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October 6, 2017

The Story Behind Gay Bob, the World’s First Openly Gay Doll From 1977

Every generation has its own cultural icons that grow into collectibles over time. Yet the 1970s were a stranger time than most, and some of the artifacts of that decade are indeed bizarre.

Amid the sexual revolution and a growing gay rights movement, advertising executive Harvey Rosenberg brought America Gay Bob, a doll that hit stores in 1977 and created buzz — and denouncements — as “the world's first openly gay doll.”

What's billed as the world's first gay doll stands 13 inches tall, wears one earring, a custom-made flannel cowboy shirt and sports a $15 price tag, has finally “come out of the closet”, shown August 3, 1978. Gay Bob is beginning to catch on, according to his 37-year-old developer Harvey Rosenberg of New York, who has already sold 10,000 of the dolls through mail-order ads. (Photo by Marty Lederhandler/AP Photo)

Enraged consumers complained that a toy with a homosexual backstory would lead to other ”disgusting” dolls like “Priscilla the Prostitute” and “Danny the Dope Pusher.” Esquire awarded Gay Bob its “Dubious Achievement Award.” And anti-gay organizations across the United States blustered.

Bob stands 13 inches tall and was presented clothed in a flannel shirt, tight jeans and cowboy boots. He has one ear pierced. Bob’s packaging box is decorated like a closet and included a catalog from which additional outfits could be ordered. Creator Rosenberg described the doll as resembling a cross between Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
“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 his closet, so can you.”
The affirming message was no accident. The creator wanted Gay Bob to “liberate” men from “traditional sexual roles.” He created the doll soon after a series of shocks rocked his life: in quick succession, his marriage fell apart and his mother became seriously ill. He decided that his next projects would need to be of great personal significance.

The Gay Bob doll in all his glory. (Harvey Rosenberg/Gizmo/Museum of the City of New York)

Though Gay Bob was certainly humorous—the doll was designed to be anatomically correct, and prominent gay activists such as Bruce Voeller told reporters that people should “deal with [the doll] lightly and enjoy it”—Rosenberg’s intentions seem to have been sincere. When asked why he would pour $10,000 of his money into the Gay Bob’s production, he replied, “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 stand up and say ‘I have a right to be what I am.’”

“He sits. He stands He gets into any position… And since he is anatomically correct, he can even play with himself without going blind.” A 1978 magazine advertisement for the Gay Bob doll.

When Gay Bob hit stores in 1978, that right to be gay and equal was once again under attack, most notably from Anita Bryant, a singer and well-known brand ambassador who mobilized opposition to a Dade County, Florida ordinance that outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Fixating on its impact on public schools, Bryant claimed that the existence of LGBT school teachers would threaten the well-being of local students. “Homosexuals will recruit our children,” she warned. “They will use money, drugs, alcohol, any means to get what they want.” In June 1977, she had the rule repealed, and her anti-gay crusade—which gained widespread media attention—sparked similar ventures in Minnesota, Oregon, Kansas, and California.

Gay Bob, which sold 2,000 copies in its first two months, appeared in the heat of these political battles. It was no real flashpoint of its own, but it served as a humorous trophy—and a sign of changing times—for those fighting against Bryant.

The first male doll to come out of the closet.

Initially sold through mail-order ads in gay-themed magazines, Gay Bob soon expanded into boutique stores in New York and San Francisco. Rosenberg even pitched it to major department store chains, one of which liked the idea (but ultimately did not purchase it). And, it turns out, those consumers who feared the introduction of more “disgusting” dolls were partially correct—Rosenberg soon gave Gay Bob a family of his own, with brothers Marty Macho, Executive Eddie, Anxious Al, and Straight Steve (who lived in the suburbs and wore blue suits), and sisters Fashionable Fran, Liberated Libby, and Nervous Nelly.

(via Atlas Obscura)

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