The 1970s were a strange time and some of the artifacts of that decade are indeed bizarre. Amid those Star Wars toys, Farrah Fawcett posters, and Hot Wheels in a box in your storage, is there a chance that there is an American Gay Bob doll?
In 1977, right in the thick of the sexual revolution and a growing Gay Rights movement, advertising executive Harvey Rosenberg introduced “American Gay Bob”, and created buzz and outrage as the ”World’s First Openly Gay Doll”.
Gay Bob was 12 inches (tall), wears one earring, tight jeans, and a custom-made flannel cowboy shirt. He had a $19.50 price tag and 10,000 of the dolls were sold through mail-order ads in the first year.
Angry consumers complained that a toy with a queer persona would lead to other “disgusting dolls”. Esquire magazine awarded Gay Bob its annual Dubious Achievement Award. Anti-gay organizations across the USA were in a dither.
Gay Bob’s packaging was decorated like a closet and included a catalog featuring additional outfits that could be ordered. Rosenberg described his doll as a cross between Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
A message on the box read:
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.
Rosenberg claimed that he wanted Gay Bob to liberate men from traditional sexual roles. He created the doll soon after a series of shocks rocked his life: his marriage fell apart and his mother became seriously ill. He decided that his next projects would need to be of great personal significance.
Gay Bob was designed to be anatomically correct, and gay activist Bruce Voeller (founder of the National Gay Task Force in 1973) told reporters that people should ”deal with the doll lightly and enjoy it.”
One of Ann Landers readers predicted that Gay Bob would lead to the acceptance of other dolls like “Priscilla the Prostitute” and “Danny the Dope Pusher”.
When asked why he would put $10,000 of his money into the Gay Bob’s production, Rosenberg 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’.
A 1978 magazine ad read:
He sits. He stands He gets into any position. And since he is anatomically correct, he can even play with himself without going blind.
In 1978, Anita Bryant, a pretty singer and orange juice ambassador, mobilized opposition to a Dade County, Florida ordinance that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. Bryant claimed that the existence of LGBTQ school teachers would threaten the well-being of local students. Bryant:
Homosexuals will recruit our children. They will use money, drugs, alcohol, any means to get what they want.
Her anti-gay crusade gained widespread media attention and sparked other campaigns in Minnesota, Oregon, Kansas, and California. Gay Bob appeared in the heat of these political battles, serving as a sort of trophy and a sign of changing times for those fighting against Bryant.
Initially sold through mail-order ads in gay magazines, Gay Bob expanded into specialty shops in New York City and San Francisco. Rosenberg even pitched it to major department store chains, with no takers.
Rosenberg soon gave Gay Bob friends with the dolls “Marty Macho”, “Executive Eddie”, “Anxious Al”, and “Straight Steve” who lived in the suburbs and wore suits, plus sisters “Fashionable Fran”, “Liberated Libby”, and “Nervous Nelly”.
Those nervous consumers worried about more degenerate dolls were in for a fright when Mattel introduced “Earring Magic Ken” in 1993 as a companion to its Earring Magic Barbie figure. This generation of the Ken doll featured blonde highlights, a purple shirt, lavender vest, a necklace with a circular charm and, as his name indicates, an earring in his left ear.
It was quickly noted that there was resemblance between Earring Magic Ken and a stereotypical gay man of the era, from the purple clothes to the earring to the necklace, which was described as a “chrome cock ring”. Gay guys bought the doll in record numbers, making Earring Magic Ken the bestselling Ken model in Mattel’s history.
Despite the commercial success of the doll, an exposé on the secret meaning of the “circular charm” as a gay sex toy from our hero Dan Savage in the Seattle alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger, led Mattel to discontinue Earring Magic Ken and recall the doll from stores.
Today, a look on Ebay found me a used Gay Bob doll with packaging for $199 and an unopened Gay Bob in his closet box for $1200. An Earring Magic Ken can be yours for $39.95.