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‘What it means to be a homosexual’: Merle Miller’s essay gets stage adaptation

Image: Photo of James Corley, playwright, What it Means


In 1969, after yet another targeted raid at the Stonewall Inn by the New York City Police the gay village collectively fought back. Police quickly lost control of the revolt and the subsequent Stonewall Riots are widely recognised as a definging moment for the gay rights movement. 


Flash forward to early 1971, at a time when you could lose your job for being openly gay, when misrepresentation ruled the gay discussion author and journalist Merle Miller decided to publish an article in the New York Times Magazine called "What It Means to Be a Homosexual". Not only did Miller come out in the most public way possible at the time - he provided a rare chance for positive representation in mainstream media with the seminal essay. 


Now, after reading it hundreds of times, researching Miller and talking to people who knew him - playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker James Corley has adapted the text into a stage play called ‘What It Means’ coming to Wilton’s Music Hall.


Before people see this what would you tell them about ‘What It Means’?

I’d say buckle in for an emotional, cathartic ride! It’s the true story behind one of the first coming out memoirs in the printed press – The New York Times. Written by the most unlikely of heroes – the esteemed journalist, biographer, and novelist Merle Miller: 51 and complex! At the height of the hostilities towards queer people, Merle decides enough is enough and put his reputation on the line to write his own experience of growing up gay in America.


Why chose this story?

Merle Miller shifted the dial for queer rights. He used his platform to stick up for his community and in doing so changed not only his life but the lives of countless others. To me it’s about the importance of doing the right thing and realising now is always the right time to make a difference.


Does it help being a new production (The Lot Productions) getting stories like this onto the stage? 

Harry Mackrill and Nisha Oza are the most fearless people I know. It’s not easy getting stories like this on stage but they are nothing if not persistent. Their love of telling authentic stories that entertain and stay with you long after you’ve left the theatre is something we all agree on.


What was the process of adapting this for the stage? 

I must have read the essay at least 200 times! I combed through it, the afterword, and the appendixes. To me it was about finding the theatrical images – when I read that Merle lived in a glass house I was like ‘Yes! You can’t get more theatre than that!’. And then of course there was the research and understanding the context of the time in which the essay was written. I had a great zoom with Merle’s friend Carol Hanley. She gave me gorgeous little details of Merle the human – it was then his character became crystalised in my head. It was then workshopping the play, which we did throughout the pandemic, on zoom and with some fabulously talented actors who all reallyhelped bring Merle’s story to life.


When Merle Miller’s essay was published, how different a time was it for the LGBTQ+ community?  

Well right off the bat there were no rights for the queer community. There was hardly any representation – the word ‘homosexual’ had only been printed about 5 times in The New York Times before Merle’s essay. But offensive terms were commonplace and normalised and you could easily lose your job if you were out. It’s actually very hard to imagine how scary it must have been. The closest I get to it is growing up during Section 28 – where the culture of silence around LGBTQ+ issues was enforced through legislation. That was bad enough, but to be queer in 1970 would have been terrifying. Stonewall only happened a year before. The revolution was only just beginning.


Society has come a long way since then when it comes to representation in the media - is there work to be done still? 

Yes. Society has come a long way but you don’t have to look far to see how rights we take for granted have been reversed – look at the reverse of Roe Vs Wade in the US. It’s about embedding progress and talking about our history - not just the shiny bits - so we don’t fall asleep and go backwards.


How important is it that we are visible and actively support the community whether as an ally or one of the community? 

So important. There’s a Madeline Albright quote which sums it up: “In a true democracy, leaders respect the will of the majority AND also the rights of the minority. One without the other is not enough.” We shouldn’t leave it to just leaders, we have this responsibility too. I think this is especially true for the trans community right now. Everyone deserves their rights. 


Merle Miller decided to come out very publicly in his essay - what’s your advice to people who aren’t ready to come out? 

I think the first step is coming out to yourself. There is a lot of focus on telling other people, but you can’t do that until you’ve accepted it within yourself. That’s the first step. And then I would say find your community. Be brave. We’re here to connect.


Do you think we need to see more solidarity in our community today? 

I think we need to see more action. I think people are well intentioned generally, but we are at risk of being apathetic and that doesn’t help with solidarity!


You worked on World’s End at the King’s Head - what draws you to these stories?

People trying to connect to something bigger than themselves. I love stories about connection, about overcoming personal limits to reach acceptance. Stories rooted in love. It’s all about love.


What it Means

4-28 October

Wilton's Music Hall

Tickets and info: 






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