‘All in the Family’ and the First Gay Sitcom Character

In February 1971, All in the Family became the first sitcom to bring a gay man into America’s wallpapered, shag-carpeted, plaid-couched living rooms.

And he turned out to be a former linebacker.

It was only the show’s fifth episode. The Gay Rights Movement was still getting off the ground in earnest — the first Pride Parades had taken place the previous summer — but I can’t find an earlier sitcom representation of an openly gay character. For some insight into how shocking the half-hour had been for some viewers, one need look no farther than the Oval Office (the same room from which President Obama announced his “evolved” position on gay marriage this month). In sometimes-graphic language, President Nixon reveals that he was not a fan.

In any case, viewers still had no idea what to make of Archie Bunker (played by Carroll O’Connor), whose bigotry struck some critics as more inflammatory than satirical. As the New York Times put it in January, “The message sounds like ‘hate thy neighbor.’” There was no guarantee that Norman Lear’s comedy would hang around for very long and CBS considered burying the show in a 10:30 timeslot.

While episodes that deal with racial prejudice occupy a bigger place in our collective memory of the Bunkers, the economy and precision of Lear and co-writer Burt Styler’s takedown of gay stereotypes still make for incredible viewing. Although “Judging Books By Their Covers” (free to watch on Hulu) did little on its own to cement All in the Family’s rise in the ratings, it deserves a fresh look in the context of President Obama’s announcement. In a moment where critics point to sitcoms as a medium that helped change public opinions about gay rights, we should remember that the process didn’t begin with Will and Grace or Glee.

It began with Archie.

Or more accurately: it began with Archie’s macho, pro-football, strike-opposing, archery-and-photography aficionado bachelor friend Steve.

A reading of this episode reveals that even four decades ago, television writers tackled the issue of gay rights using tactics that remain operable today. That is, they teach audiences about gay identity, not by preaching politics or morality, but by portraying a spectrum of characters who in different ways defy stereotypes of gay men and women.

Edward Shiappa discusses this kind of “category work” in his essay “Can One Show Make a Difference?” He argues that TV has a positive impact on the way that audiences think about something like gay marriage and that “reduction of prejudice” relates to “reconceptualization of group categories.” In an interview for Weekends on All Things Considered, Shiappa gave the ten-cent version of his argument using the example of Will and Grace:

What I mean by that is there were some critics who said, ‘Well, Will isn’t gay enough, and Jack’s too gay.’ Well, actually that’s great, because you learn that there’s diversity within that category that you had in your head before of gay men.

A show does this kind of work whenever it demonstrates to an audience that a category has more kinds of people in it than previously assumed. This, Shiappa reasons, makes it harder for individuals to describe groups using stereotypes. While his argument focuses on the nineties, “Judging Books by Their Covers” demonstrates that TV writers have deployed this tactic for much longer.

The episode opens as Michael (Rob Reiner) and his wife Gloria (Sally Struthers) prepare a fancier-than-normal lunch for their flamboyant friend Roger (Tony Gearey). Roger has just returned from Europe and when Archie learns that he’s coming over to share stories from the trip, his reaction sets up the central conflict of the show. The directness of his scorn can be a shock, even now:

“Roger the fairy?” he asks.

Michael insists on his friend’s heterosexuality and condemns what he sees as Archie’s closed-minded assumptions built on surface observations. “Just because a guy is sensitive,” he says, “and he’s an intellectual and he wears glasses, you make him out to be a queer.” The dialogue conditions the audience’s expectations of what Roger will look like, establishes Michael’s ambivalent attitude toward Roger’s sexuality (he’s straight, but even if he weren’t, “what difference would that make?”), and elicits a clarification from Archie.

“A guy who wears glasses is a four-eyes,” he says, “A guy who’s a fag is a queer.”

The circular logic of his position makes it possible simply to ignore Michael’s rational arguments. To convince Archie of anything contrary to his expectations requires more than abstract theorizing about civil rights. Meanwhile, Edith (Jean Stapleton) lets Archie rant and refuses to weigh in on Roger’s sexuality, saying she’s “not an expert on flowers.” She represents the viewer’s detached position with respect to the argument.

That is: like Edith, we’re outside of this argument too, and we’re only here to watch.

Michael won’t let go of the issue. He cites a British law that states, “whatever two consenting adults do in private is their own business” (the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalized acts of consensual sex between two men over the age of 21). He couches his support of gay rights in political terms, perhaps appealing to Archie’s sense that national interests should trump all else.

Archie’s responds with scorched earth: “For your information, England is a fag country.”

In his worldview, the law does not dictate national identity or change personal behaviors; rather, law responds to accepted cultural practices (to him, England represents a country of frilly handkerchiefs and fancy umbrellas — definitely gay). Differently put, sexual identity has almost nothing to do with sex: it has to do with aesthetics — with adopting a certain style or sensibility. From this perspective, Archie feels justified arguing that British society “is based on a certain kind of fagdom.”

Here, we get neat outlines of polar opposite positions, all before Roger appears. When the doorbell finally rings, Gloria asks her father one more time to behave himself. Archie’s responds, “If I can’t be good, I’ll be careful.” Use of “careful” marks the first instance in which a hint of sex enters the dialogue. The insinuation that Archie’s overweight, middle-aged body could be the object of overwhelming physical desire makes for a good laugh. It also reveals his fear of male sexual advances, a fear perhaps not based just on the notion that a gay man would come on to Archie.

But also that Archie might like it.

Roger enters, wearing a gray suit with a purple ascot and speaking with affected voice, and introduces himself to Edith with an affectionate two-handed handshake. She plays along, but Archie pulls back (“One hand’s enough!”), reluctant to get too friendly. The handshake feels too physically intimate for him, and he keeps physical distance from the conversation that ensues. As Roger flips through pictures of his trip, Archie sits alone in his chair. The camera cuts to him only to reveal his incredulity at Edith’s simpleton thoughts about photography, or his sarcastic asides whenever Roger says something to confirm his identity as a “pansy.” When Archie does get out of his chair, before he can comment, Mike suggests that he go to Kelcy’s Bar for a beer.

Archie announces he’s going to say hello to his friend Steve and “some of the boys.”

At the bar, Steve distinguishes himself as the ideal Bunker ür-man. He shares Archie’s conservative political views on the origins of inflation. He played football during a time that Archie says was “rougher” and “tougher.” He’s better-dressed, taller, and stronger-looking than anyone in the room. And most importantly, he’s a bachelor. In gravelly voices, the other men talk about a Swedish film called Wanda. Archie derides it as “pornograbby,” apparently bored or offended by the idea of onscreen heterosexual sex. But he’s also distracted by Steve’s silence. “You don’t have to go to no movies to see your Wandas eh Steve?” he says. Identification as a bachelor has everything to do with the availability of sex with single women and Archie assumes that Steve’s silence relates to discretion.

Yet Archie’s interest has less to do with single women than with Steve’s body: “how do you keep yourself in such great shape?” he asks. “I mean jeez look at your shoulders and all of that.” Archie obviously looks at Steve with a kind of desire (close-ups of O’Connor’s eyes are fantastic for revealing a kind of searching depth). Steve inhabits Archie’s notion of the good life — it’s difficult to find an instance in the series when Archie softens this much — and he seems to feel out of his league. Steve explains, “I work out every day, jog two miles every morning, and [do] archery.”

In response to Archie’s incredulity, Steve clarifies that “It’s good for the arms and the shoulders.” Archie winces as Steve playfully hits him in the arms twice. Archie seems smaller and softer in this context than in the house, where he has clear control over the discussion. Steve dominates him.

When Roger walks into the bar with Michael, he comes over to Steve and shakes his hand. “How did the zoom lens work out?” Steve asks him. It turns out that Steve owns a camera shop and that he lent Roger a lens for the Europe trip. Archie finds himself again on the sidelines of a conversation about photography, only this time it’s an exchange of shop-talk between experts (NB: it’s not subtle that Steve has essentially let Roger borrow what amounts to a phallus). Where Archie assumed he had a monopoly on shared interests with his friend, it suddenly appears that Roger has more in common with Steve.

Meantime, the bartender Kelcy privately pulls Michael aside and asks whether Roger is gay. Michael protests, and when Kelcy clarifies, we get the plot twist: Steve is gay. Here’s Kelcy:

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind Steve. His camera store is just down the street here and he only comes home for a drink once in awhile on his way home. Besides he don’t camp it up, you know? And he don’t bring in none of his friends.

Here, Kelcy typifies a specific kind of intolerance — he can stand Steve’s sexual identity as long as it’s wedded to discretion and normatively masculine behavior. The biggest payoff in this moment is perhaps Michael’s face. Here, the liberal supporter of gay rights seems as surprised as the rest of us.

[Correspondent’s note: while watching this on Hulu, an emphatically heteronormative commercial for KY jelly popped up at this juncture. A couple sits at a kitchen table after a night of hypertrophic lubed-up sex, distracted from their normal conversation by the evening’s acrobatics. It was a pretty crazy jolt out of 1971 and back into the present.]

Back at the house, Archie turns on “Great Fights of the Century” and Michael struggles against an urge to tell Archie “something that could shock you.” He doesn’t want to out Steve, but Archie’s continued insults of Roger begin to grate. He finally gives in. Edith’s again serves our surrogate: “That big football player is a flower?” she says with disbelief. Archie is incensed, and launches into an indictment of youth culture:

You’re sick. You need help. All his pinko stuff, well that’s all right. Clothes. Their wide open sex any time of the night or day, for no reason at all? All right, that’s your submissive society.

The scope of this rant isn’t surprising, except for Archie’s expression of dismay at heterosexual promiscuity — sex “for no reason at all.” One of the themes that seems to emerge by this point in the episode is Archie’s apparent jealousy that everyone is getting action with anonymous partners, except him.

He storms back to Kelcy’s to watch the end of “Great Fights” with the boys and stands behind Steve, shadowboxing awkwardly (he’s clearly not a fighter).

The fight ends and he challenges Steve to an arm wrestling match. The intimacy of the scene is remarkable. Archie — who recoiled from Roger’s handshake earlier in the episode — touches Steve’s hands gently and marvels “Look at the size of you.” He wants to grab Steve’s hand, and the inversion of the physical contact (after all, Archie now knows that Steve is gay) strikes me as the most tender moments of the episode. By contrast, Steve wrenches Archie’s hand down winning easily, and reducing Archie to a loser. One gets a distinct sense of how tense the scene actually was for the studio audience, whose convulsive and regular laughter gets noticeably softer and less frequent.

There’s something weirdly pathetic, just before Steve comes out to Archie, about watching the bigot being shown how lonely his world can get. This is perhaps what All in the Family does best. Its “category work” reveals to Archie the spectrum of gay individuals in the world. In the process, it does not judge him as much as it paints a subtle portrait of how angry and jealous and sad he has to be.

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 openmouthed. 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.

Throughout these 30 minutes of television, no one once says the word “gay.” Archie never actually asks Steve about his sexual identity and Steve never tells Archie definitively that he’s gay. Similarly, we never get a decisive answer about Roger — he could be straight, he could be gay. What makes this episode of television so important is perhaps not its rhetoric of trying to convince us through political or moral lessons. It’s not sincere in the way that so many of our contemporary representations of all kinds of differences (sexual, racial, gendered, ethnic, etc). Rather, its frank portrayals of the rhetoric of bigotry and its probing of the category of gay identity encourage conversations that extend outside of the episode.

In other words, we’re not supposed to be convinced by the characters themselves — but rather by the conversations that happen after the theme song. On May 25, forty-one years ago, All in the Family assumed its spot atop television’s Nielson Ratings. It wouldn’t relinquish that ranking for the subsequent five years.

This episode’s groundbreaking and complicated exploration of gay identity is one reason why it should remain on our radar.

A-J Aronstein teaches writing at the University of Chicago. His work has appeared at The Paris Review Daily, The Millions, and elsewhere.

‘All in the Family’ and the First Gay Sitcom Character