The Simpsons may not have gotten good marks recently for representation, but more than two decades ago it was a different show. And there’s one episode in particular — “Homer’s Phobia,” perhaps better known as the gay Simpsons episode with John Waters — that probably meant a lot to the gay kids watching.
It did to this one, at least.
On Feb. 16, 1997 — midway through the show’s eighth season and about two months before Ellen would come out in “The Puppy Episode” — the Simpsons family would meet John, a friendly gay resident of Springfield voiced by director John Waters. It was the first episode of the show to explicitly address LGBT issues rather than using them for a punchline. And while Smithers would remain closeted for years — and while the show still made jokes about him — this episode still works today.
The newest installment of my podcast, Gayest Episode Ever, has me and my co-host, screenwriter Glen Lakin, talking abut “Homer’s Phobia” with Dr. Bryan Wuest, professor of film and queer studies at UCLA, who explains some academic perspectives on camp and kitsch. There’s a lot to unpack in this episode, from Homer’s homophobic (and arguably out-of-character) rants about John’s sexuality to the way Waters plays his character as a regular person — neither mincing nor macho and very comfortable being out.
Also, as I was disappointed to eventually learn, this episode’s portrayal of steel mills was less than realistic.
In some ways you could view “Homer’s Phobia” as the episode making amends for all the Smithers jokes, saying, “By the way, there are normal folks in Springfield who just happen to be openly gay.”
It’s a situation that has some parallels with the controversy that put The Simpsons in headlines again earlier this month. The April 8 Simpsons episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” drew a lot of flack for seemingly offering a response to the controversy about the show’s Indian-American character, Apu, being voiced by Hank Azaria, who’s Caucasian.
People who agree with Hari Kondabolu, the comic at the center of the documentary The Problem With Apu, didn’t find the nod to be an adequate response.
Showrunner Al Jean has since promised to find a better way of addressing the situation. But this gay Simpsons lifer thinks the staff should look back at its own past — and at “Homer’s Phobia” in particular — for an example of how to offset an aspect of the show that’s been rendered problematic by the evolving attitudes of the people who watch it.