December 7, 2023
Watch: When Archie Bunker Met Steve and a Queer Stereotype Was Destroyed on Network TV
READ TIME: 2 MIN.
It was the late, visionary producer Norman Lear who broke the boundary of portraying an out gay man on television who wasn't a stereotype. That was in an early episode of "All in the Family" during its first season.
When asked if including gay topics and other social issues to his sit-coms, the late visionary producer Norman Lear was clear-eyed: "If a couple thousand years of Judeo-Christian ethic have not solved the problems of bigotry and narrow-mindedness," he replied, "I'd be a fool to think a little half-hour situation comedy is gonna do the trick."
Still, Lear was the first producer to include a same sex couple on an American primetime sit-com with the short-lived "Hot l Baltimore" in 1975.
"It may be a far cry from the way most gay couples are portrayed in today's television, but thanks to 'Hot l Baltimore,' Lear managed to pave the way that would finally allow that level of representation to happen," writes the website CBR.com.
Based on Lanford Wilson's successful off-Broadway play, the show followed the lives of those living in a seedy New York hotel.
"Among its main cast, actors Lee Bergere and Henry Calvert were standout performers as the hotel's resident gays, George and Gordon, respectively," adds CBR.
"While the characters were unapologetically camp and played off the 'old queen' stereotype, the show always made a point to have its audience laugh with them as opposed to laughing at them. Despite this admirable advancement in on-screen representation, it was the subject of much controversy at the time. In fact, it was so controversial that it prompted the network to include a viewer discretion warning of 'mature themes' at the beginning of each episode."
And, of course, the couple were not allowed to show any physical intimacy. Not in 1975.
Defending his plots in a 1973 speech to the International Radio and Television Society, Mr. Lear said: "The so-called adult themes that television is currently dealing in are themes for which the American people have always been ready. We in television simply weren't trusting the people ... to accept or reject as they saw fit."
In the fifth episode of the show, Archie Bunker derides a well-dressed, effeminate man as being gay to a friend only to have the tables turn when he learns his alpha male friend, Steve, is gay. "When Archie reacts with disbelief and shock, Steve again slams Archie's arm to the table and triumphantly exits, leaving Archie to adjust to his new reality: that the stereotype of the effeminate, flamboyant gay man is just that–a stereotype," observes the website The Mountaineer.
"Despite only being the show's fifth episode, 'All in the Family' was already making its mark on American culture. People on all sides of the cultural debate on homosexuality had opinions about the appearance of masculine, all-American, gay Steve on television–including President Nixon. Caught on secretly recorded tape, Nixon specifically called out the 'All in the Family' episode, bitterly complaining that it was 'glorifying homosexuality.'"