Will an outing in Springfield end America's Homer-erotic obsession with 'The Simpsons'?

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The Independent Online

When the actor and stand-up comic Ellen DeGeneres revealed her homosexuality on her own prime-time television comedy a few years ago, the occasion was seen in Hollywood - and all over America - as a Big Deal.

When the actor and stand-up comic Ellen DeGeneres revealed her homosexuality on her own prime-time television comedy a few years ago, the occasion was seen in Hollywood - and all over America - as a Big Deal.

Little such cultural significance is likely to be read into the outing of one of the principal characters on The Simpsons, promised for next season on Sky One. But that doesn't mean fans of the long-running, reliably irreverent cartoon show aren't having a lot of fun working themselves into a speculative fever anyway.

Earlier this week, the producers revealed that they have written a gay marriage storyline for a show due to be broadcast in January (safely after the presidential election, to minimise any political fallout), and that one of the long-standing characters would finally come out of the closet.

Homer, they said, would become a religious minister by filling out a form on the internet. Springfield, meanwhile, would legalise gay marriage as a way of raising money. Quite where these plot developments would lead has not been revealed, but that hasn't stopped numerous chat forums on the internet devoted to the show from guessing.

Will the notoriously homophobic Homer be forced to preside when one of his friends ties the knot? Will Smithers, the evil sidekick at Homer's nuclear power plant, finally have his smouldering, if unstated, passion for his boss, Mr Burns, returned? Could the gay character be Moe, the bartender, who never had much luck with women? Or Carl or Lenny, Homer's co-workers at the plant? To date, there have been as many guesses as there are characters on the show.

(A lesbian angle is far from ruled out, with Marge Simpson's lovelorn twin sisters, Selma and Patty, leading the sweepstakes.)

All of which probably attests not to the cultural sensitivity of the gay marriage question - divisive though it has been in the US - so much as the cultural vibrancy of The Simpsons itself as it heads into its improbable 16th season.

Surprises have become a hallmark as the show thinks up ways to keep itself fresh. Last season, we were told one of the longstanding characters would be killed off. After a similar flurry of speculation, it turned out to be Maude, wife of Homer's neighbour Ned Flanders. Naturally, Ned is now among the contenders for the role of closet gay.

There was a time, not so long ago, that this kind of storyline would have had the power to shock the forces of puritan America. Not only have times and attitudes changed - thanks, in part, to the likes of Ms DeGeneres - but The Simpsons itself has graduated from an uppity show attracting the opprobrium of cultural conservatives (including Dan Quayle during the 1992 presidential election) to something much more familiar. Its taboo-breaking irreverence has become part of the cultural furniture.

Homosexuality has been a long-running subtext. The obsessive fans who maintain the online Simpsons Archive have listed 90 gay references- everything from "homer-sexual" puns and references to a lesbian bar to guest appearances by Harvey Fierstein and Elton John.

In a 1997 episode called "Homer's Phobia", a friendship between Homer and a kitsch collector called John (voiced by the kitsch-collecting film director John Waters) turns sour after Homer finds out he is gay and worries about his influence over Bart. Homer, naturally, is made to regret his prejudice after John heroically comes to his rescue. "Well, Homer," John says, "I won your respect and all I had to do was save your life. Now, if every gay man could just do the same, you'd be set."

Waylon Smithers, with his pink bow-ties and his more-than-sycophantic devotion to his boss, is in a category of his own. Officially he and Mr Burns are "just good friends", but no fan believes that. When Burns, expressing his dislike of dogs, asks him, "Would you like something sniffing around at your crotch?" Smithers replies: "If you were doing it, sir?"

Paranoia about Bart's sexuality is a regular theme. In one episode Homer catches his son and his friend Milhouse playing dress-up in Marge's dressing room. "What's going on?" he asks. "And I want a non-gay explanation!" In 1999, gay marriages in Hawaii were seen as a tourist attraction. More recently, Homer moved in with a pair of flamboyant housemates in Springfield's gay district and indulged in a same-sex kiss.

The show's creator, Matt Groening, suggested earlier this week that Homer would turn out to be the gay character. The general assumption was that he was joking - but who knows?

THE UNUSUAL SUSPECTS

WAYLON SMITHERS

The obvious - but perhaps too obvious - choice. C Montgomery Burns' truly devoted personal assistant has always harboured unrequited feelings for his nasty boss. Smithers has even declared his love for Mr Burns when disaster looks about to strike. He has pedalled him on a tandem and cleans his dentures. Smithers also spends his time collecting Malibu Stacy dolls and going on vacation to men's singles resorts. Probability rating: high on past evidence, low on thrill factor

MOE SZYSLAK

The owner of Homer's local watering hole, 'Moe's Tavern', Moe has had his fair share of personal strife. He is a soft target for Bart Simpson's prank calls, opening himself up to the ridicule of his customers; he has anger-management issues; and, crucially, he hasn't had much success with women over the years. He has had a brush with fame - in the 1940s he was a child actor on the television show Our Gang. He played the ugly kid. Probability rating: medium

PRINCIPAL SKINNER

Seymour Skinner's love life has been curbed by his manipulative mother, with whom he lives. His steamy but short-lived fling with fiery fellow-teacher Edna Krabappel was doomed. Also known as "Spanky" and "Skinny Boy", Skinner served as a Green Beret in Vietnam, but his aspirations of ruling the playground have never materialised: he is regularly undermined by Bart and his pranks and is the butt of teachers' jokes. Has "Mother" turned him off women for life? Probability rating: medium

CARL AND LENNY

The Simpsons has its very own odd couple in Carl and Lenny, drinking partners alongside Homer in Moe's Tavern and co-workers at the nuclear power plant. Never one without the other, the pair might appear to be more than just good friends. A flashback to both chanting "Who likes short shorts?" "I like short shorts!" might convince some that this couple are about to come out of the closet. Probability rating: high

SELMA BOUVIER

Twin of Patty and sister to Marge Simpson, Selma is constantly on the look-out for love. While her twin pines nightly for MacGyver, Selma has been married - and divorced - twice, first to Sideshow Bob and later to washed-up actor Troy McClure. The second marriage ended after Selma and Troy realised they weren't even really attracted to each other. Perhaps Selma hasn't been looking in the right places. Probability rating: high

NED FLANDERS

"Hens love roosters, Geese love ganders. Everybody else loves ? Ned Flanders" goes the song. But the question remains, who - apart from God and his two young sons, of course - does it for the loveable left-handed evangelist? Since he lost his wife, Maude, last season speculation has raged among Simpson's aficionados that it might be Ned who emerges when the closet door opens. Okily-dokily. Probability rating: medium

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