By Tim Parks
Pride season always finds me waxing and thinking about packages. Let me clarify that statement; it is a time for waxing nostalgic as a gay man, and my being gay is intertwined in a pop culture packaging, all wrapped up in a big, glittery pink bow. Once you untie the bow, and it unfurls, you can actually measure the distances that our culture has come.
So, some of my own experiences have been vicariously lived on The Boob Tube, and calculated by Nielsen ratings.
Long before the era of “The L Word” and “Will and Grace,” you had to dig a little deeper to spot our kind. Here’s a look at the people we’ve come to know throughout the years.
Animated gay figures like, Smithers on “The Simpsons,” Mrs. Garrison on “South Park,” Ace and Gary “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” “Drawn Together’s” Xandir and Stewie of “The Family Guy” are aimed at a more “mature” audience, but there is a whole subculture of innocuous animated fare that has targeted children for decades now.
Bugs Bunny was cartoondom’s first drag queen! He was really into dressing as a female to escape from Elmer Fudd, and would subsequently plant a big ole kiss on said nemesis. Disney’s Chip and Dale, were chatty chipmunks as obsessed with nuts as they were with coming up with endless patter!
Let’s break down Snaggelpuss, he’s a pink mountain lion whose signature line of “exit, stage left” has theatre queen written all over it! Casper may have been the friendliest ghost around, but his scare tactics were always of a sensitive nature, and always had him saying boo hoo rather than boo.
The Smurfs all lived together in little mushroom shaped houses, and there was only one female, Smurfette, that they didn’t seem all that interested in having around. Especially Vanity Smurf who would rather gaze into his mirror all day long. Hmm, that’s queer.
Race Bannon of Jonny Quest seemed to be “involved” with Jonny’s father, Dr. Quest, and served as Jonny’s surrogate mom. Speed Racer had a penchant for wearing lipstick and kicky neckerchiefs. Velma on “Scooby-Doo” couldn’t see a thing without her glasses. Actually, she had 20/20 vision, but just wanted to have an excuse to grope Daphne! Peppermint Patty sported what may have been Birkenstocks and was constantly being called “sir” by Marcy. On name value alone the characters on Gumby could be construed as gay; there was Pokey, Prickle and Goo. He-Man was all about the gym, but his sister She-Ra: Princess of Power could bitch slap him into next week.
Mr. Rogers was always suspect to me, what with his sweater obsession and providing the voice for Lady Elaine! Ernie and Bert shared a bedroom on “Sesame Street”, and you what that means, Muppet on Muppet action! Pee-Wee Herman had a Saturday morning Playhouse that screamed perpetual adolescent, plus he kept Jambi’s head in a box, oh about at crotch level! Will on “Land of The Lost” loved rockin’ the shirt unbuttoned to his navel, arms akimbo and hands on hips look.
Gay, But Not Gay
GLBT characters have enjoyed a higher visibility in recent years, but sometimes we’ve been here, been queer in other ways.
Dr. Smith of “Lost In Space” was the stereotypical sissy, with a dose of the diabolical thrown in for good measure, to remind 60’s audiences that homosexuality was bad, mmmkay.
Paul Lynde’s Uncle Arthur on “Bewitched” was a jokester that often locked horns with Agnes Moorehead’s Endora, she of the blue eye shadow and chiffon. Fun Fact: Lynde, Moorehead and Darrin#2, Dick Sargent were all gay off the set.
Much has been speculated of The Skipper referring to Gilligan as his “little buddy” on “Gilligan’s Island.” But what about Mary Ann and Ginger? They shared a hut, too, and if Mary Ann could cook a pie without flour, or even an oven, just think how inventive she could be in the bedroom. “The Brady Bunch’s” Robert Reed may have been gay in real life, but Alice seemed to wear the pants in that TV family, if you know what I mean.
“All in the Family” and “Maude” tackled gay subject matter, but “The Jeffersons” had a gay character in Mr. Bentley. Oh, he was just English? Same thing!
“Laverne & Shirley” lived in a basement apartment – was that a code for something? Or, did it afford them a better chance to look up poodle skirts that were passing by? Hey, wait a minute! There was an episode where Shirley asked Laverne to kiss her Boo Boo Kitty – maybe that L on Laverne’s sweaters stood for lesbian? Either that or they hung out with Leather Tuscadero on “Happy Days.”
“Three’s Company” featured John Ritter as Jack Tripper, a “faux gay” that had to play it pink in order to live with 2 women; seems like a lot of trouble for a straight man to go to shack up with Suzanne Somers. But, it was very on par with the push/pull element of gays on TV in the 70’s. Exhibit B is Jamie Farr as Klinger on “M*A*S*H,” who would don women’s clothing in an effort to get kicked out of the 4077.
Another show that combined elements of the two aforementioned series was “Bosom Buddies.” The Tom Hanks/Peter Scolari “buddy” show had them residing in an all women’s hotel, dressed up as two of the ugliest drag queens ever committed to film.
“Kate & Allie” raised eyebrows when they decided to raise their 3 children together. Here’s a funny aside about “Too Close For Comfort’s” Monroe (played by Jim J. Bullock), he was supposed to be straight on the show! Yeah, uh huh. “Mr. Belvedere,” a self proclaimed “gentleman’s gentleman,” could have gone by the alias of Mr. Belvequeer. Tony Randall “kind of” played a gay man on “Love, Sidney.” He was definitely pointing his toes to the ceiling in the TV movie, but not so much in the subsequent series. But, Randall on “The Odd Couple?” Definitely gay!
I’ve Got A Secret
It has been reported that gays and lesbians gravitate towards superheroes because we can relate with the “having a secret identity” angle. Forget that theory! It’s all about the costumes! Just kidding, that secret identity theory does hold water.
Speaking of costumes, George Clooney has been quoted as saying his version of Batman was gay, because the Bat Suit had nipples. Guess again, Georgie. Adam West and Burt Ward’s version of The Caped Crusaders was fraught with an unspoken amount of sexual chemistry between our heroes in the 60’s series. I could be wrong, maybe it was all of that sliding down the Bat Pole that had me thinking nasty thoughts. Who didn’t twirl around like “Wonder Woman” or run in slow motion like “The Six Million Dollar Man” or “The Bionic Woman?” Wow, I still feel dizzy! Years later, “Xena” would fill the void left by all of the above.
Game shows of the 70’s would have been sorely lacking without Paul Lynde as The Center Square on “Hollywood Squares,” the incomparable Wayland Flowers and Madame eventually replaced Lynde’s Center Square antics, and Charles Nelson Reilly filled in the blanks on “Match Game.”
Billy Crystal played television’s first gay recurring character on “Soap,” a comedy that parodied soap operas, but he eventually ended up with women as seasons went on. As did “Dynasty’s” Steven Carrington, who had a knack for “special hugs” for his “male friends” until the powers-that-be made him straight, made him gay again, then straightish until he was written off the show entirely. Showtime had “Brothers” on tap to explore the differences between straight and gay.
A few years later, Blue Collar Queen, Roseanne, brought a multitude of gay characters onto her show, (no, it wasn’t her sister, Jackie curiously enough) and even had an onscreen gay kiss with Mariel Hemingway. One gay character whose lip lock was censored was Matt on “Melrose Place.” Kerr Smith of “Dawson’s Creek” fared better with the Chapstick set, as his was the first televised man on man smackeroo.
This is because of two shows that embodied the Pioneer Spirit, which of course were “Ellen,” and “Will and Grace” which weathered a tougher than a gay audience demographic, Middle America.
The closet door was wide open for “Queer As Folk,” “The L Word” and recurring lesbian and gay characters on “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “ER,” “Sex & The City,” talk show hits with Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres, makeover gurus “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” and TV stations like Bravo and Logo to gay it up, to name but a few.
Cut. Print. That’s A Wrap.
Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. But I certainly hope this trip down Memory Lane has brought a smile to your face, and given you food for thought on just how far we come. Until next time, that’s all the news that’s fit to print.
This article was originally published in August of 2006.