‘All in the Family,’ Norman Lear brought gay, lesbian characters out of the closet

In the early 1970s, producer Norman Lear, who died Dec. 7 at the age of 101, helped influence a tectonic shift in the representations of gay and lesbian characters on television.

The common, humiliating portrayals were sexual perverts or punchlines to a joke, but Lear challenged those stereotypes when he brought gay men and lesbians into American living rooms.

It’s important to remember that this process didn’t begin with “Will & Grace” or “Glee.”

Queer representation on TV

Lear’s legacy includes the groundbreaking CBS sitcom “All in the Family,” which aired for eight seasons, from Jan. 12, 1971, to April 8, 1979.

Norman Lear "All in the Family" Gay Characters on TV

Geri Jewel, left, Norman Lear, second from left, B Harlan Boll, second from right, and Fred Willard Media Access Awards in 2013. Photo: David Zimmerman.

“All in the Family” follows the Bunkers, a working-class, white family living in Queens, N.Y. The patriarch is Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), an outspoken bigot and homophobe, who loves to trumpet his opinions of how people should behave and think.

Edith (Jean Stapleton), his long-suffering wife, is sweet and understanding with a heart of gold.

Their daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), is kind and good-natured like her mother, but shares her father’s stubbornness and temper. She also is a feminist. Gloria is married to a hippie college student and later college instructor Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner), whose thoughts and opinions always collide with Archie’s.

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“All in the Family” broke ground in its depiction of issues previously considered taboo for a sitcom, including racism, antisemitism, infidelity, homosexuality, women’s liberation, rape, religion, miscarriages, abortion, breast cancer, the Vietnam War, menopause, and impotence.

“All in the Family” often is regarded by TV critics as one of the greatest TV shows in history. The show became the most watched show during the summer reruns of the first season, and afterwards ranked No. 1 in the ratings from 1971 to 1976.

It became the first television series to top the ratings for five consecutive years.

Here are “All in the Family” episodes that were groundbreaking for gay and lesbian representation.

“Judging Books by Covers”

Season one, episode five

Written by Norman Lear and Burt Styler.

In Feb. 1971, on the show’s fifth episode, “All in the Family” featured the first out and sympathetic gay character on television. This milestone took place less than a year after the first Gay Pride parades in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

The episode explores the idea of identity, perceived and otherwise.

Early in the episode, Archie and Mike argue about one of Mike’s friends, Roger, who Archie perceives as gay. Archives uses a bunch of homophobic slurs to describe Roger. 

Later, at Kelcy’s Bar, the neighborhood dive, Mike finds out that Archie’s friend, Steve (Phil Carey), a handsome ex-linebacker and bachelor, is gay.

Gay Bob doll came out of the closet in 1977

AJ Aronstein gives a comprehensive analysis of the episode in a May 30, 2012, article for Vulture.

For example, Aronstein describes the end of the episode, when Archie challenges Steve to an arm-wrestling match, while saying that Mike’s friend Roger must be a homosexual. Steve easily defeats Archie.

“Archie asks Steve about Roger, even as he challenges him to another arm-wrestle. “I wanna go at you once more […] get it up there,” he says. As the two clasp hands, the imagery of two men locked in combat with their arms stiff in the air is unmistakable: it’s as though both men have their dicks out. Locked in this position, staring at each other, Archie whimpers that Michael thinks Roger is straight, and Steve is gay. The camera zooms in on Steve’s face.

“He’s right, Arch,” Steve says. “About all of it.”

It’s not until we see O’Connor’s eyes that the audience finally laughs, and Steve beats Archie again, leaving him limp-armed and open mouthed. On the way out the door, Steve punches a shocked Archie.

Rubbing his arm, he says to himself: “Well if that’s the punch of a fruit,” and trails off.

The camera zooms in as his face suddenly changes to a kind of terror. Archie is about to accept the truth, but then waves it off.”

“Edith’s Crisis of Faith”

Season eight, episode 13; Dec. 25, 1977

The episode was written by Erik Tarloff, Bob Weiskopf, and Bob Schiller.

TV viewers met drag queen Beverly LaSalle in 1975 in the episode “Archie the Hero.” Archie performs CPR on Beverly after she passed out in his cab. Beverly is played by real-life San Francisco drag queen Lori Shannon. Archie didn’t realize Beverly was a man, but eventually is told — by Beverly.

Beverly LaSalle returned in 1976 for “Beverly Rides Again” when she invited Archie and Edith to dinner.

Beverly’s third and final appearance is featured in “Edith’s Crisis Of Faith.” Beverly visits the Bunkers at Christmas Eve and invites them to her Carnegie Hall debut. Mike walks Beverly to a cab on his way to the store to buy a new star for the Christmas tree, but they are gay-bashed. Mike escapes, but Beverly is beaten with a metal pipe and injured.

At the hospital, Edith and Archie are told by an emergency room doctor that Beverly has died. Edith is devastated by the senseless death of her friend and loses her faith in God, temporarily. 

Edith has a crisis of faith and begins to wonder how God would allow people to punish one of his children. She believes that all people are worthy of love and feels a sense of loss and sadness at the tragic event, and doesn’t understand it.

“Cousin Liz” 

Season eight, episode three; Oct. 9, 1977

Written by Bob Schiller, Bob Weiskopf, Harve Brosten, and Barry Harman.

In late 1978, California voters were preparing to go to the polls to vote on Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, which would put a referendum on ballot to outlaw gays and lesbians from working in the state’s public schools.

Anti-gay, Republican state Sen. John Briggs spearheaded the ballot measure, and the public face of the movement was none other than Anita Bryant. A singer and former beauty queen who was the spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission, Bryant and her Save Our Children Coalition had successfully repealed a Dade County Florida ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and had galvanized opposition to gay and lesbian rights in several states, including Oklahoma and Arkansas, which banned gay men and lesbians from teaching in public schools.

Activists mounted a fierce No on 6 campaign, and received huge support from Harvey Milk and President Jimmy Carter, among other supporters.

Norman Lear also joined the group of supporters. Lear was familiar with the issue of gay and lesbian school teachers.

One year earlier, in 1977, the series’ eighth season featured the landmark “Cousin Liz.” In that episode, Archie and Edith attend the funeral of Edith’s cousin Liz, an unmarried school teacher who lived 25 years with her roommate, Veronica.

At the service, Edith mentions to Archie that she might inherit a sterling silver tea set that has been in her family for more than 100 years and is worth more than $2,000 since she is Liz’s closest living relative.

Veronica, overhearing their conversation, confides in Edith that she’d like to keep the tea set because it’s a reminder of the special times she had with Liz.

Veronica also reveals to Edith that she and Liz had been romantically involved for those 25 years.

Edith is shocked at first by the news, but then heartbroken that Liz and Veronica had to keep their relationship a secret for more than two decades.

Edith throws her arms around Veronica and lets her keep the tea set, telling her that she is Liz’s “next-of-kin.”

Archie, however, blows his top because he wants to sell the tea set. Archie even threatens Veronica’s job, saying he will expose her as a lesbian if she doesn’t give up the family heirloom.

But Edith steps in and convinces Archie to let Veronica keep the tea set.

On Nov. 6, 1978, the night before the Briggs Initiative election, Lear rebroadcast the “Cousin Liz” episode.

The election results showed that the measure was soundly defeated, with 58% of people voting no.

Historians credit the poignant “Cousin Liz” episode in helping shift the tide against the anti-gay and lesbian proposal.

For that episode, Bob Schiller, Bob Weiskopf, Harve Brosten and Barry Harman received an Emmy Award for outstanding writing for a comedy series.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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