When John Waters Appeared on The Simpsons and Changed America’s LGBTQ Views (1997)

On the week where Alaba­ma Pub­lic Tele­vi­sion banned an episode of the kids’ car­toon Arthur for show­ing a gay wed­ding (just after ban­ning abor­tion the week before), let’s go back to a time when the entire coun­try need­ed a lit­tle bit of an edu­ca­tion on homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and used The Simp­sons and a guest appear­ance by direc­tor John Waters to make the point.

“Homer’s Pho­bia” pre­miered on Feb­ru­ary 16, 1997 in the show’s eighth sea­son. Writ­ten by Ron Hauge, the episode casts Waters as John, the own­er of Springfield’s antique and mem­o­ra­bil­ia store “Cockamamie’s”, who befriends the fam­i­ly. Bart and Lisa love the retro and campy objects on sale, Marge loves John’s com­pli­ments, but Homer freaks out when he real­izes (and it takes some time) that John is gay. Pan­ick­ing that Bart might become gay from John’s influ­ence, he forces Bart to take a tour of the man­li­est thing he can think of, a steel mill, only to find that it dou­bles as a gay dis­co after work (“We work hard and we play hard,” says the fore­man).

Homer dou­bles down, believ­ing that hunt­ing and killing a deer will make Bart a man. John saves the day of course, Homer learns a lit­tle les­son on accep­tance, and only at the end does Bart under­stand what the whole pan­ic has been about.

As com­e­dy with a mes­sage, the episode still holds up. Homer’s clue­less­ness (when Marge says “He prefers the com­pa­ny of men,” Homer responds, “Who does­n’t?”) and his homo­pho­bia (refer­ring to the word “queer” he says “I resent you peo­ple using that word. That’s our word for mak­ing fun of you! We need it!”) is both dopey and point­ed, but nev­er vicious. Also delight­ful is John’s vis­it to the Simp­sons’ home, where he has a vin­tage collector’s swoon over the kitsch of the entire inte­ri­or dec­o­ra­tion, which as view­ers we’ve nev­er real­ly con­sid­ered. There’s plen­ty of visu­al gags, like a pink flamin­go in John’s shop and the amaz­ing Sha-Boom-Ka-Boom goo­gie-archi­tec­ture cafe.

Accord­ing to Matt Baume’s recent video essay, this episode did more for aware­ness and expos­ing intol­er­ance than any live action show at the time. John Waters, despite his filthy fil­mog­ra­phy, is fun, col­lect­ed, and cool. He is nei­ther a punch­line nor a trag­ic fig­ure. At this time in Amer­i­ca, homo­sex­u­al­i­ty was still a crime in many states. A head cen­sor at Fox object­ed to near­ly every line in the show (although not always from the right–there was also con­cern that gay peo­ple might be offend­ed). Time solved the prob­lem, how­ev­er. By the time it came back from the ani­ma­tors that one cen­sor had lost his job.

A few months lat­er Ellen Degeneres came out on Oprah and the cul­ture start­ed to shift even a lit­tle more. But as this week proved, this episode’s insights still ring true today.

For Waters, it’s been a weird lega­cy, with kids and fam­i­lies rec­og­niz­ing him from the episode and not from his more infa­mous work. He now has out a new book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tar­nished Wis­dom of a Filth Elder.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Rise and Fall of The Simp­sons: An In-Depth Video Essay Explores What Made the Show Great, and When It All Came to an End

John Waters Talks About His Books and Role Mod­els in a Whim­si­cal Ani­mat­ed Video

John Waters’ RISD Grad­u­a­tion Speech: Real Wealth is Nev­er Hav­ing to Spend Time with A‑Holes

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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