victor Navasky, who died this week at the age of 90, was famous for his books on the McCarthy era in the 1950s and Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department in the 1960s, his longtime editorship of Nation magazine, and positions at Columbia University, including chairing the Columbia Journalism Review.
What almost no one remembers is how his homophobic reaction to a notoriously homophobic article in Harper’s magazine led him to commission the most gay-friendly article the New York Times had ever published – a seminal document published in 1971 Dawn appeared to the gay liberation movement.
In September 1970, Harper’s, a notoriously liberal magazine, published an infamous article by Joseph Epstein: Homo/hetero: the fight for sexual identity.
The article, the earliest detailed response to the burgeoning gay rights movement in a liberal magazine, appeared 14 months after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village and sparked a famous riot.
Epstein wrote that homosexuals were “cursed…literally in the medieval sense, to have been struck by an inexplicable injury, an extreme piece of bad luck.” He added that nothing one of his sons could do “would make me sadder than if one of them became homosexual. Because then I would know they were condemned”.
Gay activists were horrified and soon held a sit-in at Harper’s office. As each employee arrived, a protester greeted them: “Good morning, I’m gay. Would you like a coffee?”
Merle Miller, a prominent novelist and magazine writer, was a regular contributor to Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine. He had never told another straight person about his orientation.
The week after Epstein’s article appeared, Miller ate at the Chambertin, a French restaurant that was a favorite of The Times, with his two Times Magazine editors, Gerald Walker and Victor Navasky.
Twelve years later, the Columbia Journalism Review (not then published by Navasky) reported what happened.
This was an era when the Harris Poll reported that 63% of Americans considered homosexuals “harmful” to society, and the official handbook of the American Psychiatric Association declared that all homosexuals were mentally ill.
Miller asked Navasky and Walker what they thought of Epstein’s diatribe. Both editors told him they thought it was a great article.
Miller exploded, “Damn, I’m gay!”
He then explained why the article was actually an abomination.
Navasky responded to Miller’s outburst with an openness that few of his straight colleagues were capable of.
“Since you hated the play so much,” Navasky told Miller, “you should write the answer to it.”
Miller did this. When his play What It Means To Be a Homosexual came out in January 1971, James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg were two of the only openly gay writers in America. But Miller was the first ever to appear in the pages of the New York Times.
His play had all the knowledge, nuance, and humanity that Epstein lacked. The two authors only agreed that “no one seems to know why homosexuality happens” and, surprisingly 50 years later, the great fear that a son would turn out to be homosexual.
But Miller added: “Not all mothers are afraid that their sons will become homosexual. All among us are those dominant ladies who welcome homosexuality in their sons. That way the mothers know they will not lose her to another woman.”
For a 20-year-old gay man like me who had never read anything positive about gay people in the New York Times, Miller’s article was a huge source of hope.
Forty-one years later, Miller’s article was reprinted in paperback by Penguin Classic, entitled On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual. I wrote an afterword. I also invited Navasky to appear at a bookstore for a panel discussion about his role in the creation of Miller’s play. He was happy to take part. It was the first time he publicly described his momentous lunch with Miller.