When Mary Tyler Moore passed away last week, I felt the loss in a deeply personal way that I couldn’t explain to myself at first. I watched the outpouring of grief on TV and social media, and saw how it divided along gender lines—women talked about how her character of Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a beloved role model, the first female in a hit TV series who didn’t need a boyfriend or husband to make her feel successful or complete; men spoke of how she was the kind of plucky but utterly lovely woman they would love to love. But a different male response, one that mirrored my own, seemed to be missing.
As a gay man who came out at age 16 in 1971, the start of her show coincided with those strange, wonderful, and challenging years of living the truth of who I was. Back in those years, being gay was still classified as a mental illness, and the picture that was painted by the hit 1968 play The Boys in the Band was grim: if you were homosexual you were destined to live a self-loathing life of quips and one-night stands.
I wanted something different, and, in a strange way, Mary Richards became my role model. Since marriage between men was not even dreamed of in those Dark Ages, I felt I would probably live alone (like Mary.) But she taught me something profoundly important: that, as an adult, your friends can become your family of choice. If I was going to live alone I wanted to know that I could have a circle of friends like she had that would sustain me through the best and worst of times. It wasn’t that my parents were unsupportive (given the times, they were amazingly accepting) but I knew that if I was going to move away, I was going to need help if I was “gonna make it on my own.”
Watching Mary share her life with Rhoda, Lou, Murray, Phyllis, Georgette, and even Sue Ann and Ted gave me hope that I could have that kind of family of friends as an adult, too. It wasn’t something I saw on the TV shows that starred men—the single men in most hit series were either spies who succeeded at impossible missions or cops or a swinging faux-gay straight guy Three’s Company or The Incredible Hulk. There were also divorcees living together The Odd Couple or the doctors and staff M*A*S*H-ing it up during the Korean War. But I didn’t see any young professional who, like “Mar,” actively cultivated a close circle of friends, going to them for support, wisdom, laughter, or a shoulder to cry on. Come to think of it, I didn’t see many single men cry on TV. So, Mary Richards was my patron saint of single living. She taught me what it would feel like to dish with a pal or how it was okay to turn to your friends when your heart was breaking. I even learned that I could throw bad parties and my friends would still love me.
When I moved to New York to pursue a career in publishing, the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song Love Is All Around followed me there. Just like Mary, I wondered how I would “make it on my own.” And when I got my first job in publishing, I thought, “You might just make it after all.” And because of the friends who became like family to me, I did.
When Mary Tyler Moore died I lost the person who gave me comfort and joy as a young gay man. It wasn’t just that Mary Richards represented a single woman making it on her own in the workplace (as she did for many women) or an idealized kind of sweetheart-next-door (as she did for many men). She taught me that you could love your life even if you didn’t have a husband. If you had good friends, you were going to be okay. I followed her example and today I’m blessed to have a close-knit group of friends I love dearly. I may be single but I don’t feel alone.
Thanks, Mary Richards. I will miss you.
Photo: Youtube/Samuel Bolton