REST IN PEACE

Was The Late Sherman Hemsley, A.K.A. TV’s George Jefferson, Gay?

Sherman Hemsley, who entertained millions as self-made man George Jefferson on All in the Family and The Jeffersons, died at his home in El Paso, Texas, at the age of 74 from natural causes.

But was Hemsley in our family?

He never came out officially but rumors, both with substance and without, circulated that he was gay. Hemsley, who later appeared on Amen, never married and, as The Advocate reminds us, was cited in a 2007 VH1 story about popular black gay actors from days of yore. (Speaking of which, what was the deal with Mister Bentley? Was he gay or just British? We could never tell.)

In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter if he was gay or not. Hemsley brought laughter to our hearts and we’ll miss him.

Of course, through The Jeffersons, Hemsley helped change American attitudes about minority issues like discrimination, reverse racism and interracial marriage—and even some issues particular to the LGBT community. We recall watching an old episode back when Nick At Nick was airing reruns. In it, George is stunned to find out an old buddy of his has gone through gender-reassignment surgery and is now a particularly stunning woman. This was years before anyone even heard the term “politically correct,” but we have to give the cast, writers and executive producer Norman Lear for presenting the situation with dignity and humor. Check out the clip below.

 

Photos: CBS, Tabercil

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82 Comments

  • Prof Sancho Panza

    It’s fascinating how only certain actors’ personal lives capture the public imagination to the extent that their sexuality can become the subject of media speculation. In some cases it seems due in part to how sexual/sensual their roles and public persona are, and it just didn’t seem to occur to most people to wonder about the sexuality of an actor like Hemsley who was known for playing bombastic, irascible middle-aged or older men. (And if you play salt of the earth grandfathers, like Will Geer on The Waltons, no one ever even *thinks* about your sexuality!) Of course, in Hemsley’s case one has to wonder if his race made his personal life still less interesting to mainstream America, too.

  • BT

    Not even dead 12 hours and you already have dissect the man? Jeez…

  • Rosco

    He was openly gay among those he worked with.

  • shannon

    FUNNY…..GAY WHITE MEN ARE —-BIGGEST—- “MINORITY” ON THE PLANET….ASIDE FORM WHITE PEOPLE PERIOD BEING THE BIGGEST MINORITY…….LOL

  • Matthew Rettenmund

    I disagree. It does matter if someone was gay, just as much as it matters whether they were straight, married, had kids, etc. It’s an aspect of who they were. And in the case of being gay, it matter because too many gay public figures are not out and that contributes to the idea (among those who are anti-gay) that being gay is rare and therefore okay to discriminate against.

    None of that takes away from his importance or success as an actor/entertainer.

  • frenchjr25

    Mr Bently had a lot of girlfriends, women he felt passionate about.

  • Rockery

    This is before my time, but I have heard people referring to him “movin on up” But I never really got it and I have definitely seen him many times on TV. Did not know he was gay! RIP

  • MJ (different from the other one)

    if he was or wasn’t, he was pretty damn funny. RIP

  • Paul

    Yesterday we lost Sally Ride; today Sherman Hemsley, both members of our big human family. Let’s be thankful for the preciousness of life.

    Paul Harris
    Author, “Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina”

  • skeloric

    So much of OUR history was stolen from us by the need for silence that was inflicted upon us by discrimination that we MUST try to reclaim it whenever possible.
    When I was growing up in the late 70s, there was NOTHING about homosexuality in my Midwestern news.
    Then arrived the 80s and suddenly there was NEWS but always universally bad.
    It seemed like every few months there was more about AIDS (we were too isolated to ever hear named ‘gay cancer’ in its earliest days) killing someone for their “immoral godless lifestyle” (which for a long time meant pretty much nothing to me as it seemed everyone older knew what it meant and had no need to explain to anyone else in a way that I could hear.
    I sure as heck wasn’t going to ask.
    By the time i graduated in 87, I still had no clue there were others who sexual preference was — as I deemed it — ‘abnormal’.
    it took me until nearly 6 years later to finally encounter others and to discover I was not alone.
    I do not want future generations to arrive into their mid-twenties only having a negative image of their sexuality as well as a feeling of isolation I experienced – and for the most part, they don’t.
    I also would like them not to feel completely separated from HISTORY as if we somehow magically came into existence as a people only in the last 20 years or so.
    We need HISTORY.
    We need to feel like a part of this world.
    Many people around the world get a thousand-plus years of history in which their nationality and culture play at least some vital and necessary role.
    Not so for the GLBT population.
    We get tiny snippets and fragments when we manage to find anything at all.
    Those snippets and fragments quite often also only suggest or insinuate, which is often of no help at all.
    In turn, our enemies manage to find it easy to marginalize us and repress us as being OUTSIDERS and ABERRATIONS.
    We NEED to forge our own history, complete with enough evidence that we have always been here.
    I firmly believe that many of our worst enemies in the political arena exist because they grew up alone and isolated until their self loathing crystallized into ‘homophobia’.
    Their fear of us is a fear of their own true sexuality.
    Positive GLBT role models and a strong GLBT historical record will go a long way towards limiting a new generation of such enemies.
    (In a way, maybe it is the classic bullsh*t line about ‘Indoctrination’ finally coming true. Getting GLBT youth to BELIEVE that they are not isolated and alone is in fact trying to introduce a ‘new idea’.)
    In the end, we NEED our history.
    It may in fact be impossible to succeed in achieving Equality without it.

  • Prof Sancho Panza

    I think there’s a fascinating story waiting to be told here: how a gay black man became so successful on American television during a time when that wasn’t an easy thing to do, AND without ever getting married, pretending to have been married, etc. I don’t think it’s at all disrespectful to look at Hemsley’s life that way; I have a great deal of respect for how he beat the odds without compromising himself.

  • Cinesnatch

    @1:29 mark audience member says “Here we go.”

    priceless.

    Great clip. TV was better in some ways back then.

  • jen

    I, like many others, really loved watching him on tv. When I found out he died today I knew I’d be sad and I was. Gay, straight, he brought laughter to so many people. I miss him already.

  • jaded

    I will be SOOOOO happy when being GLBT is not a huge deal. Being bisexual is part of my life, for example but it’s not all I am. I think when GLBT people don’t have to “come out” but like with Matt Bomer, just mention their partners so people don’t see it as a dramatic thing, it’s something that’s a matter of fact.

    Yes we want to know who’s in the family and who isn’t. But until we reach a point where mentioning your partnet or wife or husband of the same sex is as unearthshatteing as having a lover or spouse of the opposite sex and it’s not used by gossip columns to shock people, I understand why some GLBT actors don’t feel comfortable enough to risk their livelihood. I don’t think it’s fair to demand they do.

  • Joseph

    people still care who is gay and who is straight. sherman helmsley was a good no great actor. I love the stuff he did. RIP

  • AI

    If the media isn’t pushing someone out of the closest, they’re digging up graves. Everyone is “gay” now, dead or alive…

  • Chuck

    @skeloric: Well said.

  • Kev C

    Ghost Fever was a really bad movie. This makes it even.

  • PRINCE OF SNARKNESS aka DIVKID

    sick of this: “it doesn’t really matter if he was gay or not.”
    sure as fuck it mattered to him; if you’re considering the man in the round, not just roles he played, it’s incon-fuckin-ceivable that this would not be relevant…i mean duh!

  • Andrew

    I attended an Emmy Awards rehearsal in the late 1980’s and Hemsley was there accompanied by a young blonde twink. My gay friend on the production team said Hemsley was gay.

  • J.B.

    No such thing as reverse racism. Unless you’re actually using it in the correct context. Are we that uneducated?

    re·verse /ri?v?rs/Verb: Move backward.
    Adjective: Going in or turned toward the direction opposite to that previously stated.

    rac·ism /?r??siz?m/Noun: 1. The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as… 2. Prejudice or discrimination directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief.

    Therefore reverse racism would be the OPPOSITE of racism.

  • Gogoshack

    George Jefferson was an idol of mine growing up and still is. He signified strength amongst black men at a time when white America wanted to make us appear weak and timid. Much respect, gay straight, whatever, but hearing my male role model was gay was a real head scratched at a young age. A gay black man? That was unheard of to my young ears back then. You still good wit me George. RIP

  • Avenger

    Stop disrespecting the man’s memory with these slanderous allegations. You don’t know that he was gay.

  • ScaryRussianHeather

    @skeloric:

    Absofuckinlutely. May be the best post ever on Queerty.

  • Dax

    I find it disgusting to reference (let alone dissect) a dead persons sexual orientation. What’s it to you if he was/wasn’t gay? That was a factoid he didn’t share with the world, so obviously he didn’t want us to have this conversation about him.

  • JACKSON360

    I think he was gay too. In fact I recall someone a long time ago, during his stint with the show Amen, whispering that he was gay in real life. That being said, I don’t think that this is a necessary or appropriate discussion topic. He was a man and an accomplished actor, who became in the world of television. Let’s leave it at that.

  • JACKSON360

    @JACKSON360:
    *who became iconic in the world of television.

  • The Real Mike in Asheville

    “This was years before anyone even heard the term “politically correct,” but we have to give the cast, writers and executive producer Norman Lear for presenting the situation with dignity and humor.” … not really, not really to all.

    The origins of the phrase “politically correct” is centuries old. The modern take comes from the late 1960s-early 1970s with the women’s lib, free speech, and anti-Vietnam War movements. Before George Jefferson showed up on All in the Family, Norman Lear had already pushed the politically correct concept with the Bunkers, and Maude. Also, before, M*A*S*H* (the movie) and the Mary Tyler Moore show, all very much pushing political correctness.

    *******

    In one classic All in the Family episode, Archie and George are aghast that “WOPs” (NYC derogatory slang for immigrants from Italy — WOP = WithOut Papers) are moving into the neighborhood. Just the season before, Archie whined about the Jeffersons moving into the neighborhood, and now he and George team up on their bigotry.

  • Danny

    @Avenger: So it’s slanderous to suggest that someone might have been gay? Please enlighten me with the legal details on how this is the case.

  • Danny

    @JACKSON360: so what if we’d said “I heard he was left handed”. Would that be appropriate to discuss?

    Come on people. Stop with the presumption that being gay is somehow something to be ashamed of and is only about sex and therefore not appropriate to discuss about the deceased. It’s no different than saying “she was a natural blonde” or “he was a short man”. Our sexual orientation is a characteristic about all of us that need not be treated with kid gloves or acted like it’s somehow inappropriate for discussion. It’s self hating or homophobic to suggest otherwise.

  • Andrew

    @ ScaryRussianHeather – Totally agree! Excellent comment by skeloric. Couldn’t agree more.

  • peter

    @BT:

    Exactly what I was going to say!

  • jack jett

    yes, yes and more yes..

  • Anthony

    Poor guy isn’t even cold in his grave yet and already people (who probably haven’t spoken about him at all in the past 20+ years) are trying to sensationalize, gossip and make judgements about his private life. So sad. His fame and notoriety was based on his work as an actor, not who he had in his bedroom. Even if he was gay, he was his own man and didn’t “belong” to any community.

  • Boo bear

    R I P Sherman Hemsley…….you were loved no matter what is being said now. I just don’t understand why folks wait until someone passes away to stir up the pot. Lets remember him for the funny character he portrayed as Mr.Jefferson on the Jeffersons. It’s not fair Mr.Hemsley isn’t here to defend himself against useless talk regarding his sexuality! Love people for who they are and represent, GOD made us all different for many reasons..

  • Danny

    @Anthony: Why is what’s considered a “private life” held to a different standard for homosexuals than heterosexuals? Would you consider just knowing that an actor was heterosexual considered to be a part of their “private life”? Just the mere fact that someone might have been gay isn’t any intrusion on their private life. That’s not to say that most if not all gay people went thru some period in their life where they kept their true orientation private (because of the stigma and discrimination that has always and continues to exist). But lets be clear – nobody is gossiping or sensationalizing about whether Mr. Hemsley was a top or a bottom – or was into toys or bondage, or had a foot fetish. That is the kind of stuff that might be inappropriate to discuss and gossip about, just as it would be if he was straight. We have to take ownership of getting past the point where the mere fact that one is gay is considered something to hide, or be embarrassed about, or allow others to shame us for. Only then can we achieve true equality.

  • Greg

    I believe he was openly gay. I recall hearing this many years ago.

  • Greg

    @Danny: Right on, Danny.

  • Hyhybt

    @skeloric: We do need our history. We also, though, need to be careful not to create history that wasn’t really there.

  • Bliss

    It might explain his move to god-forsaken El Paso. Who moves there if not for family ties?

  • LeNair Xavier

    @Queerty The fact that you and other gay media sources can’t leave Sherman Hemsley to rest in peace without trying to out him is why gay media has become NOTHING for a gay writer or reporter to aspire to.

  • Jan McClellan

    In approx 1974 my ex and I managed an apartment building in Hollywood. Sherman Hemsley was one of our tenants. He lived with a young man.

  • PRINCE OF SNARKNESS aka DIVKID

    the self-hatred on this thread is unfuckingbelievable. you seem to believe it’s dragging him through mud (mud = gay) merely from asking the question; how is this anymore scandalous than, say, wanting to know his age (some folks are sensitive about this personal info, too, often concealing the truth.)

    he was either heterosexual, or he wasn’t; or maybe “it’s complicated.” end of. it’s simply an empirical neutral fact in the world (if you let it be that) asking it doesn’t make you the witch-finder general examining his corpse for an extra nipple or speculating if he ever raped kittens. really, c’mon people.

  • Shawn

    What he left behind MATTERS. Sherman Hemsley, Kevin Spacey – with both of these rumors, I really don’t care what they did on a personal basis. I love their work. Period.

  • missedgle

    SERIOUSLY?????? Come on guy’s your kidding me right? Queerty u know better..I’m so but in my JOY BEHAR VOICE ” So What Who Cares”

  • missedgle

    @missedgle: I’m sorry but SO WHAT WHO CARES.do yall have to make everything or person a GAY MATTER?? I’m ova it

  • Mark

    “and even some issues particular to the LGBT community.”

    There is no such thing as an “LGBT community.” There never was. The term didn’t exist when the Jeffersons was on TV and it is only around now because a few dishonest “queer” activists invented it in the mid-1990s and then pushed it onto the LGB community without debate or discussion.

    Further, a plotline involving a man getting surgically altered to become a woman has nothing to do with gay people. Stop promoting ancient stereotypes, Queerty. Gay men do not want to be women. While we can be friends with transsexuals, we do not form the same “community” as them..

  • missedgle

    @Shawn: I’m with you.

  • James M. Martin

    The actor playing Mr. Bentley certainly seemed gay.

  • James M. Martin

    @Shawn: Me, too. Spacey is one of the finest of the fine actors working today. Who gives a shit what his sexuality amounts to?

  • David Myers

    @skeloric: I agree with your excellent post on the necessity of claiming and recovering our history which has been surpressed, denied, stolen, buried, and systimatically destroyed. So it is important to claim those people who have had to hide themselves throughout their lives. They too are victims of this stolen history. Maybe if they had had the advanctage of knowing our history and of all of the worthy and history making members of our minority, they too would have felt safe and ok to be open about their sexuality. That’s why I still disagree with those who say, what difference does it make is someone (who has recently died) was gay or lesbian or not. It does make a difference to the up and coming generations who have previously had their history stolen and denied to them. Thanks for your enlightening post!

  • missedgle

    I find it just ugly that some people need to know everything about people.I hate facebook and twitter it’s just too much,I feel it’s the person choice to come out not our’s.I’m sadden that Anderson Cooper came out..So What Who Cares…..Go get your life

  • SM

    Give me a break. I dont ever wonder if someone is gay. WHO CARES.

  • David Myers

    @missedgle: Why would you be “sadden (sic) that Anderson Cooper came out”? Does that diminish his obvious skills as a newscaster and anchorman in your eyes? If so, you are the one with a problem. Hundreds of thousands of gay men and lesbians do care that there are people who have been brave enough to come out so that the gay and lesbian youth of tomorrow have role models to aspire to. We care and we are tired of our history being stolen, surpressed, buried, denied, and stolen. It is not ugly that gays and lesbians want to know who our people are and what they have done and accomplished in their lives.

  • missedgle

    David,
    Ok that’s fine.Everyone knows an opinion is like an ANUS we all have one….

  • missedgle

    @missedgle: and until u can kick your legs up in the air,u can’t tell me shit……….That’s a joke David lol

  • missedgle

    @David Myers: But Really I understand,but for God,let the Man get in his grave.

  • Prof. O.G. Whataschnozelle

    I am surprised that no mention is made of the messy breakup he (Sherman) had with a young dancer named Andre back in the 1980’s. They had a ten year fling until it had run it’s course and the kid wanted money from ol’ Sherman. Yes kiddies, this one is true.

    I do find that article on the Advocate’s website distasteful and shameful. It is just mean spirited to print something like that without ONE piece of evidence (not even a mention of the affair and breakup between him and Andre) in the entire article. All of them, James Avery, Reginald Vel Johnson and Sherman Hemlsley were fine actors who made you tune in each week to catch the latest episode of what was going on in their TV lives.

    It is HEAVILY rumored that both Avery and Johnson used to cruise Santa Monica Blvd looking for trade but hey, that is their business. I do hope that they were using a call service (since they could WELL afford it).

    Rest in peace George Jefferson. You, Louise, Helen, Tom, and Mr. Bently have all left us now with nothing but fine memories and laughter to remember you with. Tell Fred, Ethel, Ricky and Lucy I said hello too.

  • missedgle

    Well we still have Marla Gibbs,that’s funny about cruising,I guess we’ve all done that.I’m tired of spending my Money and they go buy CRACK…I guess lookin for love in the wrong places,have a new meaning lol

  • Mahu

    I am very saddened by Sherman’s death. I watched “The Jefferson’s” religiously when I was growing up in the 70’s. And it opened my mind to alot of issues that helped me later on when I was growing up. Having said that, I’m not so sure that speculating about his private life is what he would have wanted. He never tried to bash the gay community or try to prevent our civil rights, so I don’t think that “outing” him (if he even was gay…) is appropriate. He was an actor in a very different time from today. “Coming out” was something that could kill an acting career. His show did bring up gay / transgender issues before most networks would allow. And his show did it in a way that allowed peoples’ minds to be possibly opened, instead of automatically closed. I say, we allow the man to rest in peace the way he wanted it….

  • David Myers

    @Boo bear: “Love people for who they are” – exactly and gay was part of what he was and although he wasn’t publically out. He was out to friends and probably many acquaintances. Not acknowledging that is another form of insisting he be buried in the closet – a denial of his particular truth. It is nothing to be ashamed of and is as much a part of who he was as his age, race, profession, etc. Quit being “outraged” that gays and lesbians want to claim him as a role model! Otherwise, he is buried beneath the “heterosexualist assumption” that everyone is straight unless they came out publically, which is much more of a dishonoring of his true self than to now claim him as a gay role model, based on what he shared with his friends and close acquaintances!

  • zio ledeux

    does it matter if he was gay straight celibate or screwed rabbits? just cos a man dosent marry dosent mean his sex life is up for discussion. who cares really? let him r.i.p.

  • Wendykahn

    This Jefferson show episode has no dignity and no humor – is true early bamboozled to the lgbt community of the seventies. In this show episode jefferson was scare and still was scare of his best friend transition by the end of the episode. True phobia written all over. Where’s the dignity and humor in that???????

  • Wendykahn

    @Danny: im with you 100% with your statement – tell it like it is.

  • Lifer

    He was always just awesomely funny to me, and that was enough.

  • FunMe

    Oh no! Of course we heard “they” say it comes it three’s …
    1. Sally Ride
    2. “George Jefferson

    Who’s the 3rd? Gay/Lesbian of course.

  • Anne

    “Andrew:I attended an Emmy Awards rehearsal in the late 1980?s and Hemsley was there accompanied by a young blonde twink. My gay friend on the production team said Hemsley was gay.”

    It’s the use of the word ‘twink’ along with ‘bear’ ‘cub’ etc. that make us NORMAL people dislike gays. Everything is centered around sex with you people, and I find those words disgusting and distasteful. You don’t hear straight people using those kinds of words. You all would get some more respect if you didn’t use that kind of weird terminology.

    As for Sherman being gay or not, you gays are always trying to claim someone to advance your cause. He isn’t here to defend himself so stop labelling him as something you have no clue he is or not based on rumour and hearsay. Let the man rest in peace with his reputation intact, why don’t you!

  • PRINCE OF SNARKNESS aka DIVKID

    @Anne: FAIL.
    milf. couger. bimbo etc
    now get your ugly NORMAL ignorant c_nt ass the fuck outta here.

  • hamoboy

    Oh my goodness. An entire thread of discussions without that Grand Dragon of the Hooded Ones, Colin, making an appearance. I guess I was more accurate than I thought when I mentioned last week that the only thing a black person can do that will satisfy him is die.

  • Erik

    @Anne: No, straight people use words like bimbo, bombshell, hunk, stud, cougar, etc.

    Similarly, are u trying to tell me heterosexual sexuality is NOT used to sell everything from cosmetics to automobiles? You think only gay people are fixated on sex? REALLY?!

    You must live in an alternate universe where we are not bombarded with overt depictions of heterosexual sexuality on a daily basis.

    As for calling yourself “NORMAL”… are you trying to convince us or yourself?

  • LadyL

    @Prof Sancho Panza: Good point, especially the mention of Will Geer (Or for that matter, Richard Deacon, who was Mel Cooley on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and reflected on this very subject in Boze Hadleigh’s fascinating book “Hollywood Gays”). I’d say, though, that Hemsley’s race made the subject of his sexuality not “less interesting”–to the contrary–but more potentially inflammatory. In those years, and for many after, mainstream America was only barely dealing with LGBT lives and issues, after all. Any open discussion of the gay lives of African-Americans was absolutely not allowed.

  • LadyL

    @Prof Sancho Panza: Again, agreed. I fervently hope, in whatever tributes will come in the wake of his death, that his sexuality is acknowledged as of way of giving him his full due as a man, and allowing his fans an honest accounting of his life and times.@skeloric: Beautiful comment.

  • Dionte

    I couldn’t imagine having to live life hiding who I am, that must be tough.

  • skeloric

    @Dionte: All of us old enough to remember the 70s and 80s can tell you it was sheer HELL.

  • David Myers

    @PRINCE OF SNARKNESS aka DIVKID: Good on you. “Outing” a right-wing fundamentalist fascist troll is a public service! Thanks for that.

  • cpeacock

    @SM: it would matter to you if it was your child, or your child said they were gay!!

  • Christina Smythe

    Another legend completed his mission in life and now leaves us. If you rearrange the letters in Earth, it becomes heart. So even if someone is no longer on Earth with us, we know that person will always be in our Heart. We will miss you Sherman Hemsley. I see a lot of people have shared memories about him on his memorial page within Evertalk in Facebook. Here’s the link: https://apps.facebook.com/evertalk/index/memorial/shermanhemsley2650

  • Jacklyn Johnson

    @Christina Smythe: He was a wonderful actor. What great memories to share! Thanks for the heads up on the Evertalk page Christina. I will visit it.

  • R Chapman

    Of course he was. We used to see him out with his young, white boys all the time. And he wasn’t hiding anything.

  • trevor

    I only have one problem with this article: there is no such thing as reverse racism.

  • MrEguy

    It’s no secret that Hemsley was gay. Everyone in the entertainment business has known it for years, and he never hid his sexuality.

Comments are closed.