The 15th episode of The Simpsons’ eighth season, “Homer’s Phobia”, was significant for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it won both an Emmy and a GLAAD Award. Originally pitched simply as “Bart the homo”, the episode was written by Ron Hauge and aired in February 1997, a couple of months before Ellen DeGeneres came out and made television history.
The episode featured the gay character of John (voiced by John Waters) and confronted the reality of homosexuals existing in the world with a slyness – and sense of humour – that was typically absent from other representations at the time, which were often approached with caution, desperate not to show anything too gay.
But taking one of cinema’s queerest and most subversive directors and making him the voice of a pop culture memorabilia merchandiser was a masterstroke on the show’s part. It both allowed the show to engage in some self-effacement – Homer asks John if his record collection has camp value and John responds, “Everything here does!” – as well as some satire of society's fear of the obviously gay man.
The show’s presentation of John was decidedly normal, and in the commentary recorded for the episode, Waters expresses his pleasure at how the episode turned out. Curiously, while the episode was being written the showrunners received two full pages of notes from Fox’s standards and practices, where they would usually only receive a couple of sentences. For a long time the network’s censors deemed the script unsuitable for broadcast – until one day, the network had a new president, new censors, and full approval for the episode to go to air.
Homer’s fruitless quest to de-gay his son, who is not even gay in the first place, is the crux of the episode, in that it shows the extent to which prejudice boils down to a fear of the unknown. Homer is so oblivious that he doesn’t even realise John is gay until Marge points it out to him, but as soon as he finds out he is fearful for Bart’s sexuality by transfer. It’s only by spending time with John that Homer learns he has nothing to fear, a lesson which still requires teaching.
But more subversive than that is the way the episode tears down notions of masculinity, and a particular American brand of it. Homer taking Bart to a steel mill to show him what real men look like, only to have it be an all-gay affair which turns into a club called The Anvil after quitting time (in the episode commentary, Waters talks fondly of once being in a bar with that name which was filled with all kinds of sexual debauchery). When the hunting trip designed to make a man out of Bart is upended by John, who weaponises camp in order to defuse a dangerous situation, it’s both clever and poignant.
The Simpsons’ history of gay representation is a bit spottier outside of this episode, not least because most subsequent attempts fell outside of the show’s golden years. Less well-known is “Simpson and Delilah”, the season two episode in which Homer becomes a bigshot at the power plant because of a serum which regrows his hair. Homer hires an assistant, Karl (voiced by Harvey Fierstein), whose devotion to Homer is never fully explained. But in order to drive home a pep talk prior to Homer giving a speech, Karl exclaims, “My mother taught me never to kiss a fool!” and kisses him.
Karl was meant to reappear in a later episode, “Three Gays of the Condo”, but as Fierstein declined to reprise his role, he was replaced by a likeness. Homer finds himself rooming with Grady (voiced by openly gay actor Scott Thompson) and Julio, two gay men who befriend Homer and bring him into their world. The difference in Homer’s behaviour in this episode versus “Homer’s Phobia” is smartly handled, his comfortability reflecting the shift in attitudes towards homosexuality between 1997 and 2003.
But that Grady kisses Homer is a more questionable element, and one which the show would revisit in 2011 in “Flaming Moe”, in which Moe converts his tavern into a gay bar and poses as a gay man. In the episode, Moe kisses Smithers and says, “Like Frisbee golf, I’m glad I tried it once.” Each episode is very I-kissed-a-girl-and-I-liked-it, in that the show in later years seems to have frequently wanted to deepen its roster of gay characters without a clear idea of how to do it meaningfully.
That a classic episode like “Homer’s Phobia” remains as incisive as it does speaks to the power of The Simpsons as television’s great equaliser.
A season 16 episode, in which Homer becomes a minister to perform gay marriages and Marge grapples with her sister Patty’s coming out, is a better example of a latter-day episode because of Marge’s potency as an emotional anchor for the show.
Smithers’ role as the show’s most prominent gay character has afforded The Simpsons some of its best gags, and it has always spoken to the quality of the show’s writing that it was able to make his infatuation with Mr. Burns funny because of Mr. Burns’ age and not the fact that he is another man. The Simpsons’ has always fallen back on slightly archetypal identifiers in this regard – Smithers loves Malibu Stacey, Smithers is thrilled by Homer’s “It’s Raining Men” record flying into his car – but only because The Simpsons is about portraying a generic idea of American society.
And while it hasn’t always included queer characters in this perfectly – and certainly not as broadly as it should – that a classic episode like “Homer’s Phobia” remains as incisive as it does speaks to the power of The Simpsons as television’s great equaliser.