On last night's episode of The Simpsons, Waylon Smithers, Jr. (voiced by Harry Shearer) owned up to what we've known about him for the better part of the past three decades: his homosexuality.
After surviving a plane accident with his longtime boss and object of his unrequited love, Mr. Burns, Smithers comes out in hopes that maybe Burns will reciprocate his feelings. Spoiler: he doesn't. Devastated, Smithers finds himself in need of a new job and a new perspective on life. While Smithers's rejection is disappointing, it's not all that surprising and ultimately, it isn't the focus on his episode. Rather than letting things get him down, Smithers does what any self-respecting, newly-out gay man would do after being turned down: he tries his hand at dating.
According to Simpsons writer Rob LaZebnik, Smithers's journey of personal acceptance was inspired by his 21-year old son's decision to come out as a teenager. Speaking with the New York Post, LaZebnik explained that he initially pitched Smithers's coming out years ago and collaborated with his son on crafting the character's revelation.
“I am a Midwestern guy, so I don’t tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve," Rob said. "But I thought, ‘What better way to tell my son I love him than to write a cartoon about it?’"
Smithers's obvious homosexuality has been one of The Simpsons's longest-running jokes since its creation in 1989, when Smithers was still illustrated as a black character. Over the years, his relationship with Burns has vacillated between being one of not-so-mild abusive and begrudging friendship, all the while other queer characters have popped up in Springfield.
In the 2004 episode "There's Something About Marrying," Marge's sister Patty came out as a lesbian after years of much more innocuous hints about her sexuality. While Patty's coming out served as a vehicle for The Simpsons to comment on San Francisco's decision to legally marry same sex couples, Smithers's touches on the much-less talked about idea of queer people coming out later in life.
While most media depictions of LGBTQ people tend to feature younger people, gay men over the age of 65 accounted for the majority of newly married couples according to one U.K. study published last year.
"For a lot of them, the fear of a negative reaction from their parents isn't hanging over them anymore," relationship counselor Clare Prendergast told the Telegraph. "Something you see a lot with older transgender people, and for them, midlife and beyond is a time of opening up."