As John Waters prepares to make his sole UK appearance in Liverpool, Shaun Ponsonby commemorates the 20th anniversary of the classic Simpsons episode Homer’s Phobia.  

LGBT characters aren’t traditionally all that represented in cartoons. After all, the golden age of animation took place from between 1928 and around 1969. Homosexuality was illegal for the vast majority of it.

Furthermore, most of the humour was derived from vaudeville, meaning minstrelsy was also particularly prevalent, right down to the white gloves worn by Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. So let’s not pretend cartoons have a history of acceptance.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some level of gay representation. Take a close look at those Disney villains. Notice anything a little…queer about them? Many of them exhibit traits considered stereotypical for LGBT people; Ratigan from The Great Mouse Detective, Cruella DeVille, the Queen from Snow White.

This was only heightened during the renaissance era. You can see it in Aladdin and The Lion King; Scar and Jafar display a certain sense of, shall we say theatricality. Jafar is even embarrassingly overcompensating; “Look how into ladies I am! I love the ladies! Sultan, let me marry your daughter because I am straight and love ladies, and I am not remotely attracted to this dashing young guy in the open shirt that I have been weirdly obsessed with for weeks.”

The Little Mermaid takes it to an extreme level, with Ursula being based on legendary drag queen Divine, both visually and from voice actress Pat Carroll’s performance.

Why is this? Well, it was shorthand. They were coded, and it would tell the audience that the character wasn’t be trusted. You know, because they were dirty homos.

And it is in this climate that The Simpsons appeared.

On the whole, The Simpsons (at its best, not the embarrassment it is now) is remembered as being one of the great subversive works of its day. By 2017 standards, there are probably things that wouldn’t fly – most notably Apu, who as Hari Kondabolu points out in his recent documentary The Problem With Apu, is just as much rooted in the minstrelsy as some of the lesser fondly remembered cartoon characters of the golden era of animation.

But by 90s standards, it is still a hell of a lot more forward thinking than most TV shows, especially in regards to the treatment of LGBT characters.

Think back to the portrayal of gay characters on TV in the 90s. Think of Friends, all the lesbian jokes regarding Ross’ ex-wife Carol, or those at the expense of Chandler’s drag queen father. Most sitcoms had an episode that focussed on somebody’s horror at being thought of as gay (Seinfeld, Frasier, 3rd Rock From The Sun). This is a long time before RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The Simpsons dealt with it in an entirely different way. First there was Waylon Smithers’ attraction to Mr. Burns, and Karl. Not be confused with Lenny’s friend Carl, this character was voiced by Harvey Fierstein and was Homer’s assistant when he was (briefly) promoted in season two and had a crush on Homer.

The common thread is that the object of both these men’s attractions is oblivious. They don’t even consider that it might be remotely possible. Each innuendo goes right over their head. The gay character isn’t the butt of the joke. In fact, it is a feeling that pretty much every young gay person can relate to.

But the best portrayal of an LGBT Springfield came in season 8.

In February 1997 – a full two months before Ellen’s infamous coming out episode – Fox aired the GLAAD award winning Homer’s Phobia. The title makes it clear what the episode is about, and any Simpsons fan will remember it vividly.

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Homer’s titular phobia was directed at John Waters, playing an eponymously named shop keeper. John’s shop was full of pop culture memorabilia. Asked what he sees in all this junk, he replies “It’s camp! The tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic!

Waters is, of course, one of the most transgressive and most obviously queer filmmakers in the history of the business. Swathes of The Simpsons’ audience would have had no idea who he was. Yet his delivery, both droll and charming, struck exactly the right tone. He could be self-effacing, but also say something about society’s fear of the screaming queen.

The character never comes across as righteous, and nor does the episode. Don’t get me wrong, John would be within his rights to tear Homer a new one. But the more effective route is to play with the stereotypes and add a level of depth. Show that Homer’s attitudes are more ridiculous than the supposed ridiculousness of the gay man.

Take the steel mill scene – one of the best remembered of The Simpsons’ early years.

Scared that Bart is gay due to his picking up some of John’s mannerisms, he takes him to a series of places to “un-gay” him. They are all pretty one dimensional ideas – make him stare at a billboard featuring a woman in a bikini for hours on end, for example. They go to a steel mill, where Homer hopes to show Bart some tough, all-American straight men hard at work, only to find the entire mill is gay. The climax of the scene, the icing on the cake, is when the mill turns into a gay club to the sound of C + C Music Factory’s Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now). To this day, I challenge anyone to hear that song and not say “We work hard, we play hard.”

Growing up, my favourite line always came during Homer’s next bright idea. Convinced that he, Moe and Barney should take Bart hunting, Moe asks Bart if he has ever been hunting before. “No, something about a group of guys, alone in the woods. Seems kinda gay.

But both scenes subvert the accepted roles within Western society. The steel mill is for tough guys, but here is populated by gay men. Hunting is for real men, but when they found themselves cornered by alarmingly vicious reindeer, the men need John to come to their rescue.

Being as it was 1997, and even before the Ellen controversy, Fox initially refused to air the show, sending a letter to the producers stating “the topic and substance of this episode are unacceptable for broadcast“. They didn’t want to use the word “gay”, or make any references to homosexuality at all, let alone a full show about it. It was only due to the fact that the president of the network was replaced that the episode made it past the censors.

The Simpsons itself was beginning to exit its golden period at this point, and future episodes dealing with LGBT issues were not quite as successful. The character of KarlHomer’s season 2 assistant – was supposed to return for the season 14 episode Three Gays of the Condo, but Fierstein turned them down, stating that the script has an abundance of “gay jokes, and there just wasn’t that Simpsons twist“.

And it is that Simpsons twist that made Homer’s Phobia work so well. They get their point across, but they do it with humour. It embedded these thoughts in your brain without you even realising they were doing it. Barbara Bush once famously called The Simpsonsthe dumbest thing I’ve ever seen”. I would say Homer’s Phobia proves it is one of the smartest, it is just good at making you think it is dumb.

And, so, we leave you with the almost heart-warming conclusion. A typically succinct war between Homer’s inner prejudices and attempt at decency, married with John’s realisation that this is probably the best he is going to get – very much an everyday real life struggle;

Homer: “I don’t want you calling him a sissy. This guy’s a fruit! And a fru—wait, queer, queer! That’s what you like to be called, right?

John: “Well, that or John.”

John Waters plays Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall as part of Homotopia on Saturday 10th November. Tickets are available now.