Queer Guy in the Public Eye, No. 1
In queer culture, there’s a lot of fun and often campy terminology that gets thrown around, even if many of us don’t know where it comes from. Today, it’s not as shocking to hear a gay person use the word ‘queer’ or ‘homo’ amongst one another, but these weren’t always terms of endearment — and often they still are not when coming from people who are not LGBTQ+. One term many of us are familiar with is ‘family’. You know … like when you and your friends see that attractive person sitting across the straight bar you’re visiting and you try to assess whether or not that person is “family”, meaning whether or not they, too, are LGBTQ+. Because that word carries so much meaning within the community, I thought looking at another family to begin a conversation about how queer people have been presented in the media — for better or for worse — might be a good place to start by looking back at an episode of CBS’s 1970’s sitcom, All in the Family.
Some might find it to be an interesting choice to begin chronicling queer presence in pop culture with a show that was – at least through the lens of where we are societally in 2018 – extremely problematic. However, for the sake of at least beginning this journey throughout our pop culture history, as well as in an attempt to assess the amount of progress – or lack thereof – that has been made, I believe that the perfect place to dive into an introspective account of how queer people were viewed in and represented by the media is with the 1970’s sitcom, All in the Family.
All in the Family premiered on January 12, 1971 and ran over the course of eight seasons until April 8, 1979. In true 1970’s television fashion, it spawned five spin-offs, including, but not limited to, Maude, The Jeffersons, and Archie Bunker’s Place. The show broke a number of records and was one of the first shows to blend the sitcom format with topical issues, many of which had never been discussed on television. In a time of “fireplace television” — when families had one television set in the house and only three channels to choose from — All in the Family was consistently one of television’s most watched shows.
The show centered around a bigot longing for the “good old days” names Archie Bunker, his airhead wife, Edith, and Gloria and Michael Stivic, the Bunker’s more progressive daughter and son-in-law. The fifth episode of the first season – entitled “Judging Books by Covers” — tackled an issue that wasn’t present on American television at the time: homosexuality.
Now, just because the show addressed homosexuality does not mean that they celebrated it. In the episode, a friend of the Stivic’s – Roger – comes to visit them at the home that the Stivic’s share with the Bunker’s. Archie is immediately upset by the news that Roger will come to visit them and Michael gets into an argument with Archie which ends with the following exchange:
“Just because a guy is sensitive, and he’s an intellectual, and he wears glasses, you make him out [to be] a queer.”
“I never said a guy who wears glasses is a queer. A guy who wears glasses is a four-eyes. A guy who’s a fag is a queer.”
Throughout the entire episode, the word ‘fag’ is used three times along with other slurs, including ‘pansy’, ‘fairy’, and “queer as a four dollar bill.” Interestingly, the words ‘gay’ and “homosexual” are completely omitted from the episode. In a time when “family-friendly” television was at the forefront, it’s interesting that ‘fag’ could be included into a script multiple times but that the writers wouldn’t dare include the word ‘gay.’ The punchline to every joke that Archie made throughout the episode was about how feminine Roger was and the studio audience couldn’t get enough. Initially, it seemed like the writers of the show broke down a barrier and introduced homosexuality simply to use queer people as a punchline or to make them out to be a joke.
Frustrated with Roger’s presence, Archie goes to the local bar to meet up with “the guys” and have a beer. One of Archie’s friends is Steve, a former professional football player and a “real man”, according to Archie. Michael and Roger come into the bar where the bartender pulls Michael aside and asks whether Roger is “you know”, which in the language of 1971 television translates to ‘gay’. Michael replies that as far as he knows Roger is straight, and the bartender tells him that he’s fine with Steve because he doesn’t come by very often, doesn’t invite his “friends” with him, and doesn’t “camp it up” with his sexuality. It takes a second for Michael to realize that the bartender is telling him that Steve is an out and proud homosexual.
When they get back to the house, another argument ensues between Michael and Archie and Michael ultimately tells Archie what he’s learned about Steve. Archie doesn’t believe Michael, because Steve is the textbook definition of what a “man” is to Archie – tall, muscular, and athletic. Eventually Archie confronts Steve; and after the dialogue skates in circles around the question of “are you gay?”, Steve reveals that, in fact, he is. Of course, Archie is dumbfounded as he heads home. The episode ends at the house with Gloria and Michael accompanied by a friend who isn’t facing the camera, but is masculine-presenting from the back. Archie walks in and addresses the third person, who Gloria introduces as Gerry, who turns around and is actually a female with a short haircut, which prompts an eye roll from Archie as the episode ends.
Let me give you a bit of a retrospective so that we can make more sense of what the landscape of America looked like for LGBTQ people in 1971: In preparation to write their book “The Nixon Tapes”, Douglas Brinkley and Luke A Nichter re-visited and created transcripts of all 3,700 hours of tapes recorded in the Oval Office during Richard Nixon’s presidency. In the tapes — many of which weren’t decipherable until modern technology helped clean them up — Richard Nixon bashes All in the Family in a conversation with his chief domestic aide, John Ehrlichman. In the conversation with Ehrlichman, Nixon says:
“The point I make is that, goddamn it, I do not think you glorify, on public television, homosexuality! You don’t glorify it, John, anymore than you glorify … uh … whores. I don’t want to see this country go that way. You know what happened to the Greeks. Homosexuality destroyed them. Sure, Aristotle was a homo, we all know that. So was Socrates.”
Richard Nixon believed that an episode of a television show that consisted of using homophobic slurs rather than simply the words ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ even once was a show glorifying being gay. Interestingly enough, in a separate conversation recorded a few months after the episode aired, Nixon in heard saying that he is the “[…] most tolerant person […]” and that gay people are “[…] born that way […]” but that he doesn’t think that they should be allowed to be “[…] Boy Scout leaders, YMCA leaders [… or] teachers.” Despite all of this, he still wouldn’t “[…] shake hands with anybody from San Francisco.”
1971 — the year this episode first aired on television across millions of American homes — was just two years after the historic Stonewall Riots. States were just beginning to decriminalize homosexual activity between two consenting adults and perceived sexual orientation was still a valid reason for discrimination across the country, regardless of whether or not someone was truly gay or not. In a nutshell: 1971 was far from a gay-friendly time. The slurs and jokes that appeared in this episode wouldn’t make it past the FCC and onto broadcast television today (although cable and streaming networks wouldn’t bat an eye); but the writers of the show did something that was unprecedented 47 years ago. No, they weren’t “glorifying” homosexuality; but for the first time on extremely popular and well-watched (as well as well-received) TV show on a major broadcast network, a character came out as gay. And that wasn’t all; in fact, the flamboyant, feminine character was straight, while the masculine, ex-football player was the character who turned out to be gay. The show didn’t stop at just introducing a homosexual character, they also began to break down the stereotypes of what gay looked like. At a time when All in the Family was the highest-ranking television show in the United States, this was a huge first step in the fight to show the world that not only do gay people exist, but that our stories deserve to be told. Sure, no one in the Bunker-Stivic clan may have been a part of our family; but certainly there’s something to be said about what the household of All in the Family did for the future of our queer family in such a seemingly small, while actually quite bold, way.