserable. Of course, our vow did not prevent us from gleefully speculating about our teacher’s clandestine life or to privately crack salacious jokes. It also gave me one of the few great memories of my college days. Given that I shared an apartment with someone who knew his dark truth, I thought that Sagarin must suspect that I too was in on it. One day I was given an opportunity to test my hunch. I was taking his course in minority groups, and our reading assignment was a chapter in “The Homosexual in America.” During the discussion, I asked a question whose structure was: “Donald Webster Cory says….How do you feel about that?” Sagarin met my gaze, smiled slyly and said, “Cory and I are of one mind on that.”

Nothing more was ever said, even when my gay friend and I had dinner alone with Sagarin. After I graduated, we stayed in touch for a few years, mostly exchanging letters about the social upheavals of the late sixties. Years later, I learned that Sagarin, a leading theorist on the sociology of deviance, had become a harsh 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 racism and Vietnam was considered a reactionary by the movement that his very own alter ego had helped to spawn was, to put it mildly, difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless, there was a time when Dr. Sagarin was reviled by the same gay rights activists who revered Mr. Cory as a founding father.

The subterfuge finally ended at a sociology convention in 1974, when Sagarin was outed as Cory. Sometime later I heard that he’d been denied tenure, and that a bitter controversy resulted. Thanks largely to lessons learned from that kind, decent, troubled man, I was able to understand my friend’s gayness—and later my brother’s—at a time when most straight men would not have known what to do with such information. I’ve thought of Ed with each new public brouhaha over homosexuality, from AIDS funding to Teletubbies to gay marriage legislation, wondering what Sagarin or Cory would have to say, and wishing he were around to witness all the public exits from the closet of shame in which he’d dwelled for so many years. One thing is certain: In 1963, he would have been one of the rare Americans not to be shocked by the idea that two rugged cowboys could fall in love, and who felt in their bones the terror that forced Ennis and Jack to live a tormented masquerade. But, as prescient as “The Homosexual in America” turned out to be, Sagarin-Cory would probably have found it inconceivable that a movie about those cowboys would one day be nominated for Academy Awards. I wish I could watch the telecast with Ed—or with Donald Webster.

Philip Goldberg is an author living in Los Angeles. His website is www.philipgoldberg.com

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