Television producer Norman Lear, who celebrates his 92nd birthday today, is a lifesaver, especially for gay people eager to see themselves portrayed in the mass media with dignity instead of pathos and disgust. (At right, Lear is pictured at Rob Reiner's house with Chad Griffin at a June 2012 farewell party before Griffin left to become president of the Human Rights Campaign.)
In the 1970s, Lear and producing partner Bud Yorkin revolutionized sitcom television by humorously showcasing the stark struggle between liberalism and bigotry in such shows as All in the Family and Maude, as well as highlighting African-American families and launching the careers of black stars in The Jeffersons and Good Times and Redd Foxx's Sanford & Son.
Lear also gave a galaxy of women actors their chance at stardom, including Jean Stapleton, Bea Arthur, Isabel Sanford, Marla Gibbs and Esther Rolle, and Sarah Jessica Parker in the 1982 series Square Peg.
President Bill Clinton awarded Lear the National Medal of Arts in 1999, saying, "Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it."
As the religious right started gaining more and more political ground in the late 1970s and moved into the White House with Ronald Reagan in 1980, Lear established People For the American Way in 1981 to advocate for civil liberties. The very important Right Wing Watch tracks the political and media activities of anti-LGBT and other religious organizations opposed to civil rights.
All in the Family is often cited for its direct approach to gay issues, such as the very masculine former football player coming out to Archie Bunker, who thinks all gays are wimpy "fruits." Or when Archie saves the life of a drag queen, Beverly LaSalle, who then shows up to thank him. (Beverly comes in at 8:37 in this YouTube post.)
But one of the best gay episodes is from Maude in December 1977. It's a direct slap at horribly anti-gay orange juice shill Anita Bryant and her "Save the Children Crusade" with Moral Majority's Jerry Falwell.
Maude (Bea Arthur) challenges her friend Arthur Harmon to visit the gay bar he wants to shut down, where she is sure he will find gay people just like them, except for their "sexual preference." Perhaps one of the funniest elements, albeit unintentionally, is that there is no music playing though this is the height of the disco era.
Before Harmon goes to the bar, he's at Maude's house explaining to young Phillip how gays have a sickness--a disease--and should stay at home and be ashamed of themselves and try to get cured. Phillip asks how gays can get cured. Harmon stumbles and then says 'bowling' to make them more masculine. Then Harmon says, "Phillip, I seem to be having trouble making you understand the danger of this gay bar. What's wrong? I always used to be able to communicate with you?," to which the boy replies, "Oh, it's not your fault, Dr. Harmon. It's just that this year in school I'm taking a course in logic."
At the bar, when Maude's husband says he doesn't drink and orders an orange juice, everyone turns and stares at him. "We don't serve orange juice any more," says the angry bartender as the audience responds with knowing laughter and applause.
When Maude notes that the gays in the bar are "respectable," Harmon says they will start acting gay after they get a few martinis in them. "After a few martinis, Anita Bryant would start acting gay," says Maude, who plainly calls her friend a bigot. But she musters up some respect for him when he learns the bar is legal and stands down.
Having a popular TV show like Maude come out in support of gays versus Anita Bryant was huge at the time, when the anti-gays were gaining such a head of steam, their arguments solidified and persist today, all the way up to the Supreme Court in the recent federal Prop. 8 case where logic prevailed there, too.
People for the American Way and Lear's friend Carl Reiner (whose son is Rob Reiner, "Meathead" on All in the Family and director of the mockumentary Spinal Tap with Lear's early funding) put out a call for people to sign a birthday card to Norman Lear on his 92nd birthday.
The note from Carl Reiner reads, "Please join me in celebrating his amazing life and wishing him many more fruitful years to come by signing your name to his birthday card now."
Happy birthday, and thank you, Norman Lear!