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09 Mar 2016

Know Your Neighbors: Remembering John Gagnon, a Man Who Made a Difference

Written by 
John Gagnon. John Gagnon. Courtesy of Cathy Greenblat and Michael Graham

In the course of a normal life, we meet people—yet seldom do we meet someone who impresses us immediately, someone we know will make a difference in our lives. I was lucky enough to have such a meeting a couple of years ago—and sadly, there was not enough time to wring everything I could out of the relationship.

I met Cathy Greenblat in connection with a showing of her extraordinary pictures of people living with Alzheimer’s disease, and I wrote about her in January 2014. She and her husband, John Gagnon, were then fairly new residents in Palm Springs—both retired academics who were trying to get settled in and establish lives here after several years living in France.

The first time I met John was when I was invited to their home for dinner. I knew he had retired as a professional academic, but had no clue what he had achieved during that career. I was, however, struck by a quality that I have found in very, very few people: John had a highly disciplined mind, and he knew how to listen. During a discussion during our first evening together, during which different opinions and ideas were being thrown around, he sat back quietly and silently. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if he was really “present”—it was almost as if he were somewhere far inside his head, and had tuned out the conversation.

After much back-and-forth among the others at the table, John all of a sudden sat up in his chair and began to talk. He had a slow, mellow voice that made it clear he had heard and internalized all points of view. He then cogently identified the gist of the discussion and came forward with a clear statement that moved everything forward with remarkable insight. He didn’t pontificate; rather, he was “dazzlingly brilliant, especially in spontaneous extemporaneous settings … sardonically funny, and intellectually generous,” in the words of an old friend and collaborator, Cathy told me. For me, it was an astonishing performance, indicative of the kind of mental discipline one seldom encounters.

After learning about John’s background, I had even more reason to be impressed. He was a distinguished professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and a lifetime fellow at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom. He had academic appointments in psychology and psychiatry, but his primary achievements were in sociology, specifically studies regarding sexuality. John spent several years at the Kinsey Institute and is particularly remembered for his book with co-author William Simon in 1973, Sexual Conduct, which introduced the “social constructionist model” for understanding sexual identity. The American Sociological Association annually presents a Gagnon and Simon Award.

John was awarded an honorary doctor of letters from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, among many other academic honors.

John’s work was described by Glasgow’s Dr. Pamela Gillies as “groundbreaking” in that it was pivotal to helping those in public health craft appropriate prevention responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic: “John consistently reminds us all of the need to dig deep into our humanity and sense of ourselves to drive the debate of the still hugely important global health challenge presented by HIV/AIDS, in a more coherent, compassionate and intellectually articulate direction.”

Gillies also said of John: “Conversations with John Gagnon are like exciting conspiracies. They allow us to ask all of those difficult questions of life and ourselves that seem almost too strange, too disruptive, or too uncomfortable to explore … Blessed with a beautiful vocal tone, he is also a pleasure to listen to, but he has the gift of listening.”

My experience exactly.

John was an avid reader with a vast knowledge of art, history, literature and psychology. According to Cathy, he knew where every famous painting was housed, when it was painted, and what made it special. Yet he came from humble beginnings: His father was a miner, his mother a hotel maid. After moves across country amid Depression-era poverty, John by the age of 10, had not only discovered the library, but had already read his way through the entire children’s section. In 1990, he wrote, “Books, particularly books that were not true, became and remain the most important source of knowledge in my life.”

After his father’s death, John was on a trip across country, and at the age of 14, he saw the University of Chicago and announced: “I’m going to go to that university.” Although he scored in the top three on the entrance exams for Stanford, John did end up at the University of Chicago, including graduate work that led to his doctorate in 1969.

John’s design in the late 1980s of the first comprehensive survey of sexual behavior since the 1948 and 1953 Kinsey reports provided reliable statistical information and an in-depth assessment of sex in America, including gay male behaviors that were critical to a better understanding of how to structure and implement health interventions regarding HIV/AIDS. He also found that most married Americans were monogamous and not very adventurous about sex.

In a New York Times interview in 1994, John said, “We have had the myth that everybody was out there having lots of sex of all kinds. That’s had two consequences. It has enraged the conservatives. And it has created anxiety and unhappiness among those who weren’t having it, who thought, ‘If I’m not getting any, I must be a defective person.’ Good sense should have told us that most people don’t have the time and energy to manage an affair, a job, a family and the Long Island Rail Road.”

John died Feb. 11, at home with Cathy, his wife of 38 years, by his side. He knew of my work on end-of-life choices, and spoke to me privately about his fears and feelings. I truly regret I will not have the chance to experience that mind again.

John Gagnon made a difference for me, even in the short time he was a part of my life, through his ability to articulate about what really matters: “The critical posture to maintain is that the future will not be better or worse, only different.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

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