In 1978, former advertising executive Harvey Rosenberg created a doll with the goal of liberating men from traditional sexual roles. He called it “Gay Bob”. When asked why he would invest $10k of his own money in the doll’s production, Rosenberg replied that “we had something to learn from the gay movement, just like we did from the black civil rights movement and the women’s movement, and that is having the courage to standup and say, ‘I have a right to be what I am.'”
Probably Rosenberg knew that, despite the truth of his statement, the right to be gay and out of the closet remained very much under attack. But if he didn’t, the public response to his doll surely made it clear in short order: “It’s another evidence of the desperation the homosexual campaign has reached in its effort to put homosexual lifestyle, which is a deathstyle, across to the American people,” said Protect America’s Children in 1978.
Anita Bryant, a singer who led opposition to a Florida ordinance that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation, also took issue, warning that “Homosexuals will recruit our children. They will use money, drugs, alcohol, any means to get what they want.”
Opponents called Gay Bob “disgusting,” and broke out the oldest and lamest of all arguments: that it would lead to a slippery slope of more disgusting dolls, perhaps “Priscilla the Prostitute” or “Danny the Dope Pusher.”
For his part, Gay Bob was unconcerned. He was handsome – a cross between Robert Redford and Paul Newman – and sported a flannel shirt, tight jeans, one pierced ear, and an anatomically correct physique. He also came with a programmed speech that proclaimed, “Gay people are no different than straight people… if everyone came ‘out of their closets’ there wouldn’t be so many angry, frustrated, frightened people.”
Gay Bob was out and proud – indeed, his box was a closet, so when you took him out of his packaging, he was literally coming out of the closet. 2k copies of the doll made their way into consumers hands, first through mail-order ads in gay-themed magazines, then through boutique stores in New York and San Francisco.
Despite fear mongering and blustering outrage, Gay Bob made a splash – and he had a pep talk ready for others who were wont to do the same:
“It’s not easy to be honest about what you are – in fact it takes a great deal of courage. But remember if Gay Bob has the courage to come out of his closet, so can you.”
It turned out that opponents were right about the whole “slippery slope” thing this time around, though – Gay Bob spawned his own family of dolls, including brothers Marty Macho, Executive Eddie, Anxious Al, and Straight Steve and sisters Fashionable Fran, Liberated Libby, and Nervous Nelly.
I want the whole set.
h/t: Atlas Obscura
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