Paul Reubens: Why Pee-wee Herman was a hero to the LGBTQ+ community

Members of the LGBTQ+ community are mourning the loss of comedian Paul Reubens, the originator of beloved fictional character, and queer-coded icon, Pee-wee Herman.

Reubens died on 30 July, aged 70, after being diagnosed privately with cancer six years ago.

In a statement shared on social media, his family said that he had “bravely and privately fought cancer for years with his trademark tenacity and wit”.

“A gifted and prolific talent, he will forever live in the comedy pantheon and in our hearts as a treasured friend and man of remarkable character and generosity of spirit,” the tribute continued.

Alongside the statement, his family shared a note directly from Reubens himself, who apologised “for not going public” with his cancer diagnosis, assuring fans that he had “always felt a huge amount of love and respect” from his supporters.

Pee-wee Herman was a flamboyant outsider who made LGBTQ+ people feel seen

Paul Reubens created the Pee-wee Herman character 46 years ago, in 1977.

He quickly built a loyal queer fanbase, thanks to Herman’s odd and out of the box sensibilities. Many LGBTQ+ fans were drawn to the character’s camp and borderline androgynous exterior, and his subtle, queer undertones.

The Pee-wee Herman universe was as wacky and garish as the character himself, and members of the queer community could see themselves in Herman as a flamboyant outsider.

The character originated on stage. HBO developed a television vehicle, The Pee-wee Herman Show, in 1980, which was met with a rapturous response from audiences.

A big-screen adaptation followed in 1985 with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which became Tim Burton’s first big directing role. 

Paul Reubens, 1952-2023.
He was a loner, Dottie. A rebel.
( Pee-wee’s Big Adventure; 1985)

— Marshall Julius (@MarshallJulius) July 31, 2023

The character’s humour, which was originally laced heavily with innuendo, was toned down slightly for children’s TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which aired between 1986 and 1990. It went on to win several Emmy awards.

The 1988 Christmas special of Pee-wee’s Playhouse is still regarded as one of the most silently queer episodes of a “children’s show” to date, featuring guest stars including Grace Jones, Cher, Oprah Winfrey, k.d. Lang, Little Richard and Joan Rivers.

Pee-wee Herman Netflix film was a coming out of sorts

Reubens retired the Pee-wee Herman character until 2010, when it returned to the stage on Broadway and in Los Angeles. However, it wasn’t until 2016 and the release of Netflix’s ​​Pee-wee’s Big Holiday that queer fans felt truly vindicated in their support for the character.

Many saw the film as Herman’s official coming out, as the character befriends and appears to fall for Magic Mike actor Joe Manganiello. The actor convinces Herman to leave his small town of Fairville for the first time, and join him for a birthday party in New York City. At the end, the pair appear to go in search of their happy ever after on the back of Manganiello’s motorbike. 

RIP Paul Reubens.

Here’s an amazing joke with the simplest delivery from Peewee’s Big Holiday that I think about all the time.

— Christian Silva (@SlackHound) July 31, 2023

Tributes to Paul Reubens: ‘Unlike anyone to ever live on this planet’

Following the news of Paul Reubens’ death, queer fans and celebrities have shared emotional tributes in celebration of his life.

“Paul Reubens and Pee-wee were gloriously accepting: everyone was welcome at the Playhouse,” said US writer Paul Rudnick. “Pee-wee is exactly the sort of glorious creature who’d be banned by [Ron] DeSantis and [Mike] Pence. Pee-wee’s joy is the opposite of their vicious queer-baiting and censorship.”

“Paul Ruben is an artist unlike anyone else ever to live on this planet. He created a world where Black people, queer people, strange people were not tokens but actual human beings,” shared another fan.

“Thank you for being a major part of my childhood – I wouldn’t be the queer I am without you and your playhouse,” wrote a third.

RIP Paul Reubens… our yearly tradition of watching the super queer Pee-wee Christmas special will be much more bittersweet now

— Tom Zohar (@TomZohar) July 31, 2023

Pee-wee’s Christmas Special from 1988 is the most under the radar queer shit anyone put on TV with likely 95% of the viewing audience totally unaware. It starts with the Navy Men’s Choir, and then stars Charo, K.D. Lang, Little Richard, Joan Rivers, CHER, & Grace fuckin’ Jones

— Eric Ansley Diaz (@GeekBoyEric) August 1, 2023

Paul Reubens and Pee-wee were gloriously accepting: everyone was welcome at the Playhouse. Pee-wee is exactly the sort of glorious creature who’d be banned by DeSantis and Pence. Pee-wee’s joy is the opposite of their vicious queer-baiting and censorship

— Paul Rudnick (@PaulRudnickNY) July 31, 2023

Pokerface actress Natasha Lyonne, who scored her first on-screen role as Opal in Pee-wee’s Playhouse in 1986, led tributes, writing on Twitter: “Love you so much, Paul. One in all time. Thank you for my career and your forever friendship all these years and for teaching us what a true original is.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 8 oddball Jimbo simply shared that Paul Reubens would “forever live in the playhouse in our hearts,” while Drag Race judge Michelle Visage honoured Reubens as a “loner, a rebel, a one in a million” who “brought joy” to her younger self.

i honestly still can’t believe something as weird and queer and specific and glorious as pee-wee’s christmas special aired on national tv, you could put it on tv tonight and it would still look absolutely fuckin wild, what a legend

— Kathryn VanArendonk (@kvanaren) July 31, 2023

Damn. This one really hurts. I can’t begin to convey how groundbreaking—in terms of style, humor, and inclusion—this man was. In a decade when being a “nerd”—let alone a vaguely queer one—was far from the badge of honor it is today. RIP to a true original.

— Leon Chase (@Leon__Chase) July 31, 2023

RIP Pee-wee Herman. A pioneer for all queer neurodivergent people

— billion dollar patrick (@thebodypatrick) July 31, 2023

Between Paul Reubens + Sinead O’Connor, we just lost 2 phenomenal performers who did normal human things the public didn’t like + banished them from the industry. There’s no way that didnt shorten their lives AND we lost so much art. RIP, and fuck everyone who stood in their way.

— Lane Moore (@hellolanemoore) July 31, 2023

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