Gay Bob: Really the First Gay Doll

Breaking news! It appears as though Billy was NOT the first openly gay doll, as reported this morning. Twenty years earlier, 37-year old New York designer, Harvey Rosenberg, released the Gay Bob doll (above left with friend). In 1978, The Associated Press referred to Bob as “the world’s first gay doll”. At the time, Rosenberg had already sold more than 10,000 Gay Bob dolls through mail-order advertising.

Rosenberg modeled Gay Bob on a cross between Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Like Billy, Bob was also 12-13 inches tall and anatomically correct. Bob’s packaging was a box in the shape of a closet, and he came with a catalog from where you could order additional fashionable clothing. In January of 1979, Gay Bob shared the cover of Esquire with Burt Reynolds and was given a “Dubious Achievement Award”.

Although Mr. Rosenberg passed away in 2001, his legacy lives on. It took two decades to see another commercially produced gay doll/action figurenow they’re coming hot and heavy! Bob and Billy even inspired a chapter in one man’s memoir.

Thank you to Scott “@stretchedwiener”Wetterschneider for flagging my attention to Gay Bob! Scott writes: “Harvey was my mentor and good friend and a total madman. I wouldn’t even be making toys if it wasn’t for him. He lived/worked around the corner when I was at Pratt. I was his sole employee, drawing monkey, disciple, something like that. He’s missed terribly.”

Click through for bonus information on “How to Enjoy Gay Bob”.

Gay Bob doll (8 photos)

Gay Bob is a doll created in 1977. It was billed as the world’s first openly gay doll. Bob was created by former advertising executive Harvey Rosenberg and marketed through his company, Gizmo Development. Gay Bob was bestowed an Esquire magazine “Dubious Achievement Award” for 1978.

Bob stands 13 inches tall and came wearing a flannel shirt, tight jeans and cowboy boots. He had one ear pierced. Bob’s box was shaped like a closet and included a catalog from which consumers could order additional outfits. Creator Rosenberg described the doll as resembling a cross between Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Bob is anatomically correct. [source]

 Gay Bob doll (8 photos)

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In 1860s Germany, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs urged other gay people to publicly reveal their sexual orientation. In 1914, Magnus Hirschfeld wrote of the revolutionary potential of respected gay women and men coming out en masse. By the late 1960s, coming out was treated with the utmost importance within the gay rights movement. And in 1977, Gay Bob arrived.

It was the same year that Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. And while Milk was urging his friends and community to come out of the closet, the “World’s First Gay Doll” was doing the exact same thing.

Designed to look like a combination of Paul Newman and Robert Redford and packed into his own cardboard closet, Gay Bob was the brainchild of former advertising executive Harvey Rosenberg. The New Yorker used $10,000 of his own money to launch the doll and had it made in Hong Kong after American manufacturers refused to make Bob’s groin anatomically correct.

Rosenberg wanted Gay Bob to normalize the coming out process, while also acting as a fun accessory for those who were already out and proud. In an interview to promote Gay Bob, Rosenberg once said, “Bob’s perfect for an executive’s desk, dash board ornament, the attache case, the bathtub rim, a health club gym bag.”

Despite Gay Bob having a realistic penis, the snazzy fashion catalog contained in the doll’s packaging was distinctly child-friendly:

Hi boys, girls and grownups, I’m Gay Bob, the world’s first gay doll. I bet you are wondering why I come packed in a closet. ‘Coming out of the closet’ is an expression which means that you admit the truth about yourself and are no longer ashamed of what you are… Gay people are no different than straight people. If everyone came out of their closets, there wouldn’t be so many angry, frustrated, frightened people… It’s not easy to be honest about what you are, in fact it takes a great deal of courage. But remember, if Gay Bob has the courage to come out of his closet, so can you!

Despite his optimistic message, conservative groups of the era viewed Gay Bob as a threat to family values. Edward Rowe, the executive director of Protect America’s Children, was quoted in a 1978 issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette describing Gay Bob as “another evidence of the desperation the homosexual campaign has reached in its effort to put homosexual lifestyle, which is a death style, across to the American people. I can only hope that the children who are given these Gay Bob dolls will not comprehend the meaning and intent of the campaign.”

Attempts to get the doll into department stores were largely a failure, so Rosenberg primarily sold Gay Bob via mail order ads in gay magazines. One doll cost $19.50, including shipping and handling, and it was $35 for a pair. Two thousand people snapped up their own Gay Bobs in the first two months of the doll being available, and Bob was later stocked in San Francisco and New York boutiques.

In addition to winning Esquire’s “Dubious Achievement Award” in 1978, Gay Bob got his very own storyline in Frank Zappa’s 9-minute ode to sexual experimentation, “Sy Borg.” In the song, a robotic voice tells a human man: “I share this apartment with a modified Gay Bob doll. He goes all the way! Ever try oral sex with a miniature rubberized homo-replica?” And then later: “This is him. Your wish is his command. He likes you. He wants to kiss you always. Just tell him what you want.”

Today, Gay Bob is simply an amusing quirk on the timeline of LGBTQ+ history. But he remains in demand as a collector’s item, fetching upwards of $200 on auction websites. At the time he was made, tongue-in-cheek though he was, Bob was meant to increase the visibility of gay people everywhere. “We had something to learn from the gay movement, just like we did from the Black civil rights movement and the women’s movement,” Harvey Rosenberg once said. “And that is having the courage to stand up and say ‘I have a right to be what I am.’”

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Gay Doll

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Gay Doll

He debuted in the ’70s, to both acclaim and outrage.

“It’s another evidence of the desperation the homosexual campaign has reached in its effort to put homosexual lifestyle, which is a deathstyle, across to the American people.”

A lobby group called Protect America’s Children made this statement in 1978—about a doll.

That year, the release of Gay Bob, billed as the world’s first openly gay doll, caused a minor sensation. Enraged consumers complained that a toy with a homosexual backstory would lead to other ”disgusting” dolls like “Priscilla the Prostitute” and “Danny the Dope Pusher.” Esquire awarded Gay Bob its “Dubious Achievement Award.” And anti-gay organizations across the United States blustered.

Gay Bob, who was meant to resemble a cross between Robert Redford and Paul Newman, was blond, with a flannel shirt, tight jeans, and one pierced ear. The doll gave anti-gay organizations plenty to fear; intrinsic within it was a celebration of gay identity, evidenced by Gay Bob’s programmed speech. “Gay people,” Bob said, “are no different than straight people… if everyone came ‘out of their closets’ there wouldn’t be so many angry, frustrated, frightened people.”

In a cheeky move, the box in which Gay Bob was packaged came in the outline of a closet, so that when he left his box, he was literally coming out of the closet. Gay Bob explained: “It’s not easy to be honest about what you are — in fact it takes a great deal of courage… But remember if Gay Bob has the courage to come out his closet, so can you.”

The affirming message was no accident. The doll’s creator, Harvey Rosenberg, a former advertising executive who developed marketing campaigns for various corporations, wanted Gay Bob to “liberate” men from “traditional sexual roles.” He created the doll soon after a series of shocks rocked his life: in quick succession, his marriage fell apart and his mother became seriously ill. He decided that his next projects would need to be of great personal significance.

Though Gay Bob was certainly humorous—the doll was designed to be anatomically correct, and prominent gay activists such as Bruce Voeller told reporters that people should “deal with [the doll] lightly and enjoy it”—Rosenberg’s intentions seem to have been sincere. When asked why he would pour $10,000 of his money into the Gay Bob’s production, he replied, “we had something to learn from the gay movement, just like we did from the black civil rights movement and the women’s movement, and that is having the courage to stand up and say ‘I have a right to be what I am.’”

When Gay Bob hit stores in 1978, that right to be gay and equal was once again under attack, most notably from Anita Bryant, a singer and well-known brand ambassador who mobilized opposition to a Dade County, Florida ordinance that outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Fixating on its impact on public schools, Bryant claimed that the existence of LGBT school teachers would threaten the well-being of local students. “Homosexuals will recruit our children,” she warned. “They will use money, drugs, alcohol, any means to get what they want.” In June 1977, she had the rule repealed, and her anti-gay crusade—which gained widespread media attention—sparked similar ventures in Minnesota, Oregon, Kansas, and California.

Gay Bob, which sold 2,000 copies in its first two months, appeared in the heat of these political battles. It was no real flashpoint of its own, but it served as a humorous trophy—and a sign of changing times—for those fighting against Bryant.

Initially sold through mail-order ads in gay-themed magazines, Gay Bob soon expanded into boutique stores in New York and San Francisco. Rosenberg even pitched it to major department store chains, one of which liked the idea (but ultimately did not purchase it). And, it turns out, those consumers who feared the introduction of more “disgusting” dolls were partially correct—Rosenberg soon gave Gay Bob a family of his own, with brothers Marty Macho, Executive Eddie, Anxious Al, and Straight Steve (who lived in the suburbs and wore blue suits), and sisters Fashionable Fran, Liberated Libby, and Nervous Nelly. 

He debuted in the ’70s, to both acclaim and outrage.

The 13-inch doll was as much a totem of gay pride as he was a calculated parry against the strikes of anti-gay activism

In 1977, Gay Bob, “The World’s First Openly Gay Doll”, hit store shelves. Designed by entrepreneur and former ad executive Harvey Rosenberg, the 13-inch plastic doll was cheekily designed to look like a combination of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. He wore a plaid shirt and jeans and had feathered blonde hair. He spouted such catch phrases as “Gay people are no different than straight people.” He was packaged in a box that resembled a closet. And he was anatomically correct.

Bob was as much a totem of gay pride as he was a calculated parry against the strikes of anti-gay activism. He was created to antagonize society at a time when Gay Rights were hard to come by. And boy did it work. According to the anti-gay lobby group Protect America’s Children, Bob was “evidence of the desperation the homosexual campaign has reached in its effort to put the homosexual lifestyle across to the American people.” Funny enough, Bob’s “coming out” party coincided directly with the righteous presence of the “Save Our Children” campaign, a movement led by singer and political activist, Anita Bryant, that manufactured an atmosphere of hatred on the basis that gay people were recruiting children. So, whether you were gay, straight, tolerant, or bigoted, it was almost impossible not to hear something about Gay Bob.

“I think every gay man was aware of Gay Bob,” says Chris Byrne, a 30-year-plus veteran of the toy industry, author of five books on toy history, and a featured expert on Netflix’s hit documentary, The Toys That Made Us. “He certainly made news. The heinous and ignorant views people like Anita Bryant espoused created an atmosphere of hatred toward gay people. Gay Bob was a campy response.”

Well, was Gay Bob a toy, or a political statement? He was effectively both. “If girls and women could have Barbie, and heterosexual men could have Star Wars and G.I. Joe, why shouldn’t gay men have their own plastic icon?”

Byrne reasons that Bob was a slightly tongue-in-cheek way of asserting — and seizing — a place in the culture. “To fully appreciate Gay Bob, one has to think about the role of camp and self-deprecating humor in the gay sensibility,” he says. “While the creator sought to promote tolerance, I don’t think for a moment that anyone thought that a doll would do it.”

Gay Bob with his creator, Harvey Rosenberg. Photo Credit: Gizmo Development via Wikimedia

The point of Gay Bob, then, became a mix between unorthodoxy and the brilliant satirization of 1970s aggro-machismo culture. “The late 70s exploded with different types of gender expression,” Byrne explains. “While there were effeminate men, the late 70s was also the era of hyper masculinity. At the time there were stark divisions in the gay culture — the butch men and the queens often didn’t mix, and there was often antagonism between them.” Gay Bob’s appearance — particularly his macho movie start mug— ruffled a lot of straight feathers. Then, there was the package.

Bob was marketed as one of the first anatomically correct dolls. And yes, he had a proper package. In order to equip Bob with a believable “accessory”, creator Harvey Rosenberg had to provide Hong Kong toy manufacturers with a life-size cast of an actual penis because they’d never accommodated such a request before. The final model of the doll effectively exaggerated that penis, turning it into both a comparative critique of “real men” as well as an unmistakably uncomfortable jab at anti-gay activists.

“The anatomically correct element of the doll is more a stab at the neutered Barbie and Ken dolls that have no sexuality, and certainly no genitals,” says Byrne. “There is a long history of exaggerated genitalia as satire, stretching back to ancient Greek and Roman theater. The subtext is that gay people are here, and can’t — or won’t — be ignored. In this case, Gay Bob uses a mainstream, recognizable form of totem to assert existence.”

Because he was a doll, Gay Bob immediately drew a lot of conservative ire for being aimed at children. According to Byrne, however, children wouldn’t have noticed Bob’s eccentricities with the same ire as adults.

“Children aren’t cognizant of sex and sexuality in the way adults are,” he says. “Kids use dolls to project their individual experiences. A doll or action figure is brought to life by the imagination of a child. For children of traditional doll age, sex and sexuality don’t occur unless there is some kind of trauma or abuse. In other words, the sex part of this goes over the heads of kids, and they’re more likely oblivious to it than not.

Byrne adds that Barbie faced similar criticism for her feminine features. “Barbie’s breasts have been accused of the same level of distortion as Bob’s penis,” Byrne acknowledges. “The traditional Barbie body was criticized as too unrealistic. The fault-finding is unavoidable.”

While Gay Bob was hardly as culturally iconic as Barbie, he gave Ken a run in terms of everything from imagination to accuracy. And whether Gay Bob was viewed as an injection-molded scandal, or a snarky stab at oppression, he meant a lot to a lot of people.

“It’s hard to believe just how dangerous it was to be out when Gay Bob came along,” says Byrne. “You could be fired from your job, denied medical care, rejected by your family and many were. I was lucky; my family did not reject me, but my circle in New York included many people who were written off because they were gay.”

It’s unlikely to ever find Gay Bob in a toy store. Not many have survived, and decent condition dolls fetch just under $200 online. But his impact is still immeasurable. And if anyone stumbles upon one and considers giving the out-and-proud doll to their kids, it serves as a reflection of an adult’s tolerance.

“It’s important to remember that your understanding of something like Gay Bob is undoubtedly much more sophisticated than your child’s. So the behavior you model in response is one of the most powerful ways you can influence your children.”

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I have 2 gay BOB dolls…1 is the original gay BOB and the other is a black male! Anyone know where I can sell ‚em?? They’re only the dolls with no box and only wearing their boxers!

As a doll collector, I’d get those guys appraised and then head off to Ebay… and start a bidding war.

Hi Roxy: Just wondering where in the world do you get such a doll appraised. Have the original Gay Bob doll.

who the hell wants to buy a gay doll ?,,,,,,,,,,,,I wonder about the country of origon

[…] fotos do Bob foram publicadas, originalmente, no TheChive. OUTRAS COISAS QUE VOCÊ VAI CURTIR:BARBIE COMO VOCÊ NUNCA VIU!PRODUTOS VAMPIRESCOS1 CONTRA UMA DO […]

[…] collectctable for yalls kind… Gay Bob doll (8 photos) : theCHIVE […]

I just bought one from my friends mom that has been collecting for years and has only seen two gay bob dolls and now i own one:)

[…] The first openly gay doll, Gay Bob, was launched in 1977. He had a pierced ear and his box was shaped like a […]

[…] The first openly gay doll, Gay Bob, was launched in 1977. He had a pierced ear and his box was shaped like a […]

[…] The first openly gay doll, Gay Bob, was launched in 1977. He had a pierced ear and his box was shaped like a […]

[…] primeiro boneco abertamente gay, Gay Bob, chegou às prateleiras em 1977. Ele tinha um brinco na orelha e vinha numa caixa em forma de […]

[…] The first openly gay doll, Gay Bob, was launched in 1977. He had a pierced ear and his box was shaped like a […]

[…] The first openly gay doll, Gay Bob, was launched in 1977. He had a pierced ear and his box was shaped like a […]

Why would you ever buy one of these, except to sell it laterwhy would anyone even pitch this, its not even close to correct

Who wants a gay doll, type in totem dolls or gay billy doll in ebay and find out, they cost US$250 – US$550 !!, looks like the gays have heaps of money, and style these dolls are hot an so well made

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