Time for a history lesson and a strategy session all in one, everyone. This week marks 35 years since Norman Lear brought a lesbian to his legendary TV series All In The Family in an episode that most of you have probably never even heard of. The episode is still remarkably, depressingly relevant, and I think we can learn something about how to frame the argument for marriage equality and civil rights in general from the writers of this award-winning piece of television history.
First airing on October 9, 1977, episode Cousin Liz guest-starred future Superman’s Mom K Callan as Veronica, the long-time partner of Edith Bunker’s recently-deceased cousin. You can probably guess how Archie reacts to the news, but (spoiler alert) Edith stands up to him, at one point delivering his famous catch phrase “Case closed!”
The writers made a special point of mentioning that Liz and Veronica are schoolteachers, drawing on the then- (and unfortunately still-) contentious issue of lesbian and gay teachers being fired because, you know, they’re all child molesters out to “recruit” kids to be gay.
But the episode also remains relevant as four states prepare to vote on marriage equality next month. In the episode, Edith has all the legal rights as Cousin Liz’s next of kin, leaving Veronica to decide whether or not to fight in court for the modest inheritance that should be hers, a battle she would have undoubtedly lost, and a battle many lesbian and gay partners and spouses are still losing today.
Here’s the entire episode (sans theme song). If you’re impatient, the meat of the episode starts at 7:45. Two choice quotes below the video.
Veronica explains her and Liz’s relationship, leading to this bit at 14:46. Jean Stapleton’s delivery makes me cry every damn time:
Edith: Oh, Veronica, I wish you hadn’t told me about this.
Veronica: So do I.
Edith: Oh, no! I didn’t mean that! I mean, it’s so sad. It must have been terrible, lovin’ somebody and not bein’ able to talk about it. I– You can have the tea set; I mean, it belongs to you. You’re really her next of kin.
Remember, this was just a few years after Stonewall. Recognizing that lesbian and gay relationships were equal to straight ones was nothing short of revolutionary. Edith was decades ahead of her time.
Later, Archie threatens to take Veronica to court for Liz’s heirloom silver tea set, exposing her as a lesbian and threatening her job as a schoolteacher. Edith intervenes brilliantly, and in my view, the last sentence of her argument should be a major talking point in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington ahead of marriage equality votes on November 6. (19:20)
Archie: Well who the hell wants people like that teaching our kids?! I’m sure God don’t! God’s sittin’ in judgment!
Edith: Well, sure he is, but he’s God; you ain’t!
Edith: Archie, listen, you wouldn’t want to be the cause of somebody losin’ their job! Archie, she’s all alone in the world now and she’s got nobody to take care of her like I have. And she can’t help how she feels. And she didn’t hurt you, so why should you wanna hurt her? Archie, I can’t believe you’d do anything that mean.
Writers Bob Schiller, Bob Weiskopf, Harve Brosten, and Barry Harman received an Emmy Award for Cousin Liz. Not only that, according to Harman, the episode was re-aired in 1978 on the night before California voters famously defeated the Briggs Initiative in a landslide that stunned both sides of the issue.
I doubt any network will rerun Cousin Liz this November, but hey, we have YouTube now. LGBTs, you know what to do. Straight allies, you can help too. Do all of us queer people a solid and send this video to friends and family in the “movable middle” of Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington before the vote next month. Ask them to watch it before they cast their ballots. Ask them to think about what their vote will do to their lesbian, gay, and bisexual neighbors. On our behalf, ask them if they’re really still meaner than Archie Bunker.