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On This Gay Day | Merle Miller declared what it means to be a homosexual

Merle Miller published ‘What it means to be a homosexual’

On this day in 1971 novelist and essayist Merle Miller came out when he published an article in the New York Times magazine titled What it means to be a homosexual.

His article received a record breaking number of letters to the newspaper, and is seen as landmark moment in the gay rights movement.

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THe author later said, “I don’t see any great rush of people lining up to declare themselves as homosexual. Who is to say they should do so? I think, however, it is rather important. For one thing, you cannot demand your rights, civil or otherwise, if you are unwilling to say what you are.”

Miller is remembered for his well received biography of US President Harry S. Truman. After his article received so much attention, it was expanded to become a book. The book was re-released in 2012 with a new forward by columnist Dan Savage.

Born in Iowa in 1919, Miller served in both Europe and the Pacific during the Second World War working as a war correspondent. After the war he was an editor at prestigious magazines including TIME, and published several works of fiction.

He also wrote many television plays and film scripts, but his screen career slowed down in the late 1950’s when he was placed on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s ‘blacklist’ that stopped people declared to be undesirable from working in the screen industry. Merle Miller died in 1986.

In 2023 Miller’s publication of his landmark essay was the subject of the play What It Means by writer James Corley. The play opened at Wilton’s Music Hall in London on 4th October and actor Richard Cant portrayed Miller.    

Also on this day in history

British novelist Ronald Firbank was born on this day in 1886. His short novels, inspired by London socialites including Oscar Wilde, consist largely of dialogue with references to religion, social-climbing, and sexuality.

His best novels known works are Caprice (1917) and Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926). Susan Sontag named his novels as part of “the canon of camp” in her 1964 essay Notes on ‘Camp.

Firbank was openly gay and travelled widely during his life, he was able to fund his lifestyle through a generous inheritance. He travelled to Italy, Spain, the Middle East and North Africa. He died in Italy of lung cancer aged just 40.

His work forms many of the central themes to Alan Hollinghurst’s 1988 novel The Swimming-Pool Library. 

This post was first published on 17 January 2020 and was subsequently updated. 


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