Prism & Pen
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Prism & Pen

Beverly LaSalle Made Me Gay, and Other Preposterous Ideas

(that may be true!)

Lori Shannon (l) as Beverly LaSalle and Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker in All in the Family screenshot. Actor Ken Berry is in the background.

I watch very little television, which is striking because as a kid I felt like I was addicted to it. My mother says I stopped watching when I got to high school. In the New York City of my youth, high school was when kids became extremely independent, and having gone from a small parochial school to a large public high school, my transition was exaggerated.

That was when I really started to experience the world.

Up until then, there were shows I absolutely loved, shows I watched religiously. I never tired of I Love Lucy, The Odd Couple and Star Trek, but one show was a standout: All in the Family.

It was the king of comedies, a family engaging with all the socio-political issues of the time. It was loud and chaotic in the most wonderful way possible. Best of all, it was my family, but funnier. A lot of the shows from that era have lost their appeal, but “All in the Family” and its many spin-offs retain their brilliance.

In 1975, one of the later seasons, a character named Beverly LaSalle first appeared. (I will refer to this charming character as “she.”) Beverly was a “female impersonator,” one of the quaint terms used at the time to describe a drag queen. I had forgotten that particular phrasing until preparing for this story, and reading it gave me a good chuckle.

Beverly goes for a ride in Archie’s cab and after she passes out, Archie resuscitates her and through a series of unlikely events (the world was much more homegrown back then, so not as unlikely as it might be today) she becomes a family friend. I was 10 years old when this episode aired, and a gay character on TV was pretty unique. Who knows, Beverly LaSalle may have been the first gay person I ever “met.” She showed up a couple more times over the years and the last time, for a special Christmas episode, Beverly was killed in a gay bashing. The episode was devastating, and as with all the episodes of this series, portrayed movingly. If you’ve never seen the show, you can’t appreciate what incredible actors Carol O’Connor and Jean Stapleton are.

I remember the first time I realized I was gay. I was in class and was wrestling with a friend between lessons, play fighting. We were laughing and having fun, but I was aware of him in a more special way. I was in the 4th grade, so I must have been about 10. Did Beverly LaSalle make me gay? Anything’s possible, and what else can I say except, “thank you, Beverly!”

Being gay is a gift, it’s one of the greatest things that have ever happened to me.

I am fortunate in that I met someone extraordinary who I loved very deeply for almost 20 years, but my life has been otherwise gifted with so much fun and color and wonderful friendships. I’ve partied and celebrated in myriad ways, and I’ve known the love and responsibility of parenting. I have also asserted myself, made my own choices, gone my own way and taken a stand for the things I believe in.

In many ways, that’s not because I’m gay, it’s because I’m me. But being gay, and having to declare that to the world has given me a vehicle for asserting my true self, a true self that I often like.

I suffered as a kid, and I feel quite certain I would have suffered less had the world been more welcoming to gay people. At least I had Beverly LaSalle, and Archie and Edith Bunker. They supported me through complicated and confusing moments.

In a recent post, James Finn asked us to consider our celluloid crushes. I feel certain that Beverly changed me, so perhaps. But was it Archie? Don’t laugh! Year after year, Archie learning about the world and struggling to make sense of it helped me deal with my own complicated, confusing thoughts. He grew, and I grew with him. Even today, in the most liberal of places, it’s still not obvious to young people that it’s totally ok to be gay, that being queer is good, because the idea of being queer occurs as risky for the well-being of the individual and humankind. Being queer occurs as a threat to the greater society. I guess the world is like that with many minority groups, “The Great Replacement” and all that.

Beverly LaSalle was a fictional queer character who was killed on TV when I was a young child, but there are many stories.

When I was 7 years old, 32 people were killed in an arson attack at the gay Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans. Three of the bodies were never identified because the families were too ashamed to come forward.

When I was 33 years old, Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in Wyoming, along with 32 other queer people in the U.S. that year.

When I was 51 years old, 49 people were shot to death at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando.

The war against “the gay agenda” continues, and in a lot of places, it’s regaining momentum. We can’t let that happen.

Humans, what can I tell you? We’re not a threat to you, we’re an asset. We’re good people, we’re fun and creative and kind and witty and generous. We’re here to help, and we come in peace. So please, don’t mistreat us, don’t threaten us, don’t harm us. And most of all, don’t worry. Seriously, in more ways than not, we’re just like you.

Editor’s note: Besides appearing in All in the Family, Lori Shannon was a frequent headliner at Finocchio’s, the world-famous San Francisco drag revue that closed in 1999. He wrote a regular column for the LGBTQ weekly Bay Area Reporter under his birth name of Donald McLean. He died of a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 44.

This story is a response to the Prism & Pen writing prompt, My Queer Movie Crush, Then and Now.

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