Political Scientist Rick Valelly '75 Examines "The Conflicted Gay Pioneer"

The American Prospect: The Conflicted Gay Pioneer

When it comes to American political thought, who in our nation's history did the thinking and writing that we ought to care about? The Puritans, for starters. They created a theocracy in a strange land and the idea of American exceptionalism. The Founders invented a new democratic form of government, wrote its charters - the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights - and explained the logics of its nascent institutions. The argument about whether and how to remain true to these texts has unfolded ever since, with contributions from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan to today. Because the Founders built a new government on a narrow social base of slave owners and propertied white men, significant political thought must also include the works of abolitionists and champions of blacks', women's, immigrants' rights - everyone who persuaded Americans to update and expand what was meant by "We the People."

In the wake of our country's enormous gains in gay rights, it's time to think about which advocate for gay rights should enter the canon. The first candidate seems clear: Frank Kameny has been called the movement's Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr. rolled into one. In 1957, the government fired him from his job as an astronomer (on a technicality but with the underlying reason understood to be sexual orientation). In 1961, Kameny filed a famously eloquent brief to the Supreme Court basing his right to work on the Declaration of Independence. In 1965, he helped organize the first gay protest outside the White House, seeking civil-service protection. By the early 1970s, he was leading a broader fight to destigmatize homosexuality.

Kameny didn't arrive until the 1960s, though. What about his predecessors? The recent re-issue of a biographical sketch by historian Martin Duberman reminds us of a nearly forgotten but fascinating figure, Donald Webster Cory, the author of a pioneering Cold War-era work on gays in America: The Homosexual in America (1951). For a time, Cory became the theorist of the early gay-rights activists of the 1950s and early 1960s, in somewhat the same way that historian C. Vann Woodward's 1955 classic, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, was read and circulated among black civil-rights groups as they strategized and acted in the civil-rights movement's early years.

The case for Cory is richly ambiguous, though. Cory was the pseudonym for Edward Sagarin, whose name still stirs unease. A decade and a half after his pathbreaking 1951 contribution, Sagarin began to insist, as a tenured sociologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice specializing in the study of "deviance," on pathologizing homosexuality. Any accounting of Cory's impact must reckon with Sagarin - both the life that he led and the odyssey that caused him to depart from his initial convictions. The cultural conservatism that he eventually espoused has had the effect of cloaking the power and force of his first book under his pseudonym. Edward Sagarin's professional career eventually placed grenades around Donald Webster Cory's underappreciated legacy... Read the complete text.


Rick Valelly '75 is the Claude C. Smith Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1984 and is an expert on American party politics, election law, voting rights, and the institutional development of the House and the Senate. He has been a research scholar at Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at the Woodrow School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books including the award-winning The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement (2004) and American Politics: A Very Short Introduction, published earlier this year.