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Coming Out Of The Fictional Closet

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Speculating about the sex lives of the rich and famous is a favorite pastime of those who drool over the lurid contents in such supermarket tabloids as Star, Globe, and The National Enquirer. Millions of gossip junkies want to know "The Untold Story," especially if the story reveals who’s sleeping with whom. If the "whom" is a member of the same gender, it’s all the more enticing, something to discuss, with arched eyebrows, under the hair dryer or at the water cooler.

But there’s even speculation about the sex lives of purely fictional characters, including animated ones.

It was recently announced that a character on The Simpsons would come out of the closet, and fans of the show are wondering who it will be. Is it one of Homer’s sisters in law? What about Waylon Smithers? Could it be Homer Simpson himself?

The Simpsons has always been a little subversive, so there’s not likely to be much of a hue and cry when someone’s closet door is flung open in the episode scheduled to air in January. But it’s a different story when homosexuality is introduced on the comics page of a mainstream newspaper. Cartoonist Lynn Johnston dared to cross the line a decade ago by introducing a gay character named Laurence in her daily strip "For Better or For Worse." Laurence was a teenager struggling with questions about his sexuality, and in a later strip he did, indeed, turn out to be gay. Johnston portrayed the gay boy with sympathy and compassion. In doing so, she inspired the wrath of the Religious Right. Many newspapers opted not to carry the gay themed strips, and Johnson’s critics trotted out the predictable charge that the sensitive depiction of homosexuality would encourage chick loving studs to pull up stakes and move to Boys Town.

It’s a silly charge, of course, but if it were true, it could be leveled against all sorts of characters in comics.

In fact, it was. In 1954, Batman and Robin were outed by Dr. Fredric Wertham whose suspicions about the dynamic duo rested on the fact that they "live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler. It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together."

To Wertham, the Caped Crusader’s relationship with his young ward represented a grave danger to the comic book reading youth of America:

"The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies."

But homosexual fantasies may have explained the attraction that the "Batman type of story" had to boys who were going to be homosexual anyway. Since every comic book super hero has a secret identity, they attract gay boys who have secret identities of their own. As a boy, I remember getting a minor thrill whenever Clark Kent ripped his shirt open to reveal the large S on his chest that told the world he was Superman. As a closeted gay teenager, I got a greater thrill ripping open my own shirt to reveal the bra that I hoped would tell the world I was gay.

There were also characters on TV who might have alarmed Dr. Wertham had he not been so preoccupied with comic books.

Bonanza was a staple of NBC’s schedule for 14 years, and in all that time neither Hoss nor his pretty boy brother Little Joe ever had a girlfriend who wasn’t killed off or revealed to be a prostitute by episode’s end. "I always wondered if the Cartwrights were gay," writes a visitor to the Internet Movie Database. "I mean...it never showed them dating. Can you believe that? I always wondered what was going on and if Hop Sing was involved."

The fate of women on the Ponderosa could certainly discourage the predominantly male audience from involvement with the opposite sex. The Bonanza boys weren’t the only cowboys who lacked steady girlfriends. The Barkley brothers of The Big Valley avoided romantic attachments to the opposite sex, preferring to dote on their mother (Barbara Stanwyck) and sister (Linda Evans). How many gay guys can relate to that?

Then there are all those macho buddy cop shows like Starsky and Hutch. The original Hutch, David Soul, once explained the show’s appeal by stating that it was a love story involving two men.

But the queerest couple on TV may have been Wilbur and his talking horse, "the famous Mr. Ed." The show was created by Arthur Lubin, an actor and director believed to have been gay.

This was one of the oddest relationships imaginable. On the surface, Wilbur was an average heterosexual male, but he seemed more devoted to his talking male horse than to his wife. The dialogue in the show bears this out:

Wife: "If you were in the desert with Mister Ed and me, and there was enough water for two of us, who would get the water?"

Wilbur: "You and Ed, of course."

Wife: "If there was just enough water for one of us, who would get it?"

Wilbur: "Well, uh..." Wife: "Why is it taking you so long to answer?"

I’m not suggesting Mr. Ed and Wilbur were gay nor do I think the Cartwrights were closet queens. But a gay boy with few openly gay role models in real life or in fiction could be excused for finding hints of homosexuality in these characters. A straight boy, being straight, wouldn’t be likely to notice such things.

It makes no sense at all to think a straight boy is going to turn queer because he sees a gay character on TV or in a comic strip. If one’s sexual orientation could be changed that easily, I’d be straight from watching Charlie’s Angels as a kid. The show about the foxy female private investigators did have an influence on me, though. For a time, I styled my hair in imitation of Farrah.

When the character on The Simpsons comes out, I’m sure the heterosexual population will remain heterosexual. I won’t make any promises about the effect it may have on hairstyles.

by Brian W. Fairbanks

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