The Daily Agenda for Wednesday, September 18

Jim Burroway

September 18th, 2013

Pride Celebrations This Weekend: Bratislava, Slovakia; Brisbane, QLD; Enid, OK; Peterborough, ON; St. Cloud, MN.

AIDS Walks This Weekend: Bay City, MI; Calgary, AB; Charlottetown, PE; Cranbrook, BC; Corner Brook, NL; Detroit, MI (Friday Evening); Dryden, ON; Edmonton, AB; Flint, MI; Fredericton, NB; Grand Prairie, AB; Guelph, ON; Halifax, NS; Happy Valley/Goose Bay, NL; Hazelton, BC (Friday); Kingston, ON; Kitchener/Waterloo, ON; Miramichi, NB; Mississauga, ON; Moricetown, BC (Today); Nanaimo, BC; Nelson, BC; New Glasgow, NS; Oklahoma City, OK; Oshawa, ON; Peace River, AB; Portland, OR; Red Deer, AB; St Catharines, ON; St. John, NB; St. Johns, NL; Saskatoon, SK; Smithers, BC (Thursday); Thunder Bay, ON (Thursday); Toronto, ON; Truro, NS; Vancouver, BC; Victoria, BC; Whitehorse, YT (Today); Windsor, ON; Winnipeg, MB.

Other Events This Weekend: Best Buck in the Bay Rodeo, La Honda, CA; Queer Lisboa 17 Film Festival, Lisbon, Portugal; OctoBEARfest, Munich, Germany; Out on the Mountain at Six Flags (Friday only), Oakland, CA.

100 YEARS AGO: Donald Webster Cory/Edward Sagarin: 1913-1986. If circumstances were different, we would be celebrating the centenary of one of the greatest pioneers of the early gay rights movement. Perhaps more than anyone else, this is the man who inspired countless other gay men and women to join a homophile movement that was still in its infancy. Writing under the pseudonym Donald Webster Cory in 1951, he published The Homosexual In America: A Subjective Approach, which would become one of the most influential books in the early history of the gay rights movement. The book was the first major publication to provide an exhaustive overview of a kind of gay life which was largely underground and out of sight of ordinary Americans. He discussed gay bars, drag queens, relationships, and marriages — as convenience and as cover, (including his own, to his wife Esther since 1936). He even provided a lexicon of gay slang. But most importantly, he wrote of homosexuals as “an unrecognized minority” on par with other minorities who were struggling for recognition in America:

We homosexuals are a minority,  but more than that, an intensified minority, with all of the problems that arise from being a separate group facing us that are faced by other groups, and with a variety of important problems that are unshared by most minorities. The ethnic groups can take refuge in the comfort and pride of their own, in the warmth of family and friends, in the acceptance of themselves among the most enlightened people around them. But not the homosexuals. Those closest to us, whose love we are in extreme need of, accept us for what we are not. Constantly and unceasingly we carry a mask, and without interruption we stand on guard lest our secret, which is our very essence, is betrayed.

But what really pushed the boundaries was his unequivocal call for the full integration of gay people in public life. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “and will presently attempt to demonstrate, that there is a permanent place in the scheme of things for the homosexual — a place that transcends the reaction to hostility and that will continue to contribute to social betterment after social acceptance.” He was also an early proponent of what we today would call multiculturalism, saying that the diversity of minorities — ethnic, religious, racial and sexual minorities — strengthens and enriches a democratic society. “[H]omosexuality — fortunately but unwittingly — must inevitably place a progressive role in the scheme of things,” he argued. “It will broaden the base for freedom of thought and communication, will be a banner-bearer in the struggle for liberalization of our sexual conventions, and will be a pillar of strength in the defense of our threatened democracy.”

An early advertisement for Donald Webster Cory’s “The Homosexual In America.” (Click to enlarge.)

Over the next six years, The Homosexual in America went through seven hardcover printings, was re-issued as a mass market paperback in 1963, and was translated into Spanish and French. It inspired  a movement and drew to it those who would shape that movement for the next two decades. Barbara Gittings (see Jul 31), who was instrumental in getting the APA to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973, credited Cory’s book with inspiring her to become involved:

What got me started in the movement was a book I found in 1953, which had been published two years earlier. It was called The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach, by Donald Webster Cory. The book was fascinating because, now that I look back on it, Cory’s book was very much a call to arms. Cory said that we ought to be working to gain our equality and our civil rights. … At that time, it was a very challenging book because it was saying, in effect, that we could stand up and do something for ourselves and change our situation.

Cory would continue writing for the pioneering homophile magazine ONE, and he established the Cory Book Service, a sort of a book-of-the-month club specializing in what was, for most people, hard to find gay-themed books. He also was a sought-after lecturer in the U.S. and Europe.

Like I said, under differing circumstances, we could have been in the midst of a month-long series of events surrounding the centenary of Donald Webster Cory, complete with symposiums, speeches, op-eds, and, perhaps even, a film documentary or two. That is how important Cory had been, which makes it all the more surprising to see how reactionary and irrelevant he would wind up being as time went on.

Early hints of that conservatism can be found in The Homosexual In America, where he accepted without question the consensus in the psychological world that homosexuality came about as a result of a disturbed home life. This was far from unusual at that time. A large number of gay people themselves believed what the professionals told them and accepted it without question. But what set Cory apart was his argument that the mental health professions were powerless to make straight the homosexual and, further, that there was no need to try. Homosexuals may have come from disturbed homes, he reasoned, but that didn’t mean that they were disturbed themselves. Whatever disturbances they did possess, he argued, came from the stresses of coping with a majority that had no use for them.

But by 1963, when Cory co-authored The Homosexual and His Society with John LeRoy, there was a noticeable shift in his opinion about the mental fitness of homosexuals. He still argued, forcefully, for the full acceptance of gay people in society, and he argued that the first duty of mental health professionals wasn’t to “cure” gay people, but to “eliminate the personal distress and anxieties that arise as a result of social hostility.” But he challenged those in the homophile movement who rejected the idea that gay people were emotionally disturbed, going so far as to argue that there was no such thing as a “well-adjusted homosexual.”  Cory repeated and reinforced that contradictory line in his 1964 book, The Lesbian In America. A reviewer in the Daughters of Bilitis’ newsletter, The Ladder, found him “inconsistent and unconvincing in labeling lesbians as basically disturbed (or sick?), as he does part of the time, and at the same time advocating an end to discrimination against them in government service, in the armed forces, and in society generally.”

A turning point for Cory would come in 1965 when he ran for president of the Mattachine Society of New York. In March of that year, the Washington, D.C. chapter, under the leadership of Frank Kameny, had adopted a formal position that “homosexuality is not a sickness, disturbance or other pathology in any sense but is merely a preference, orientation or propensity on a par with, and not different in kind from, heterosexuality.” (See Mar 4.) Cory’s opponent, Dick Leitsch, wanted the New York chapter to adopt a similar resolution, calling illness question “the greatest obstacle in the path of the homosexual community’s fight for full citizenship in our Republic.” The vote for the chapter’s leadership position became a referendum on whether gay people were ill or not. Cory lost that election, but he also lost more than that. He lost the respect of his fellow activists. Kameny, in a letter just before the election, warned Cory of his increasing irrelevance:

You have become no longer the vigorous Father of the Homophile Movement, to be revered, respected and listened to, but the senile Grandfather of the Homophile Movement, to be humored and tolerated at best; to be ignored and disregarded usually; and to be ridiculed at worst.

Cory retreated from the homophile movement almost immediately, leaving behind the Donald Webster Cory pseudonym once and for all. As Edward Sagarin, he graduated from New York University’s sociology program in 1966. His dissertation was titled “Structure and Ideology in an Association of Deviants” — that association being the Mattachine Society — where he described, in the third person, his embittered version of events leading up to his defeat the previous year. “The Mattachine Society has little regard for the truth,” he wrote. “It is part of a movement that participates in blackmail.” Sagarin used that dissertation as the basis for a chapter in his 1969 book, Odd Man In: Societies of Deviants in America, in which he argued that Alcoholics Anonymous was the proper model for what a gay organization should be. While American readers had no clue about the connection between Sagarin and Cory, many in the homophile movement knew exactly who he was. But because of an unwritten code of honor that came about during the Lavender Scare of the 1950s, outing him was out of the question. A book reviewer for the Daughters of Bilitis’ The Ladder clearly chaffed at the restriction. “Could it be that he is one of the homosexuals who has surrendered … to the ‘sick sick sick school?”, she asked. “Right, but I assure you that if you knew who this man really is, then you’d wonder, really wonder, for he is as responsible for the founding of the homophile movement as any other single man.”

That code of honor finally broke down in 1974 when Sagarin attended the American Sociological Society’s annual convention and spoke on a panel titled, “Theoretical Perspectives on Homosexuality” to criticize the gay rights movement. Laud Humphreys, who founded the Sociologists’ Gay Caucus later that same year, sharply challenged Sagarin during the Q&A period while alternately calling him “Professor Sagarin” and “Mr. Cory” as feigned slips of the tongue. Humphreys then went in for the kill: “And where did you get your data?” Sagarin clenched his fists and said, “I am my data.” He then left the stage in tears, and from that point on he withdrew from discussing homosexuality altogether. He died of a heart attack on June 10, 1986.

Many have described Sagarin as a modern-day Jekyle and Hyde figure. As Donald Webster Cory, he remains a pioneer in the early gay rights movement. The year in which The Homosexual In America appeared, the country was in the grip of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red and Lavender Scares, and Cory’s treatise rang out as both a radical declaration for equality and a pioneering examination of contemporary gay society. The Homosexual In America today should occupy a prime spot in the gay rights canon. But as Edward Sagarin, he would become an intractable foe of the very movement he helped to inspire. For that, Kamany’s prediction came to fruition: the once-vigorous Father of the Homophile Movement is today disregarded and ignored.

[Sources: Ronald Bayer. Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis 2nd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987): 86, 88.

“Florence Conrad” (Florence Jaffy). Book Review: “The Lesbian In America.” The Ladder 9, no. 1 (October 1964): 4-7.

Donald Webster Cory. The Homosexual In America: A Subjective Approach (New York: Greenberg Publisher, 1951).

Eric Marcus. Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1940-1990. An Oral History (New York: HarperCollins, 1992): 111-112.

James T. Sears: Behind the Mask of the Mattachine: The Hal Call Chronicles and the Early Movement for Homosexual Emancipation (New York: Harrington Park Press, 2006): 529-530.

Stephen O. Murray “Donald Webster Cory (1913-1986)” In Vern L. Bullough’s (ed.) Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context (New York: Harrington Park Press, 2002): 333-343.]

If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).

And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?


September 18th, 2013

What a very interesting piece on the life and work of Sagarin. I knew of the book and vaguely about what happened to him.. But not in this detail. Thanks.

Donny D.

September 18th, 2013

I certainly had heard of Donald Webster Cory but never knew his afterstory until I read about him here. Much appreciated, Jim. :)

Unfortunately, he isn’t the only LGBT activist who did good early on, but became a crank in his later years.

Bose in St. Peter MN

September 18th, 2013

Philip Goldberg, in a 2010 piece knew Sagrin in the mid-1960s as fiery, outspoken CCNY professor who clued a couple of students in about a pending Cory speaking engagement, also knew him as deeply closeted, not even out to his wife.

It doesn’t make sense to me that he wasn’t at all out to his wife, though. How would he have made the book his life’s work and key to the family income without sharing it?

In today’s world, NOM would promote him side-by-side with Robert Oscar Lopez, the latest gay man who knows he’s not well.

Richard Green

September 18th, 2013

“The Homosexual in America” was a sexological landmark in 1951 that I read as a teen, a landmark in the manner of “The Transsexual Phenomenon” by Harry Benjamin in 1966 and “The Gay World: Male Homosexuality and the Social Creation of Evil”, by Martin Hoffman in 1968. Indeed, Laud Humphreys recounted to me with pride and humor his “inadvertent” admixture of identifying the speaker at that sociology conference as Cory and Sagarin. But, be generous. It is easier in 2013 with same-sex marriage to take pioneers to task for failings embedded in the poisonous matrix of forgotten history.

Michael Bedwell

September 18th, 2013

In your otherwise excellent piece about Cory/Sagarin, a myth about the “Mattachine Society of Washington” [MSW] is unfortunately repeated. In NO way was it a “chapter” of the “national” Mattachine association which, in fact, had disbanded several months before MSW was founded by Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols in the fall of 1961, leaving each group that had been a “chapter” independent. I don’t know what Jack’s opinion was, but Kameny did not even want to use “Mattachine” in their new group’s name because he wanted to disassociate it from the start with the prevailing image of passivity associated with the Mattachine collective. Though he was outvoted, obviously MSW eventually distinguished itself.

There are two ironies related to Cory/Sagarin and Frank and Jack remain that changed the history of the gay rights movement and the status of gays themselves. Both of them originally virtually worshipped the book “The Homosexual in America” and, thereby, its author. Jack recalled that overhearing Frank at a 1960 party praise the book that he, too, loved, that led him to introduce himself which led to their lifelong friendship and reshaping the Movement together. According to By J. Louis Campbell’s biography of Nichols, Cory/Sagarin gave a speech to a MSW meeting in June 1963.

The second irony is that Frank and Jack shared a rabid opposition to the psychiatric establishment, and, thus, the gradual realization that, for whatever reason, Cory/Sagarin did not disillusioned them both regarding their once-shared hero.

Finally, two of Jack’s greatest influences will be brought together in a way next month when Frank and poet Walt Whitman become a part of Chicago’s one-of-a-kind “outdoor museum” of GLBT history, the Legacy Walk, and Education Initiative in Illinois schools. [Coincidentally, it will be the second anniversary of Frank’s death.] Their compatriot Barbara Gittings was honored last year. [While among the nominees for this year that I voted for, I was shocked and saddened that Jack didn’t make the proverbial final cut, but he’s been renominated for future inclusion.]

Thank you.

Michael Bedwell

September 18th, 2013

My apologies for not making clearer in my earlier comment about Mattachine Society of Washington that the reason the majority voted to include “Mattachine” in the name of their new organization despite the fact there was no longer any “chapter” structure was solely because of its name recognition in the Community.

Allen Young

September 18th, 2013

I enjoyed reading this article, and have sent it on to others. I have a copy of Cory’s book, which was given to me in the 1970s by a Vietnam veteran friend. I had read this book previously in the special collections section of the library at Columbia University. I remember reading about “browning” and was quite creeped out by it. At that time in my life, all I knew was “the Princeton rub,” that is, the Columbia version of it (a.k.a. frottage). The book did not make me think for a second about being open about my sexuality. That did not happen until I joined the NY Gay Liberation Front a few months after Stonewall. Cory/Saragin’s story is a sad one, in the end.

Timothy Kincaid

September 18th, 2013

I’d like to thank the senior members of our community who comment here at BTB for providing perspective about some of our topics.

Doug Kimmel

September 18th, 2013

I was on the faculty in the Psychology Department at CCNY when Ed Sagarin was on the faculty in the Sociology Department there. In the late 1970s I was open as a gay man and some students told me Sagarin was openly critical of homosexuality in his classes. The student wanted to arrange a debate, which never happened. I had read “The Homosexual in America” years earlier and was much impressed by it, but had no idea at the time that the author was, in fact, the same Ed Sagarin.

Jonathan Ned Katz

September 19th, 2013

Thanks so much for the essay reminding us about this fascinating man.

In the early 1970s I went to hear Sagarin talk about homosexuality at the CUNY Grad Center, then on 42nd Street. I stayed for a while just to be in the presence of this great pioneer. But I left when a number of my fellow gay liberationists began to loudly challenge him about his sickness theory. I knew it was useless, and it was very sad.

I also recall that when I published Sagarin’s thesis in the 1975 Arno Press reprints, he wanted to be reassured that we weren’t going to out him as Cory. I sent him a message to the effect that we would honor his request.

Interesting to figure out why he couldn’t accept the idea that we aren’t all sick.


September 19th, 2013

I remember reading “The Homosexual in America” as a teen-ager. It must have been the paperback reprint issued in 1963. The book made an incredible impression on me. I was starved to read something about homosexuals and homosexuality, and this book for the first time unapologetically made the case for gay people as an oppressed minority. It helped me be far more able to accept myself as a homosexual.

Later I also read an anthology he put together called “Twenty-One Variations on a Theme.” It featured primarily short stories by famous gay or gay-sympathetic writers. I remember that it included a story by Christopher Isherwood. I think it also included Sherwood Anderson’s “Hands.”

Sagarin is the great apostate of the gay rights movement and for that reason a sad figure. But we should not forget what a great contribution he made as Donald Webster Cory.

Some more information about him may be found in the entry on him at

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