written by Mel Melendez photos by Kathy Illera
The unseasonably warm San Francisco breeze filters through the specialty store as hordes of tourists search for the perfect souvenir. "Well for God's sake Myrna, will you look at this," says the Texas matron with the frizzy red curls, too much make-up and chipped, jungle-red nail polish. "It's a gay doll! If that don't beat all," she adds. "No!" gasps Myrna, the brunette wearing skin-tight, silver-studded jeans tucked into white cowgirl boots and large designer eyeglasses with the initials MG displayed in tiny rhinestones on the bottom right lens. She quickly scurries over, hand held to breast, and leans in to read the card on the shelf. "Why it says here he's a-na-to-mi-cal-ly correct," says Myrna. "My Lord Carol, this doll's got a wee-wee." The ladies turn to each other for a second and burst into unbridled laughter. Myrna tries to cover her mouth in a ladylike manner in order to muffle her cries, while Carol leans on a neighboring shelf, as if needing the support to counteract her laughing jag.
The cause of their mirth is Billy, the "World's First Out and Proud Gay Doll." The figurine is quickly capturing hearts from coast to coast, as gays and straights alike snap up the 13-inch doll to the tune of $50. Yes, Billy's here, and he makes GI Joe look like a wuss. But before buying the doll to augment Junior's action-figures collection, please note that Billy is not for children. This doll is anatomically correct. Very anatomically correct.
Masterminded by John McKitterick, Billy comes in four different incarnations: Sailor Billy, Cowboy Billy, Master Billy (the leather daddy) and San Francisco Billy (in cutoffs and politically correct rainbow rings and AIDS-awareness ribbon). The doll is carried by more than 350 stores nationwide, half of which cater to a predominantly straight clientele. In San Francisco, Billy can be found in the Castro district at Does Your Father Know and Under One Roof, a store that donates 100-percent of its profits to Northern California AIDS-services organizations.
Billy stems from fashion drawings created by McKitterick in London. When friends begin to speak of Billy as if he were a real person, the character takes on a life of its own. By 1994, McKitterick and friends decide to make the caricature three-dimensional by creating 1,200 limited edition, hand-cast Billies for a local AIDS benefit in the United Kingdom.
Soon the designer realizes selling a gay product in the mainstream market could help generate interest in gay causes. "Visibility is the key for the gay movement to progress," he says. "Billy contributes to that visibility."
Judging by the media response to Billy, McKitterick might have a point. Jeff Ward, the general manager of Does Your Father Know, has been besieged by newspapers, magazines and television stations who can't seem to get enough of the out, proud gay doll. The store has sold more than 1,000 Billies since the doll's debut in February, many of the sales to heterosexuals, especially doll collectors and tourists. "The response has been phenomenal," Ward says. "People just love him."
Still, while the doll generates a brisk business, more than 45,000 have been sold in the United States in less than six months, not everyone is smitten with Billy. Some members of the gay and lesbian community disown the doll, stating the muscle-bound figurine reinforces gay stereotypes due to its perfect physique and 150-percent endowment.
Carlos Penilla, a graduate student of psychology at San Francisco State University, won't be purchasing the doll anytime soon. "The message it sends out is that unless you're white and buffed, there's no place for you in the gay community," Penilla says. He also resents Billy's overendowed appendage, which he believes feeds into the notion of gays as sexual creatures.
McKitterick stands by Billy's appearance, stating that many gay men do look like the doll and have embraced it. He describes Billy's "look" as commercial, adding there would be little interest in an adult doll that isn't anatomically correct. As for the matter of race, the designer says Billy is gay, European (Dutch) and white, because he's gay, European and white. "It's that simple," he adds with a sigh.
Yet, perhaps in response to those who clamor for a gay doll of color, Billy will soon have a sweetheart, and he's Puerto Rican. Carlos, the second addition to what McKitterick hopes will become a multiracial family of gay dolls, is scheduled to hit stores this month. Although not as buffed as Billy, adult doll collectors need not fret. This doll too is packin'. And due to the designer's attention to detail, Carlos is uncircumcised.
Rumor has it that Billy, the passionate gay-rights activist, meets Carlos, the sensitive artist, in Miami -- South Beach, no doubt -- where the two fall head over heels in love. The relationship is getting serious. The couple plan to spend Christmas with Carlos' family in Puerto Rico and bring in the New Year with Billy's kin in Amsterdam.
Although the lovebirds were recently the toast of the International Gift Fair in San Francisco, it seems clear not everyone will be racing out to purchase the handsome dolls. A search on the internet for materials on Billy produces a slew of Anti-Billy writings where many denounce the "vile" doll for "sexual perverts" with religious-right fervor. Ironically, the very feature which seems to make the doll appealing to many is causing others to take umbrage. But is it specifically the doll's endowment that has some critics up in arms? Ward doesn't think so. "It's not about his endowment; it's about what he represents," he says. "Some people just can't deal with the notion of someone being openly gay and proud." He mentions Earring Magic Ken as a prime example.
In 1993, Mattel takes a stab at modernizing Barbie's main squeeze. Some might say it tried too hard. Maybe it's the doll's foofy mesh shirt, the screaming-lavender vest or the pendant -- which many insist resembles a cock ring -- but Earring Magic Ken is quickly labeled the "Queer Ken." Mattel is not amused. After adamantly denying the doll is gay, the company pulls Earring Magic Ken off the shelves, despite it being the biggest-selling Ken doll in the company's history.
But unlike Earring Magic Ken, Billy seems destined for a long, prosperous run. Totem International, which mass produces the line in the United States, will soon launch Vacation Billy (a dark-haired version of the original), Vacation Carlos (Billy's hotty), and a line of clothing for the couple. In the not-too-distant future the company plans to release an African-American gay doll and a lesbian doll. McKitterick and his cohorts at Totem are thrilled with the response to their creation. They are especially pleased with the phone calls from "sweet, old ladies in the Midwest" who want Billy for their gay sons. "It proves that they're 'getting it'," McKitterick says. "Ultimately Billy is about acceptance. Accept me as an individual, whether I'm a cowboy or a leatherman, gay or straight."
At the specialty store, Myrna and Carol soon recuperate from their laughing bout. "Ya know Myrna they're really kinda cute," Carol says, picking up a doll. "I think I'm gonna get one for Bobby." Myrna does a double-take. "Bobby? Bobby who?" Carol explains. Bobby is her favorite nephew who chose to go to college in California and settled in "las An-ge-lees" where he quickly took up with John, a law student. "The family took it real hard," says Carol, sighing audibly. "But I think I always knew in my heart. He was such a sweet, sensitive child." Myrna smiles warmly and puts her arm expansively around her dear friend, "Let's get 'em the cowboy, so the city slicker don't forget his country roots."