Mrs. America has reintroduced John Schlafly (Ben Rosenfield), the gay son of Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), the right-wing activist who waged war against the Equal Rights Amendment.
Viewers first had a hint that John may not perfectly fit the conservative mold in last week's episode of the series when Phyllis gazed worriedly at her musically inclined child in a church service as he played the organ. Confirmation came this week when a man — presumably a hookup — rang the doorbell of her Illinois residence, John's wallet in hand, and blackmailed her for his silence.
The episode ended with Phyllis's veiled comparison of quitting smoking to resisting his sexual attraction. "The mind is stronger than the body. You just have to exercise willpower," she told her son — right before the pair indulged in some gaiety of playing Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" together on the piano.
This exchange is imagined by the FX series. While John is gay, he did not acknowledge it publicly until September 1992, when the gay New York City magazine Queer World, also known as QW, outed him shortly after the Republican National Convention, which was pushing a "family values" platform.
John, a supporter of the homophobic candidate Pat Buchanan, confirmed his identity shortly afterward. “The family values movement is not antigay,” John, 41 at the time, told the Los Angeles Times. “These people are not antigay. They’re not gay bashers."
John also defended his mother, a staunch opponent of LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage. “I hold my mother in very good esteem. She’s doing good work,” he said. In the same article, Phyllis Schlafly would not reveal when she learned of John's sexuality, but said his outing was “obviously a political hit against me."
“There’s nothing about my position on gay rights that should be offensive to a gay unless he’s seeking some kind of preferential status," she added.
To the L.A. Times, John also clarified that he did "not support the so-called gay-rights agenda." Indeed, John was one of the biggest of his mother and her anti-LGBTQ stances until her 2016 death. As late as 2015, she asserted that the purpose of same-sex marriage is to "wipe out the Christian religion" in an interview with Michaelangelo Signorile promoting her book Who Killed the American Family?
“The gays have their argument about inevitability,” Schlafly said of the fight for marriage equality. ”I don’t think that’s so. I’m extremely disappointed that the Republican Party, the conservative movement, even the Democratic Party and the churches, have been saying, ‘Well, soon the court will decide, and that will be it.’ Well, a lot of people thought that about Roe v. Wade, and we’ve seen the whole abortion movement turned around in the last 10 years.”
Both Schlaflys ended up becoming attorneys — John worked as a lawyer for his mother's right-wing organization, the Eagle Forum. Mrs. America viewers saw the prospect of attending law school for both in this week's episode, as Phyllis felt her lack of credentials put her at a disadvantage in arguments against the feminists she was challenging over the ERA. Phyllis's attorney husband, Fred (John Slattery), is depicted as pressuring John to pursue law while discouraging Phyllis, although there is no evidence that in real life he undermined these ambitions.
Mrs. America profiles many other members of the second-wave feminist movement and its opponents, including Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, and Jill Ruckelshaus. Catch new episodes Wednesdays on FX on Hulu.