It was a little-known but significant brushfire in modern gay rights history, its protagonists Joseph Epstein and Merle Miller cleanly delineated into baddie and goodie, homophobe and hero, the hero now accorded the laurel of his words published as a Penguin Classic with book-ending praise by author-activist Dan Savage and author-historian Charles Kaiser. But coming to Epstein and Miller fresh, the bad guy emerges as the more fascinating — not least because he’s still alive with a large question mark over how repentant, or not, he is.
In 1970, Epstein wrote a pugnacious but pained denunciation of homosexuality, “Homo/ Hetero: The Struggle For Sexual Identity,” in Harper’s magazine, in which he described gays, or “homosexuals” in the parlance of the day, as “cursed… and I am afraid I mean this quite literally, in the medieval sense of having been struck by an unexplained injury, an extreme piece of evil luck…”
The most “terrifying” of Epstein’s statements for Miller was: “If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth. I would do so because I think that it brings 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, only, for the overwhelming majority of homosexuals, more pain and various degrees of exacerbating adjustment; and because, wholly selfishly, I find myself completely incapable of coming to terms with it.”
For Miller, who died in 1986, that statement embodied “genocide, with a humanizing afterthought. Would it not be as human to wish all blacks off the face of the earth because of the pain?... All Jews?”
Harper’s was supposedly a liberal magazine and Epstein a liberal (or repeatedly claimed to be in his article). When a friend tried to justify Epstein’s vicious diatribe, Miller interrupted him: “Look, goddamn it, I’m homosexual, and most of my friends are Jewish homosexuals, and some of my best friends are black homosexuals, and I am sick and tired of reading and hearing such goddamn demeaning, degrading bullshit about me and my friends.”
When the New York Times Magazine published Miller’s response, “What It Means to be a Homosexual,” in January 1971, Kaiser recalls: “Nothing like this had ever been printed in a newspaper like the Times before.”
It may have been almost two years after the Stonewall Riots, with gay activism in tactical transition from the quiet doggedness of the Mattachine Society to the bracing fire of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), but this was still a time when 63 per cent of the population believed “homosexuals were harmful to American society.” Miller wrote the article “against the advice of every friend I had or have, homosexual and straight”.
A brilliant mix of reportage and personal testimony, it encompasses Miller’s youth in Marshalltown, Iowa, sexual discovery with the young itinerants who rode the trains, through to his attempts to closet himself, then embracing his sexual identity and observing the radicals of the GAA, sitting in at Harper’s magazine to protest the Epstein piece and confronting politicians, demanding equal rights.
Miller dispatches every anti-gay prejudice of the time, most notably around questionable psychiatric diagnoses and the insidious conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia. He writes he would have preferred to have been born straight, though this seems less self-hating and more an understandable gasp of his generation, and he writes afterwards: “But then, would I rather not have been me? Oh I think not…”
He forecast that discriminatory laws would fall first, “private acceptance of homosexuals and homosexuality will take longer.” Now, public opinion far outpaces faltering legal and political advances; indeed, it is leading change. Today, the “demeaning, degrading bullshit” Miller was responding to is less frequently seen, and more vigorously countered when it is.
After it was published, Miller was too nervous to go to the store, but when he did was congratulated. Strangers thanked him. He is rightly the hero, but Epstein’s juicy, transfixing, and — please don’t throw vegetables — wonderfully written essay deserves a full, fair reading; the Penguin edition would have profited from its inclusion. His anger seems rooted in first being approached by older men in Chicago (“I was sixteen but looked more like twelve”). He is offended when an army buddy doesn’t reveal his homosexuality, seeing this as duplicity rather than a result of fear. He agonizes, analyzes, questions; his 17-year-old stepson reveals straight teens see gay experimentation as “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
Epstein is characterized as an undiluted homophobe; he isn’t. Anti-gay laws are “barbarous, not to say illogical: when committed by consenting adults, homosexuality is a crime without a victim, and for this reason alone the onus of criminality should surely be lifted.” He acknowledges that “fag” and “queer,” which he uses, are “in intent every bit as vicious as ‘kike’ or ‘nigger.’” He spends a revealing evening with Elliot, “the hairdresser of a lady friend of mine,” who asks “what I felt about homosexuality for myself. I told him, sexually, it repelled me.” That repulsion fuels his prejudice and so many others’; his essay is an anguished, tortured confessional, a delirious distillation of how homophobia blooms.
Epstein is like a drunk, lurching from benign stupor to flailing rage. By the last Grand Guignol paragraphs, he rails at himself: “Why can’t I come to terms with it? Is it fear of the latent homosexuality in myself… Do I secretly envy homosexuals…? (apparently because we have no responsibilities). At the end, a hailstorm of frogs is raining down: “Cursed without clear cause, afflicted without apparent cure, they are an affront to our rationality…”
And for his finale? “Nothing” his four sons could do “would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual. For then I should know them condemned to a state of permanent niggerdom among men, their lives, whatever adjustment they might make to their condition, to be lived out as part of the pain of the earth.” One almost wishes at least one had turned out gay, if only to challenge his father to live down the sheer awfulness of those words.
Epstein, now 75, is a contributing editor at the conservative Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He was “unavailable for comment” when I tried to speak to him, so I sent three questions by email. Did he stand by his original piece, or regret it or any aspect of it in hindsight? Had his views changed or evolved over the years? And would he write about the subject again, now that Penguin is republishing Miller's landmark essay? No answer.
Strange the columnist who’s lost for words, unless perhaps he realizes some of his most famous words now have an indefensible, rank stink about them. Buy Miller’s book to be moved, but keep an eye out for Epstein. He must be itching to return to this fray, if only to stop his nemesis from acing him so resoundingly from beyond the grave.
ON BEING DIFFERENT: WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A HOMOSEXUAL | By Merle Miller | Penguin Classics | $13 | 96 pages
Dan Savage, who wrote the foreword to this Penguin edition, Charles Kaiser, who wrote the afterword, and Victor Navasky, publisher of the Nation magazine, appear at Barnes & Noble, 2289 Broadway at 82nd Street, on October 10 at 7 p.m. The store’s phone number is 212-362-8835.
Tim Teeman is US correspondent of The Times of London.