Victor Navasky, the New York Times and a key moment in gay history | Books


vIctor Navasky, who died this week at age 90, was famous for his books about the McCarthy period in the 1950s and Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department in the 1960s, his longtime editor of Nation magazine, and positions at Columbia University, including chairing the Columbia Journalism Review.

What almost no one remembers is how his homophobic response to a famously homophobic article in Harper’s magazine led him to commission the most pro-gay piece the New York Times had published to date—a foundational document that appeared in 1971, at the break of day. of the gay liberation movement.

In September 1970, Harper’s, a famous liberal magazine, published an infamous article by Joseph Epstein: Gay/Straight: The Struggle for Sexual Identity.

The earliest lengthy response to the burgeoning gay movement in a liberal magazine, the article appeared 14 months after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, which sparked famous riots.

Epstein wrote that homosexuals were “cursed … quite literally, in the medieval sense of being afflicted with an unexplained 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 turned homosexual because then I would know they were convicted”.

Gay activists were shocked and soon staged a sit-in in Harper’s office. As each employee arrived, a protester greeted them: “Good morning, I am gay. Would you like some coffee?”

Merle Miller, a prominent novelist and magazine writer, was a regular contributor to both Harper’s and the New York Times Magazine. He had never told another straight man about his sexual orientation.

The week after Epstein’s article appeared, Miller had lunch at Chambertin, a French restaurant that was a favorite Times hangout, with his two Times Magazine editors: Gerald Walker and Victor Navasky.

Twelve years later, the Columbia Journalism Review (then not edited by Navasky) reported what happened.

This was an era when the Harris Poll reported that 63% of Americans viewed homosexuals as “harmful” to society, and the American Psychiatric Association’s official manual stated 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.

Gay Activists Alliance plans a sit-in in 1970.
Gay Activists Alliance plans a sit-in in 1970. Photo: Rich Wandel/New York Public Library Digital Collections

Miller burst out, “Damn it, I’m gay!”

He then went on to explain why the article was actually an abomination.

Navasky responded to Miller’s outburst with an openness almost none of his heterosexual colleagues were capable of.

“Since you hated the piece so much,” Navasky told Miller, “you have to write the answer to it.”

Miller did. When his piece What It Means To Be a Homosexual appeared in January 1971, James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg were two of the few openly gay writers in America. But Miller was the first ever to appear in the pages of the New York Times.

His piece had all the knowledge, nuance, and humanity that Epstein lacked. The only thing the two writers agreed on was that “no one seems to know why homosexuality happens” and, surprisingly, 50 years later, the great fear that a son will turn out to be homosexual.

But Miller added: “Not all mothers are afraid that their sons will be homosexual. All over us are those domineering ladies who welcome homosexuality in their sons. That way the mothers know they will not lose them to another woman.”

For a 20-year-old gay man like me, who had never read anything positive about gays in the New York Times, Miller’s article was a huge source of hope.

Forty-one years later, Miller’s piece was republished as the Penguin Classic paperback, 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 making of Miller’s play. He loved participating. It was the first time he had publicly described his memorable luncheon with Miller.

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