Norman Lear and the gays: the pioneering TV producer's legacy

  • by Victoria A. Brownworth
  • Tuesday December 12, 2023
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Norman Lear (photo: Peter Yang); publicity stills from 'Maude,' 'The Jeffersons' and "All in the Family'
Norman Lear (photo: Peter Yang); publicity stills from 'Maude,' 'The Jeffersons' and "All in the Family'

Ours was not a TV household. A few thousand books lined bookcases in our household growing up and we were constantly told to read, read, read, which we loved, so it was not a punishment. We were only allowed a few hours of TV each week, much of which sat us and sibs in front of a TV monitored by a hyper-intellectual Socialist mother who thought educational TV, not fun stuff, is what we should be watching.

The cast of 'All in the Family' (photo: CBS)  

How lucky were we that she thought Norman Lear and his politics were educational? Lear created, developed or co-produced some of television's most beloved sit-coms; "All in the Family," "Maude," "The Jeffersons." "Sanford and Son," and "One Day at A Time" among them. He died on Dec. 5 at the age of 101.

Some people leave a legacy so vast, so encompassing, that it's difficult to delineate a time when that person's vision did not have influence. Lear's legacy is like that. In a week that saw the deaths of two centenarians, war criminal Henry Kissinger and beloved creator Norman Lear, what a blessing to have Lear subsume the narrative.

The human story
Lear's impact on TV is reflected in the accolades. Lear received many awards, including six Primetime Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, the National Medal of Arts in 1999, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017, and the Golden Globe Carol Burnett Award in 2021. He was a member of the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

But awards don't tell the human story, and of Lear's legacy; that he absolutely altered the TV landscape. The same week Lear died was the 71st anniversary of Lucille Ball's groundbreaking pregnancy storyline on her sit-com "I Love Lucy." In 1952 you could not say the word "pregnant" so the French word "enceinte" was used. Ball's real-life pregnancy being written into the popular series was shocking. Pregnant women were not shown on TV.

This was the world that Lear traversed, one that didn't mention race or religion or pregnancy, let alone dicey topics like divorce, abortion or being gay. Yet Lear did all of that. He made stories about class and race. He put older women on screen who were funny, in charge and still sexual and who made the jokes instead of being the butt of them.

Lear thought Black families deserved to be in the foreground, not adjuncts to whiteness. He thought mothers could raise kids alone and that prejudice and bigotry and hatred were best challenged with humor, not ignored.

In 1976, "60 Minutes" profiled Lear in a segment with Mike Wallace, who said Lear had "changed the face of television."

Family show
In 1971 Lear put gay people on screen in his iconic series about class and politics, "All in the Family," which still resonates today. Lear was the first to put gay people on screen at a time when most Americans were still largely hating us.

From 1971 to 1976, "All in the Family" was number one in the Nielsen ratings, the first series to have a five-year streak. The show addressed a panoply of social issues: racism, antisemitism, infidelity, homosexuality, women's liberation, rape, religion, miscarriages, abortion, breast cancer, the Vietnam War, menopause and even impotence.

Carroll O'Connor and Philip Carey in "All in the Family" (photo: CBS)  

"All in the Family" was the flagship series from which Lear spun off "Maude," the first series to make a middle-aged woman, played by Bea Arthur, the centerpiece and star. The acid-tongued Maude, beloved by gays everywhere, would break ground with her gay friends and then having a late-in-life abortion.

Another groundbreaking spin off was "The Jeffersons," a story about Black ascendancy, which is still enraging MAGAs everywhere and which starred a closeted gay actor, Sherman Hemsley, as George Jefferson. (

Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker was a classic pre-MAGA. He's racist, he's sexist, he calls his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) a "dingbat" and calls all women "girls," much to the consternation of his feminist daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), and of course he's homophobic.

But Archie's view of gays is put to the test in an early episode, "Judging Books By Their Covers." In the episode Steve (Philip Carey), an old friend of Archie's who shares his right-wing politics and is a macho ex-football player, is revealed as gay. The two men arm wrestle — forever a trope of toxic masculinity — and Steve wins. It's a revelation for Archie.

Jean Stapleton and Don Seymour McLean (aka Lori Shannon) in "All in the Family"  

Subsequent episodes of the series over several years introduce a recurring character, Edith's "transvestite" friend Beverly LaSalle. Beverly was played by gay San Francisco drag queen Lori Shannon, who was associated with the drag revues at Finocchio's nightclub. Lori Shannon, aka Don Seymour McLean, wrote a column for the Bay Area Reporter.

In "Archie the Hero" (1975), Archie gives Beverly mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. In "Beverly Rides Again" (1976), Archie uses Beverly to play a practical joke on a friend that's also about gender confusion. But in "Edith's Crisis of Faith, Part 1" (1977), Beverly is killed off in a hate crime, which puts Edith in an emotional spin that even has her questioning her religious faith.

Katherine Elizabeth Callan and Jean Stapleton in "All in the Family" (photo: CBS)  

Another episode of "All in the Family" has Edith facing the death of her cousin Liz, during which she realizes that Liz's "roommate" Veronica (Katherine Elizabeth Callan), is in fact her life partner.

The American Way
In his life away from TV, Lear was known for his political activism. He funded a myriad of liberal and progressive causes as well as politicians. In 1980, he founded the political and social advocacy organization People for the American Way to counter the influence of the Christian right in politics.

The cast of "The Jeffersons" (photo" CBS)  

"Pushing back on bigotry, resisting voter suppression, exposing extremism, making our communities safer; these are not things I can do effectively on my own," Lear wrote in 2022 in a post to People for the American Way membership. But, Lear added, "through People For the American Way, I partner with fellow Americans to defend our freedom wherever and whenever it is at risk. ()

In a tribute on the People For the American Way website, the group wrote, "For more than 40 years, Lear worked with People For the American Way to mobilize public support and activism on behalf of freedom of expression, religious pluralism, and equality and justice for all. He celebrated People For the American Way's contributions to advances like marriage equality and the historic confirmations of Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, and he raised his voice against censorship, antisemitism, and the rising threat of authoritarianism."

The post continues, "He was inspired by members of People For's Young Elected Officials Network who gave him hope for the country's future. He was fond of saying that when he picked up the newspaper each day, he found himself exclaiming, "Thank God there is a People For the American Way."

Norman Lear in WWII and in a recent photo (courtesy  

Lear the antifascist
Lear was a World War II combat veteran who dropped out of college to fight fascism, which he never stopped doing. In a Washington Post op-ed published on his 99th birthday, titled "As I begin my 100th year, I'm baffled that voting rights are still under attack," Lear wrote about the Black Tuskegee airmen who "likely saved my ass" when he was a bomber pilot. (

Lear also wrote a paean to lesbian Congresswoman Barbara Jordan in the piece, saying, "I believe Jordan's faith in the Constitution, like my continued faith in our country, was grounded in the faith, love and hope of all the people who have struggled for the past 230 years — including millions who rallied for racial justice this past year — to make the Constitution's promises real for all of us."

Lear writes most provocatively for the moment we face right now, as the 2024 election looms and Donald Trump told Sean Hannity at a Fox News Town Hall that he will be a dictator "on day one."

Bea Arthur as Maude Finley (photo: CBS)  

Lear wrote, "Racial and religious nationalism, nativism and authoritarianism are seemingly on the rise everywhere. It is deeply discouraging to this member of what has been called 'the Greatest Generation.'"

He then says, "But do you know who else was part of the Greatest Generation? Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and Thurgood Marshall. And think of the greatness demonstrated by generations that followed us: Jordan, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, and millions of not-famous people who risked everything to claim the right to vote."

Lear ends the long op-ed with this dictate: "Protecting voting rights should not be today's struggle. But it is. And that means it is our struggle, yours and mine, for as long as we have breath and strength."

Could there be a more compelling argument for our queer and trans votes next year from the man who was first to put LGBTQ people on TV a mere two years after Stonewall?

GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis issued a statement about Lear. "Norman Lear was a true pioneer whose legacy will forever be connected to including LGBTQ characters on television when no one else would," she said. "With storylines on 'All in the Family,' 'Maude,' 'The Jeffersons,' the new 'One Day at a Time,' and the upcoming 'Clean Slate' starring Laverne Cox, Lear humanized the LGBTQ community for the millions of people who tuned in to watch his shows. Norman Lear made it a priority to champion LGBTQ creators and he pushed Hollywood to follow in his groundbreaking footsteps."

CBS "This Morning's" interview by out gay journalist Mo Rocca with Lear will leave you laughing and weeping.

Also of note
One show you really want to be watching right now is the queer crime/sci-fi/thriller series "Bodies," a which we absolutely love and which we'll say more about next time. Four detectives in four different time periods of London find themselves investigating the same murder in the Netflix series. "Four detectives. Four timelines. One body. To save Britain's future, they'll need to solve the murder that altered the course of history first," says Netflix.

The gay Victorian love story in "Bodies" is fantastic. Detective inspector Alfred Hillinghead (Kyle Soller) falls in love with journalist Henry Ashe (George Parker), his partner in the investigation and it's a beautiful thing.

Finally, we're not a Swiftie for the music, but we are for Taylor Swift the pro-LGBTQ, feminist icon and philanthropist who was made Time magazine's Person of the Year last week. And we found our fave new line about the homophobic and misogynist trolls who never let us rest on social media and beyond. Taylor told Time, "I've also learned there's no point in actively trying to 'defeat your enemies.' Trash takes itself out every single time."

Tell it. So for the sublime and the ridiculous, you know you really must stay tuned.

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