Anger motivated us to start the It Gets Better Project just as anger motivated Miller to write his groundbreaking essay. Gay people were coming out and demanding their rights in the wake of the Stonewall riots, which prompted an explosion of commentary, much of it as bigoted, misinformed, and vile as the insults that Billy Lucas had to face every day. Miller, in an explosive coming-out scene, announced to two colleagues that he was “sick and tired of reading and hearing such goddamn demeaning, degrading bullshit about me and my friends.”
That exchange—that anger—led Miller to come out in the most public possible way. In that single sentence Miller captured the anger that has motivated LGBT activists from the Mattachine Society to the Stonewall riots to ACT UP to the It Gets Better Project. What are LGBT rights activists but people who grew sick and tired of reading and hearing such goddamn demeaning, degrading bullshit about themselves and their friends and decided to speak up and fight back?
Gay people of Miller’s generation knew that gay life, as described by the shrinks and the bigots, looked nothing like gay life as they lived it. Miller, in anger, came to the defense of himself and his friends and helped to change the world. Today, in anger, we come to the defense of LGBT kids we don’t know, gay kids growing up in parts of the country where goddamn demeaning, degrading bullshit is being screamed in the faces of LGBT youth.
Straight people who know they have LGBT family members, friends, and coworkers should also read this book, as should straight people whose LGBT family members, friends, and co-workers have yet to come out to them. By which I mean to say, all straight people should read On Being Different. Straight people should read it because the movement for LGBT equality is also the story of straight liberation. It’s a story about straight people being liberated from their prejudices and their fears; of straight people finally seeing through the goddamn demeaning, degrading bullshit; of straight people regaining the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender family members and friends that their prejudices cost them.
Writing in 1971—when homosexuality was still a crime in a majority of states—Miller observed, “I think social attitudes will change, are changing, quickly, too.”
When I came out in 1981, telling my Catholic parents I was gay meant I would never marry, never have children, and that I would certainly never be trusted alone with someone else’s child.
But there I was, just four short decades after Miller wrote On Being Different, just three short decades after I sat down with my mother and forced the words “I’m gay” out of my mouth. There I was, sitting on a beach next to my husband, while our teenage son dove through waves with his friends, two boys who were entrusted to our care by their straight parents.
Thank you, Mr. Miller, for telling your story, thank you for your anger, thank you for fighting back against the demeaning, degrading bullshit. We couldn’t have made it to that beach without you.
On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual by Merle Miller. Foreword by Dan Savage. Penguin Classics.