Title: On Being Different: What it Means to be a Homosexual
Author: Merle Miller
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Genre: Non-Fiction, Gay, Gender Studies, Essay
I remember the time I came out to my family. I had to. There was no other way. I could not live the way I was. Almost a double life. It does not work this way and it should not. I did not want to go through having to lie every time I had to step out or make any random excuse. More than this I guess, I wanted to live my life on my own terms. I did not know how it would be at eighteen though. Today I know better and also am aware that maybe our country has miles to go before homosexuality is accepted in all walks of life, without looking at it as something “queer” or “odd” or “different”. We think we are okay with it. We almost would like to believe it. The story is however different. There are so many friends I know of who would never want their children to be gay. They cannot fathom that and they are okay with me being who I am. Which makes me think: Are they really okay? Would they even let me close to their children? And it was at this time, I read a book which made perfect sense to me and was a right read at that time – “On Being Different” by Merle Miller.
At the same time, it was not easy for the gay community back in the 70s, living in the United States of America. It was looked down upon. People were losing their jobs if out of the closet. There were no gay rights to speak of. In short, it was either treated as something that did not exist or something that existed but more as a mental disease than love between same genders. Merle Miller, an American writer, and journalist then decided to retaliate against an article written by Joseph Epstein for Harper’s Magazine called, “The Struggle for Sexual Identity”, in which Epstein publicly lashed out against homosexuals. Miller did not understand the article and why the hatred against homosexuals. He wrote an article in retaliation titled, “What it Means to Be a Homosexual” for the New York Times. It later became a book called “On Being Different”, with a forward by Dan Savage and an afterword by Charles Kaiser, which I have just finished reading.
I did not love the book because I am gay and I have to love it because it is about gay people or gay rights. I loved it because it was honest. It came from a place which everyone has been to – a place of alienation, of wanting to fit in and at the same time on their own terms, to be treated as equals with the same rights for all, and that to me is primary in any civilized set-up. Miller’s essay is so relevant to the society I live in. He talks of how his straight friends do not want their children to mingle with gay people, in the fear that they might be seduced and lured. He speaks of the atrocities in an angry tone and at the same time speaks of changes that need to occur. It was very difficult for me to imagine that this was written in the 70s, when challenges surrounding gay rights were abound. Teenage gay boys were committing suicide instead of coming out to their parents. They were scared. There was no one to turn to. Miller with his essay made people see the reality of the situation. Gay-Straight Alliances were set up and slowly and steadily changes came about in the United States of America.
The writing of the essay is razor sharp and sparse. Everything is said in about 30 pages or so. There were times while reading the book, I was thinking of my life. I have gone through my own share of ridicule for being gay, for perhaps walking and talking in the manner I used to, for thinking about men the way I did, and of course for never expecting a straight man to understand how I felt. At the same time, I also believed at the end of reading this book, that everyone should read this essay. Just to understand how we sometimes unintentionally or intentionally mock something or some people who are different. How maybe it is time differences are embraced and we learn to co-exist. After all, love knows no gender. People’s minds on the other hand are a different story. “On Being Different” is just that – an essay, a meditation on accepting differences, without prejudices, without any judgments, because maybe the time is right.