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On Being Different Reader’s Guide

By Merle Miller

On Being Different by Merle Miller


Questions and Topics for Discussion


When Merle Miller’s article, “On Being Different: What It Means to be a Homosexual,” was published in The New York Times Magazine in 1971, the gay revolution in America was only eighteen months old. It had begun in June 1969, when the gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village had taken the nearly unprecedented step of fighting back when the police raided the place.

One year later, on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, more than five thousand people marched up Sixth Avenue in Manhattan and held the city’s first “Gay–In” in Central Park. New Yorkers had never seen anything like it, and even many of its most liberal citizens were horrified by the brazenness of this celebration. Similar commemorations were held in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Just how horrified liberals were became clear less than three months later when Harper’s Magazine—a pillar of the liberal establishment—published a rant by Joseph Epstein under the headline “The Struggle for Sexual Identity.” Epstein described homosexuality as “anathema” and homosexuals as “cursed . . . quite literally, in the medieval sense of having been struck by an unexplained injury, an extreme piece of evil luck.” He continued, “If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth” because it caused “infinitely more pain than pleasure to those who are forced to live with it; because I think there is no resolution for this pain in our lifetime . . . and because, wholly selfishly,” he was “completely incapable of coming to terms with it.”

It was the violence of these words that finally propelled Merle Miller out of the closet at the age of fifty–three, after two New York Times editors he was lunching with expressed their admiration for Epstein’s piece.

When Miller’s piece was published in The New York Times Magazine a few months after that lunch, he became the first prominent writer ever to reveal his homosexuality in the pages of that distinguished publication. But his piece was just one example of the gigantic energy that was released by Stonewall—after being bottled up for many, many centuries.

In 1969, the only gay organizations with any significant public identity were the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Just four years later, you could join a radical Gay Liberation Front, Radicalesbians, a more mainstream Gay Activists Alliance, the National Gay Task Force, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and hundreds of other groups in New York, across the country, and around the world. “It was like a prairie fire: let it roar,” said Jim Fouratt, a founder of the Gay Liberation Front in New York. “People were ready.”

The revolution that began that summer night in June 1969 led to the most rapid improvement in the status of any minority group in the history of the United States. Miller’s two articles in On Being Different are a perfect time capsule, providing a powerful picture of how gay people were being treated in 1971. Dan Savage’s foreword and Charles Kaiser’s afterword describe the extremely rapid changes in gay life in America since then. As Kaiser states, “The last forty years have been the greatest time to be gay since the era of Aristotle.”


Merle Miller was born in 1919 and grew up in a small town in Iowa. He attended the University of Iowa and the London School of Economics before joining the army. During World War II he won two Bronze Stars while covering the conflict for Yank, the distinguished army weekly. He later returned those commendations to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He was an extremely early opponent of McCarthyism in the late forties and early fifties, writing an anti–McCarthy novel in 1949 and a report about blacklisting in the broadcasting industry, published as a book by the American Civil Liberties Union three years later. Miller went on to write numerous novels, plays, and screenplays. His most successful book was Plain Speaking, an oral history of Harry Truman, which was published in 1974. He died in 1986.

  • Which American liberation movement was most important in providing the blueprints for the gay liberation movement of the 1970’s and why was it influential?

  • Approximately how many openly gay congressmen and mayors were there in the United States in 1969? How does this compare to present–day representations of openly gay political figures?

  • What role did the American Psychiatric Association play in improving the status of gay Americans?

  • When Miller first tried to write his piece for The New York Times Magazine, he said he “tried doing it any way but the right way, any way but honestly.” What was the main difference between the first version of the article that he wrote, and the one which was ultimately published in the Times? As a reader, what strikes you most about his piece?

  • What did Miller think were some of the advantages of coming out of the closet?

  • Did hundreds of closeted gay lawyers, physicians, and journalists immediately follow Miller’s example after he publicly came out of the closet in 1971? Explain what the response was like. Do you, or someone you know, recall what the reception was like to Miller’s coming out?

  • What did Miller have in common with President Harry Truman? Did these similarities affect them in the same way?

  • By 1980, what sorts of policies did any American corporations employ that prohibited discrimination against gay and lesbian employees?
  • The AIDS epidemic decimated the first generation of gay men to come of age after Stonewall. What, if any, positive effects did it have on the gay community?
  • What did George Weinberg mean by “the homosexual problem”?
  • The Gay Liberation Movement has won two important victories from the United States Supreme Court. What are they?

  • What did The New York Times decide to cover differently that demonstrated how much progress gay people had made since Merle Miller’s piece first appeared?

  • Did Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party believe it was possible for a gay person to be a real revolutionary?

  • Who else was liberated by the gay movement besides gay people? In what ways were they liberated?

  • How did gay activists protest Joseph Epstein’s article in Harper’s Magazine? What types of protest do you think are the most effective, particularly when it concerns the fight for civil rights?

  • How did The New York Times react to the growing number of obvious homosexuals on the streets of Manhattan in 1963? How has news coverage regarding homosexuals changed since then?

  • A friend of Miller’s told him, “The crowd was a fairly typical weekend crowd, your usual queens and kids from the sticks, and the people that are always around the bars, mostly young. But this time instead of submitting to the cops’ abuse, the sissies fought back.” What event was Miller’s friend describing? Why was the crowd fighting back at this time?

  • Since the time in which Miller was growing up “different,” do you believe that enough changes have taken place over the years in small towns and cities across America?

  • What are the contributing factors and long held beliefs that cause fear and negation of the LGBT community? Are they valid?

  • Miller states that he married in 1949 to be like everyone else. Discuss the issues that state and federal government are grappling with concerning same sex marriage.
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