ENTERTAINMENT
06/04/2019 19:02 EDT | Updated 06/04/2019 19:15 EDT

Bea Arthur's 'Maude' Had A Gay Best Friend 46 Years Ago

Before "The Golden Girls," Arthur made waves on a sitcom that tackled racism, abortion and even LGBTQ issues, writer Matt Baume finds.

By the time Bea Arthur joined the cast of “The Golden Girls” in 1985, she’d already endeared herself to TV audiences as the protagonist of “Maude,” which had ended its CBS run nearly a decade prior. 

Like “Golden Girls,” “Maude” broke fresh ground in portraying hot-button issues such as racism, addiction and ― most famously ― abortion. As Seattle-based writer Matt Baume discovers, the sitcom (which aired from 1972 through 1978) also offered an ahead-of-its-time portrayal of a gay man less than five years after the 1969 Stonewall uprising helped make LGBTQ issues a larger part of the cultural dialogue. 

In the latest edition of his “Culture Cruise” video series, Baume breaks down a 1973 episode of “Maude” titled “Maude’s New Friend.” The episode focuses on Maude’s friendship with Barry Witherspoon, an author who is later revealed to be a gay man. 

In spite of some dated (and occasionally cringe-worthy) verbiage, Barry can be seen as an early version of the “gay bestie” trope later seen on “Will & Grace” and in big-screen comedies like “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” The character, however, seems all the more radical given that “Maude’s New Friend” aired the same year that the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. 

As Baume points out, all of the regular “Maude” characters appear “eager to be friends” with Barry and are “not grossed out or scared or scandalized” by his sexuality. 

“That’s pretty remarkable, given the times ― in the early ’70s, when this episode aired, homosexuality was barely acknowledged on TV,” he told HuffPost. “And when it did come up, it was often in the context of queer folks being sickos.”

The episode, Baume added, must have been especially refreshing for members of the LGBTQ community at the time, who had “only just learned that [they] do not, in fact, have a mental illness.” 

Baume, the author of the 2015 book “Defining Marriage: Voices From a Forty-Year Labor of Love,” has examined LGBTQ-inclusive episodes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Designing Women” and “Married... With Children,” among other shows, for “Culture Cruise,” now in its second season. 

In January, “Culture Cruise” caught the eye of New York Times writer Margaret Lyons, who praised the series as a “thoughtful and thorough” look at “queer representation — the good and the bad — in pop culture.”