The Daily Agenda for Wednesday, September 18
September 18th, 2013
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.”
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.]
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