In 1977, Gay Bob, “The World’s First Openly Gay Doll”, hit store shelves. Designed by entrepreneur and former ad executive Harvey Rosenberg, the 13-inch plastic doll was cheekily designed to look like a combination of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. He wore a plaid shirt and jeans and had feathered blonde hair. He spouted such catch phrases as “Gay people are no different than straight people.” He was packaged in a box that resembled a closet. And he was anatomically correct.
Bob was as much a totem of gay pride as he was a calculated parry against the strikes of anti-gay activism. He was created to antagonize society at a time when Gay Rights were hard to come by. And boy did it work. According to the anti-gay lobby group Protect America’s Children, Bob was “evidence of the desperation the homosexual campaign has reached in its effort to put the homosexual lifestyle across to the American people.” Funny enough, Bob’s “coming out” party coincided directly with the righteous presence of the “Save Our Children” campaign, a movement led by singer and political activist, Anita Bryant, that manufactured an atmosphere of hatred on the basis that gay people were recruiting children. So, whether you were gay, straight, tolerant, or bigoted, it was almost impossible not to hear something about Gay Bob.
“I think every gay man was aware of Gay Bob,” says Chris Byrne, a 30-year-plus veteran of the toy industry, author of five books on toy history, and a featured expert on Netflix’s hit documentary, The Toys That Made Us. “He certainly made news. The heinous and ignorant views people like Anita Bryant espoused created an atmosphere of hatred toward gay people. Gay Bob was a campy response.”
Well, was Gay Bob a toy, or a political statement? He was effectively both. “If girls and women could have Barbie, and heterosexual men could have Star Wars and G.I. Joe, why shouldn’t gay men have their own plastic icon?”
Byrne reasons that Bob was a slightly tongue-in-cheek way of asserting — and seizing — a place in the culture. “To fully appreciate Gay Bob, one has to think about the role of camp and self-deprecating humor in the gay sensibility,” he says. “While the creator sought to promote tolerance, I don’t think for a moment that anyone thought that a doll would do it.”
The point of Gay Bob, then, became a mix between unorthodoxy and the brilliant satirization of 1970s aggro-machismo culture. “The late 70s exploded with different types of gender expression,” Byrne explains. “While there were effeminate men, the late 70s was also the era of hyper masculinity. At the time there were stark divisions in the gay culture — the butch men and the queens often didn’t mix, and there was often antagonism between them.” Gay Bob’s appearance — particularly his macho movie start mug— ruffled a lot of straight feathers. Then, there was the package.
Bob was marketed as one of the first anatomically correct dolls. And yes, he had a proper package. In order to equip Bob with a believable “accessory”, creator Harvey Rosenberg had to provide Hong Kong toy manufacturers with a life-size cast of an actual penis because they’d never accommodated such a request before. The final model of the doll effectively exaggerated that penis, turning it into both a comparative critique of “real men” as well as an unmistakably uncomfortable jab at anti-gay activists.
“The anatomically correct element of the doll is more a stab at the neutered Barbie and Ken dolls that have no sexuality, and certainly no genitals,” says Byrne. “There is a long history of exaggerated genitalia as satire, stretching back to ancient Greek and Roman theater. The subtext is that gay people are here, and can’t — or won’t — be ignored. In this case, Gay Bob uses a mainstream, recognizable form of totem to assert existence.”
Because he was a doll, Gay Bob immediately drew a lot of conservative ire for being aimed at children. According to Byrne, however, children wouldn’t have noticed Bob’s eccentricities with the same ire as adults.
“Children aren’t cognizant of sex and sexuality in the way adults are,” he says. “Kids use dolls to project their individual experiences. A doll or action figure is brought to life by the imagination of a child. For children of traditional doll age, sex and sexuality don’t occur unless there is some kind of trauma or abuse. In other words, the sex part of this goes over the heads of kids, and they’re more likely oblivious to it than not.
Byrne adds that Barbie faced similar criticism for her feminine features. “Barbie’s breasts have been accused of the same level of distortion as Bob’s penis,” Byrne acknowledges. “The traditional Barbie body was criticized as too unrealistic. The fault-finding is unavoidable.”
While Gay Bob was hardly as culturally iconic as Barbie, he gave Ken a run in terms of everything from imagination to accuracy. And whether Gay Bob was viewed as an injection-molded scandal, or a snarky stab at oppression, he meant a lot to a lot of people.
“It’s hard to believe just how dangerous it was to be out when Gay Bob came along,” says Byrne. “You could be fired from your job, denied medical care, rejected by your family and many were. I was lucky; my family did not reject me, but my circle in New York included many people who were written off because they were gay.”
It’s unlikely to ever find Gay Bob in a toy store. Not many have survived, and decent condition dolls fetch just under $200 online. But his impact is still immeasurable. And if anyone stumbles upon one and considers giving the out-and-proud doll to their kids, it serves as a reflection of an adult’s tolerance.
“It’s important to remember that your understanding of something like Gay Bob is undoubtedly much more sophisticated than your child’s. So the behavior you model in response is one of the most powerful ways you can influence your children.”