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“On Being Different: What It Means to Be Homosexual” is an essay the writer Merle Miller published in The New York Times Magazine two years after the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a time when the newspaper used the word gay, but only in quotation marks. What a great service, then, Penguin Classics has done readers everywhere. Its 2012 reprint is the first time the historical essay has come to my attention, and I’d venture to say the same is probably true for a lot of LGBT folks who, like me, were still throwing tantrums in 1969, not stilettos, and certainly not beer bottles—not at cops anyway.
The rather serious challenge Penguin and any future re-publications face is that “On Being Different” is a short, magazine-length essay, which means a certain amount of padding becomes necessary—a task Penguin has largely faced up to admirably, though not without some missteps. Besides “On Being Different” itself, there is a foreword by author, media pundit, journalist and newspaper editor Dan Savage, an afterword Miller himself wrote for a previous reprinting, another newly-written afterword by Charles Kaiser, plus appendixes, one of which is an unfinished foreword, and footnotes.
The most serious misstep, though, is Savage’s introduction, which would have it that Miller wrote the essay in some sort of sustained state of anger and self-righteousness brought about by a homophobic article which appeared in a September 1970 issue of Harper’s magazine. “On Being Different” was, yes, a direct response to a Harper’s article. The author of that article, one Joseph Epstein, heinously concluded that “If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth.” But what Savage’s introduction leaves out is that, because Miller was born in 1919 and didn’t come out until 1971 when he was 52 and had been married, blacklisted, and divorced, or that because he served in WWII as a war correspondent and editor and was the author of novels and screenplays and books of nonfiction, Miller had a lifetime of reading and writing—of thinking and of rich and varied life experience—to back him up, all of which comes to the fore in “On Being Different,” often with a great deal of breadth and humor.
Along with references and quotations reaching back to the likes of Voltaire and Tchaikovsky, E.M. Forster and Alexander the Great, Miller discusses Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, which he read when he was only fourteen and looking for some sign that there were others out there like him. He quotes near contemporaries like the feminist writer Kate Millet and he makes us smile when he makes wry observations about the facts of life in any era. He writes, for instance, that “None of my homosexual friends are any too happy, but then, very few of my heterosexual friends—supposed friends, I should say—are exactly joyous, either.” Elsewhere, discussing growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa and how much he loved Halloween and masks, Miller jumps forward in time and confesses, “I have often used liquor, which is another kind of mask ….”
But instead of discussing Miller’s biography, his talents as a writer or all the moments in “On Being Different” that add something three-dimensional and vulnerable to any two-dimensional characterization, Savage uses a lot of space discussing the It Gets Better Project, a nonprofit Savage and his husband created to reach isolated LGBT youth: his husband, his (and his husband’s) two adopted children, their vacation rental in Hawaii and so on. Savage is a good enough writer, of course, to tie his introduction to Miller’s essay. His point is that he (and his husband), unlike Miller (and his contemporaries), can be around children without other adults worrying that said children will be converted, by rites mysterious and perverted, into homosexuality. Still, using Charles Kaiser’s newly-written afterword as the foreword for this reprinting would have been the better choice. Kaiser may not come with the name recognition of Dan Savage, but he is the author of The Gay Metropolis and a former reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. And while the tone and style of his piece are perhaps too much like Miller’s, he performs the important task of relating the importance of “On Being Different” to himself, personally, as well as putting “On Being Different” in a historical context, a complex, multi-faceted context that doesn’t jump forward too quickly in time and seem to imply, probably rather naively, that gay marriage, and gay family values, are the culmination of the fight for LGBT rights.
About the appendixes and footnotes, I can’t decide. The first contain a portion of a letter Miller wrote to a friend who objected to “On Being Different;” a respectful and affectionate letter of warning Miller wrote to his ex-wife as “On Being Different” was headed for the printing press; an obituary written by a writer-friend of Miller’s; and an unfinished foreword by Frank Kameny. Kameny was a leading figure of the gay rights movement who, among other things, was instrumental in getting the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Kameny died in 2011 while writing the foreword, which adds poignancy to its inclusion here. But many of the other appendixes only tell us what we already know. And though it may help the younger reader to have a footnote informing him or her who E.M. Forester was, it only serves as distraction to a bespectacled, older bookworm (like me). None of these criticisms, however, should keep anyone away from On Being Different: What It Means to Be Homosexual, especially not a time when it might be too easy to forget what Miller and his contemporaries, our forbearers, endured, what they suppressed, or how a few, a very lucky few, came out.
On Being Different: What It Means to Be Homosexual
by Merle Miller
Paperback, 9780813039824, 250 pp.