Why America's love affair with The Simpsons is being forced out of the closet
When the actor and stand-up comedian Ellen DeGeneres revealed her homosexuality on her own prime-time television comedy a few years ago, the occasion was seen in Hollywood - and all over America - as a Big Deal.
Little such cultural significance is likely to be read into the outing of one of the principal characters on 'The Simpsons', promised for next season on Sky One. But that doesn't mean fans of the long-running, reliably irreverent cartoon show aren't having a lot of fun working themselves into a speculative frenzy anyway.
The producers have just revealed that they have written a gay marriage storyline for an episode due to be broadcast in January (safely after the presidential election, to minimise any political fallout), and that one of the long-standing characters would finally come out of the closet.
Homer, they said, would become a religious minister by filling out a form on the internet. Springfield, meanwhile, would legalise gay marriage as a way of raising money. Quite where these plot developments would lead has not been revealed, but that hasn't stopped numerous chat forums on the internet devoted to the show from guessing.
Will the notoriously homophobic Homer be forced to preside when one of his friends ties the knot? Will Waylon Smithers, the evil sidekick at Homer's nuclear power plant, finally have his smouldering, if unstated, passion for his boss Mr Burns returned?
Could the gay character be Moe, the bartender, who never had much luck with women? Or Carl or Lenny, Homer's co-workers at the plant? To date, there have been as many guesses as there are characters on the show.
(A lesbian angle is far from ruled out, with Marge Simpson's lovelorn twin sisters, Selma and Patty, leading the sweepstakes.)
All of which probably attests not to the cultural sensitivity of the gay marriage question - divisive though it has been in the US - so much as the cultural vibrancy of 'The Simpsons' itself as it heads into its improbable 16th season.
Surprises have become a hallmark as the show thinks up ways to keep itself fresh. Last season, we were told one of the longstanding characters would be killed off. After a similar flurry of speculation, it turned out to be Maude, wife of Homer's neighbour Ned Flanders. Naturally, Ned is now among the contenders for the role of closet gay.
There was a time, not so long ago, when this kind of storyline would have had the power to shock the forces of puritan America. Not only have times and attitudes changed - thanks, in part, to the likes of Ms DeGeneres - but 'The Simpsons' itself has graduated from an uppity show attracting the opprobrium of cultural conservatives (including Dan Quayle during the 1992 presidential election) to something much more familiar. Its taboo-breaking irreverence has become part of the cultural furniture.
Homosexuality has been a long-running subtext. The obsessive fans who maintain the online Simpsons Archive have listed 90 gay references - everything from "homer-sexual" puns and references to a lesbian bar to guest appearances by Harvey Fierstein and Elton John.
In a 1997 episode called 'Homer's Phobia', a friendship between Homer and a kitsch collector called John (voiced by the kitsch-collecting film director John Waters) turns sour after Homer finds out he is gay and worries about his influence over Bart. Homer, naturally, is made to regret his prejudice after John heroically comes to his rescue. "Well Homer," says John, "I won your respect and all I had to do was save your life. Now, if every gay man could just do the same, you'd be set."
Smithers, with his pink bow-ties and his more-than-sycophantic devotion to his boss, is in a category of his own. Officially he and Mr Burns are "just good friends", but no fan believes that. When Burns, expressing his dislike of dogs, asks him: "Would you like something sniffing around at your crotch?" Smithers replies: "If you were doing it, sir."
Paranoia about Bart's sexuality is a regular theme. In one episode, Homer catches his son and his friend Milhouse playing dress-up in Marge's dressing room. "What's going on?" he asks. "And I want a non-gay explanation!"
In 1999, gay marriages in Hawaii were seen as a tourist attraction. More recently, Homer moved in with a pair of flamboyant housemates in Springfield's gay district and indulged in a same-sex kiss.
The show's creator, Matt Groening, suggested earlier this week that Homer would turn out to be the gay character. The general assumption was that he was joking, but who knows?