Friday 3 May 2013

Sniffing Out a Gay Jekyll and Hyde

In the bathroom cabinet of every young gay man-about-town is a plethora of cosmetics (judging by those I know). In my young days all I needed was to splash on some aftershave and deodorant. Today millions of pounds are being spent by gay men on these and other things – facial creams, fake tans, lip gloss, hair gel, hair dye. These days there seems to be as many cosmetic products for men as there are for women. And why not?

The number of gay fashion designers marketing fragrances for men is ever-growing. It is, perhaps, very fortunate that today’s cosmetics are largely synthetic rather than natural Not that many decades ago people were still killing beavers and musk deer to obtain perfumes. If people today knew from which parts of the animal their perfume came from and splash onto their body in the name of smelling good they’d scream the house down!

The molecule of the week changed all that. It is coumarin, the first synthetic fragrance chemical, produced in 1868. The growth of the inorganic chemistry industry led to the possibility that there could be no natural smell that couldn’t be reproduced synthetically.

One of the champions of synthetic perfumery during the 20th century, and an early gay rights activist, was Edward Sagarin (1913-1986). He straddle the homosexual fence. On one side he was a supporter of gay rights and anti-discrimination. On the other side he supported the view that homosexuality was an illness and should be cured. Sagarin has been referred to as “the Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde of the American homophile movement” (Claude J. Summers, in his entry of Sagarin at GLBTQ Encyclopedia).

First we’ll look at Sagarin’s career in chemistry. He didn’t complete a university course in the subject but he had a keen interest. In the 1930s he began working in the cosmetics industry in New York to support his family. He quickly established himself as a respected chemist and specialist in perfumery.

In 1945 Sagarin published a highly popular and influential book on perfumes which is still valued by today’s perfumers. It was called “The Science and Art of Perfumery” and best shows Sagarin’s flair for synthetic perfumery. It also went into some detail about the history of fragrances and the several traditional methods by which perfumes were obtained. For a scientific book, Sagarin did not shy away from pointing out the links between perfumes of ancient times and their place in ritual, superstition and religion.

Obviously, being a chemist, Sagarin devoted much of the book to modern synthetic perfumery. He could not ignore a figure like Sir William Perkin in the history of the development of inorganic chemistry. Referring specifically to Perkin’s discovery of coumarin, the Molecule of the Week, Sagarin wrote: “Here was a synthetic, not only as fine as nature’s own, but different in no respect from the natural coumarin. This was man, the duplicator, in his supreme achievement”.

Though with no formal qualifications in chemistry, Edward Sagarin studied for a PhD in sociology at the age of 52. This was during the time he was heavily involved in the gay rights movement. In his “Dr. Jekyll” persona he published a book, “The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach”, in 1951, under the pseudonym of Donald Webster Cory. When his employer found out he was fired. This book was one of the first factual books on homosexuality to advocate the rights of gay men to live without discrimination and abuse. It pointed out that there were more gay men in the USA than people realised, and some reassurance to those closeted men to know that they “were not alone”. At the end of the book Cory gave his opinion that in the future millions of gay men would join together for their rights.

On the flip side of this book was Sagarin’s academic career as a sociologist. Even though hew was a member of the Mattachine Society, one of America’s first gay groups, he was opposed to the radical views and campaigns that he had seemed to advocate as Donald Webster Cory. This “Mr. Hyde” persona, an opponent of many in the gay rights movement, showed itself in his belief that homosexuality is an illness and could be cured. He expressed a view in 1976 that coming out of the closet was actually as renunciation of freedom rather than an affirmation of it.

In 1974 both personas were to clash at a convention of the American Sociological Society. As a guest of a discussion panel Sagarin  was “outed” as Donald Webster Cory by a fellow panellist. The confrontation ended with Sagarin in tears and he left the arena of gay rights for good.

Whatever Edward Sagarin’s motives for publicly opposing views on homosexuality, we can be sure that out of the bitter reception he received as an opponent of the gay rights movement, and his pioneering stand as Donald Webster Cory, we can be sure of the sweet scent of unity in his place in the history of perfume chemistry.

No comments:

Post a Comment