Unabashed Gay Icon: Jim J. Bullock
Long before he officially came out of the closet on The Joan Rivers Show in 1990, Jim J. Bullock was gay on television. With an encyclopedia of exaggerated gestures and contorted faces, he charmed his way from a one-time guest spot as naïve, overgrown, sexless man-child Monroe Ficus into a co-starring role on ABC’s fluff family sitcom Too Close For Comfort for six years in the 80s.
Though sparring internally with the Anita Bryants and Billy Grahams of his Southern Baptist childhood, Jim’s audiences never knew it. If you caught his stand-up act at the Comedy Store in the late seventies, you’d probably ask who that gay guy was — the one with the perm, lip-syncing in foam go-go boots to Nancy Sinatra. “I had energy shooting out of every hole in my body,” Bullock recalls to Queerty. “There were no limits to what I would do on stage.”
Except, of course, talk about his sexuality.
It’s easy to picture the barely legal Jim J., bouncing into Los Angeles from Odessa, Texas, earmarked Bible in his carry-on, unable to shake the Baptismal waters from his head.
He was a classic case: the asexual court jester, the people pleaser who cracked the joke before anyone else could make one at his expense. “I didn’t like to rock the boat,” he says. “I didn’t perceive myself as gay, I just thought of myself as funny.” And so did the casting directors who saw Jim’s set and gave the 20 year-old his big break. (But let’s be honest: They probably did perceive him as gay.)
In a case of art imitating life, the TV network execs, Too Close For Comfort‘s producers, and Jim simply ignored the visible gayness of his character, Monroe, for as long as they could. During the first two seasons, writers handed Monroe a pair of romantic interests: a transvestite who he believes is a biological female, and an elderly woman who takes his virginity (played by Selma Diamond). And lest we forget the infamous episode where Monroe is tied-up and raped (yes, raped) by two heavyset biker chicks in their van in a mall parking lot. No joke. There’s even a website and short film devoted to the episode.
By season three, though, the viewing public grew savvy. Twenty-three year-old Bullock, who appeared on the show from 1980 until its end in 1986, was summoned into a closed-door meeting with producers. “We are receiving letters from viewers,” he was informed gravely. “They want to know if your character is gay. We don’t want him to be gay.”
Jim wasn’t pushing to make his character gay, either.
“It was a time,” Jim says, “when people just didn’t talk about that shit; it just was not talked about.” When homosexuality was talked about in the 1980s, it was all hellfire and brimstone. Pat Buchanan, the Reagan White House communications director at the time, declared HIV/AIDS nature’s “awful retribution” on the “poor homosexuals.” A 1986 Supreme Court decision upheld a Georgia law criminalizing oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults. HIV/AIDS was decimating the gay male community and all gays were at the core of the blame game. If there was ever a decade to stay in the closet, the 1980s might have been a good time to rearrange the hangers.
I ask if that period was isolating. “It’s just the way it was. I was afraid I would lose everything if I was found out.”