Designing Women Made You Gay

By Dave White

Originally published on Advocate.com May 29 2009 12:00 AM ET

Back when I lived in Texas, in the early 1990s, I dated a guy named Les who was really into country music. He used to take me to this bar in Dallas called The Round Up where gays in cowboy hats and boots would two-step. I couldn't dance -- even though Les tried to teach me -- so in order not to cramp his style, I'd watch from the sidelines as he spun other men around on the dance floor.

And then the music would stop and a clip from an old episode of Designing Women would play on the video monitors. It was the one where Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter) is telling off a beauty pageant winner who has just insulted former Miss Georgia Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke). The clip showcases a hilarious, blistering monologue in which Carter recounts the story of a flaming baton thrown by Burke so high into the air that it hits a transformer, darkens the stadium, and creates a 16-1/2-minute ovation. It's a brutal scolding that ends with Carter barking the line "And THAT ... is the night the lights went out in Georgia!"

In that gay bar there were more than a few men who knew every single word of that speech, and they'd chant along and cheer when it was over as the DJ cued up a Reba McEntire song. The other thing about that clip? It got played every single time I entered the place. I haven't lived in Texas for 10 years now, and for all I know that clip is still being chanted along to like a miniature sweet-tea-flavored Rocky Horror Picture Show.

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All of this may make me sound like a big fan of the show. But until the season 1 DVD arrived at my door last week thanks to a helpful publicist, that clip was all I knew of Designing Women. I mean, I knew the gays liked it in the same way they liked TheGolden Girls, another show I never watched. I just didn't really know why. Both of those programs aired from the mid '80s until the early '90s, and during that time I thought of myself as way too punk rock for that kind of thing. But in reality I was just too self-consciously cool and insufferable.

But now I'm caught up with the inaugural season of the show and I've realized a couple things. For starters, I now know that I could have lived happily without hearing Doc Severinsen's slobbery trumpet-solo version of "Georgia on My Mind" over 20 times in a row. More importantly, I now also know that a lot of stuff my gay friends used to say weren't original witty retorts they invented, just one-liners they borrowed from these large-haired ladies.

In fact, it appears that, along with TheGolden Girls, this show taught a lot of gay guys of the late '80s how to carry themselves and gave them the haughty dialogue they needed to bash back when life got them down.

I used to think that "Where y'all from, bitch?" was something that Les just liked to say, something he made up. I also used to think that my friend Karl's dramatic and speechy delivery of his always-at-the-ready withering comebacks, moments where he'd elongate words for effect ("and another thing, don't you EHHH-VERRR..."), were strictly his own. But no. The staff of Sugarbaker & Associates taught them both how to live every week -- especially Dixie Carter's monologues, which began in the very first episode and continued for years. It was as though she was guaranteed in her contract to have at least one per show.

And that speechifying was, intentional or not, a great queer public service. Because if you think about it, back in the '80s, we'd been dealt a pretty cruel setback thanks to AIDS, the rise of the religious right, and a conservative president. It was like if you were gay, you had to be sorry about it and hope that people accepted you and didn't treat you like were some kind of deadly disease factory. So along comes this show that's all about women but where the sensibility is also just right for a specific kind of gay guy, one who needs an unapologetic voice to emulate. Linda Bloodworth-Thomason may have been designing a show to breathe new life into the tired, insulting stereotypes of Southern women, yet she also seemed to have inadvertently helped a lot of gay guys -- especially the ones who maybe weren't already supported by a queer peer group in a larger urban environment -- find their spines.

A little digression: the other thing I've learned is that Meshach Taylor's character, Anthony the deliveryman-assistant, was a constant mind game. Gay? Not gay? Gay-acting straight guy? Straightish-seeming gay guy? Confusion made flesh? It was like he was auditioning for a weird proto-version of Will & Grace where none of the characters were allowed to talk about being homosexual. But that's a subject for a whole different discussion.

I hear from friends who know the DW world backward and forward that things get weird and wonky as the seasons go by, that cast members quit and get replaced by other actors, that it gets less focused and less fiery. But I'll cross that disappointment bridge when I come to it. Right now I'm sort of looking forward to season 2 of this brand-new 23-year-old show.