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On Being Different: What It Means to Be a…

On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual (Penguin Classics) (1971)

by Merle Miller

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1582122,803 (4.2)None
Originally published in 1971, Merle Miller's On Being Differentis a pioneering and thought-provoking book about being homosexual in the United States. Just two years after the Stonewall riots, Miller wrote a poignant essay for the New York Times Magazineentitled "What It Means To Be a Homosexual" in response to a homophobic article published in Harper's Magazine. Described as "the most widely read and discussed essay of the decade," the article was developed into the remarkable short book On Being Different - one of the earliest memoirs to affirm the importance of coming out. Merle Miller (1919-1986) was an editor at Harper's Magazine, Timeand The Nationand was the bestselling author of several books, including the novel A Gay and Melancholy Sound and Plain Speaking, a biography of Harry S Truman. Dan Savage is the internationally syndicated columnist of 'Savage Love' and the author of several books. Charles Kaiser is an author, journalist and blogger. His books include 1968 in America and The Gay Metropolis.… (more)



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Read for my 20th century queer project, for the year of 1971.

Do I go into how Merle Miller’s essay was a response to a homophobic article published by Harper’s, written by Joseph Epstein? Do I get into the fact that this seemingly mild-mannered, well educated writer, biographer and war correspondent was “sick and tired of reading and hearing such goddamn, demeaning, degrading bullshit about me and my friends?”

In both the foreword and afterword, written respectively by Dan Savage and Charles Kaiser, they speak of his anger. But first I noticed Miller’s tenderness, his gentleness. I heard his pleas. He saw queer activists organising, becoming militant in their demand for rights and immovable in the face of bigotry. But he felt, despite taking part in meetings and speaking with them, that he couldn’t force himself to be so uncompromising.

He wanted to be respected, liked. Loved, even. And it shows.

The essay itself is very readable, very easy, very accessible, even if some of the historical context, names and protests went over my head. Miller’s quips everyone worrying about homosexual sons when no one’s thought about lesbian daughters, or lesbians at all for that matter, had me laughing. Lesbian culture has been shot down historically from people in positions of power for thousands of years.

People simply refused to acknowledge it existed. Queen Victoria refused to even entertain the idea. Hitler also refused to believe it was a thing, which meant that lesbian culture, bars, zines and dating scenes flourished during the WWII in Berlin. The American military at the time, while having questions about men’s sexual preferences, never asked women the same questions and as a result the (unmarried, childless) women who joined were often queer.

So the fact that Merle was like, “Is nobody going to think of the lesbians?” was hilarious, especially considering he then only continues to talk from his own experience (which, in his defence, is more than fair).

So yes, Miller was angry. But he was a great many other things besides.

To hear him speak of E.M. Forster as someone he communicated with (in real life) was a darling moment. E.M. Forster really does feel far, far away from me. It is nice to know he was not so far.

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about Miller’s essay is that what happened to him happened to many of us. We could no longer shoulder the burden of being closeted.
Despite the risks, despite the eventual fallout amongst friends, family and loved ones, he came out.

He had no choice. So he came out at 52, after being married, divorced and working as writer. Stunning but not surprising, that this revolutionary essay should receive a little more than a cursory mention in his Wikipedia article.

And so, rather than see his anger, I saw a man who was tired of carrying his burden, set it down, and, in amongst the veritable turmoil caused by his article, found his friends amongst the crowd.

And what an admirable thing he did.

tw: mention of racial slurs, queer slurs ( )
  lydia1879 | Feb 1, 2020 |
**Highly Recommended**

"The life and thoughts of a novelist-journalist who at the age of 50 decided to become public about his homosexuality. Very personable and insightful."

Portland Gay Liberation, "The New Gay Library," 1972 (Portland, Oregon) ( )
  TheNewGayLibrary1972 | Jan 4, 2016 |
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Savage, DanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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