For decades now, The Simpsons has been credited with making the world laugh. But has the show’s portrayal of gay characters helped advance gay acceptance?
German librarian Erwin In het Panhuis, who has analyzed over 490 “gay” scenes and over 70 homosexual characters that have been featured in the show, argues yes in his new book Behind the Gay Laughter: Homosexuality in “The Simpsons.”
He contends that the show has been a “trailblazer” in fostering acceptance of gay people, and that Homer Simpson in particular has represented America’s evolving but complex relationship with the community.
“[The Simpsons] treats homosexuality as something normal in a media environment which can usually be very hostile to the point of view. Homer has kissed other men on the lips more than 50 times throughout the series but despite that he’s happily married to his wife,” In het Panhuis notes. “He is sometimes heterosexual, sometimes gay and sometimes homophobic.”
In het Panhuis credits the character Waylon Smithers Jr., nuclear power plant-owner Mr Burns’ long suffering assistant, for broadening from his unrequited love for Mr. Burns and becoming a character of substance.
“It is a very complicated relationship,” In het Panhuis says, “Full of fear and unrequited love and moments of real tenderness.”
Indeed, long time viewers will recall Smithers has increasingly been seen living his own life apart from Mr. Burns, from vacationing at a Fire Island resort, writing his own musical in dedication to the doll Malibu Stacy, and helping local bartender Moe Szyslak expand his bar by appealing to the older gay gentleman.
While it may be argued these qualities qualify Smithers as a stereotype rather than a fully fleshed out character, he has demonstrated a number of other traits, including loyalty, cunning and integrity, that have even helped him go against Mr. Burns’ wishes when he perceives Mr. Burns to have gone too far.
Smithers, quite apart from the above, may have also considered gender reassignment as evidenced when he tried to buy Marge’s estrogen pills, though to identify him as trans would, without further evidence, seem a stretch.
An example of a transexual character may be Judge Constance Harm who explicitly identifies as having been born male.
The Simpsons memorably caused ire among religious conservatives in 2005 when it became the first show of its kind, and among the very first of any mainstream show, to depict same-sex marriages in its “There’s Something About Marrying” episode where Homer realized that, because local priest Reverend Lovejoy would not marry same-sex couples, there was money to be made.
The same episode saw Marge’s older and mostly celibate sister Patty, twin of the oft-married Selma, reveal that she is a lesbian.
Other episodes have also devoted themselves to the topic of being gay, including a relatively early episode called “Homer’s Phobia” that saw Homer grapple with his prejudices over openly gay nostalgia store owner John, who he had adored before finding out about John’s sexuality, and whether Bart associating with John would turn him gay.
That all this should occur on the Fox network, which has traditionally censored gay content or actively promoted anti-LGBT sentiment through its news channel, is a credit to the show’s creator Matt Groening, and is not something In het Panhuis overlooks.
“They have set standards for many other animated series that followed,” In het Panhuis is quoted as saying.
A substantial list of The Simpsons’ LGBT characters appears over at The Simpsons Wiki where you can relive some of The Simpsons more memorable LGBT moments.