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A History of Lesbians on TV

Lesbians loving on the small screen

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Lesbians on TV: A brief history

Thanks to Showtime’s The L Word, lesbians finally have a permanent place on TV. For years, it was rare to see any gay or lesbians characters, especially as regulars on a show. In 1977 Billy Crystal played a gay man on the show Soap, but it isn’t until 1991 that a bisexual woman appeared on L.A. Law.

Recently, networks have run shows with girl-girl kisses to increase ratings. For example, in 2001 Jennifer Aniston and Winona Ryder kissed on Friends during Sweeps week. Seeing two straight women kiss is good for ratings. Think about how much hype the Madonna and Britney Spears smooch received.

Here’s a rundown on the history of lesbians on Television.

The first regular lesbian character on TV show was in 1988. A short-lived medical series, Heartbeat, featured a lesbian nurse (Gail Strickland) who lived with her lover (Gina Hecht).

It wasn’t until 1991 that the small screen saw it’s first lesbian kiss. Amanda Donohoe played C.J., a bisexual lawyer on L.A. Law who kissed a female colleague on the lips. Religious and right-wing groups were up in arms.

It took two more years for the next Sapphic smooch. Even more controversial because it involved teenagers, in 1993 Picket Fences featured a kiss between two girls in a show that took an honest look at homophobia and adolescence.

A year later, in 1994, Rosanne Barr kissed Mariel Hemingway on her sit-com Rosanne. Rosanne, a gay rights advocate, fought with Network executives who wanted to cancel the episode.

In January 1996, viewers of Friends saw the first televised lesbian wedding when Ross’s ex-wife Carol married her lover Susan. Ross struggles with his feelings about losing his wife to a woman, but ultimately when Carol’s parents refuse to attend, Ross walks her down the aisle.

TV’s biggest lesbian moment had to be the Ellen show’s Puppy Episode on April 30, 1997. In the much-touted episode, Ellen’s character, Ellen Morgan, comes out of the closet along with the real Ellen DeGeneres. Guest stars included kd lang, Demi Moore, Laura Dern, as Ellen’s love interest, Melissa Etheridge, Oprah Winfrey, Gina Gershon, Dwight Yoakam and Billy Bob Thornton.

Perhaps due to the controversy and Ellen’s drop in ratings, there was a lesbian dry spell for a number of years. Finally in 1999 Party of Five, brought girl-girl attraction back to the screen with Neve Campbell’s character. After leaving an abusive relationship with a man, Julia takes up with and older lesbian writer.

In 1999 on Ally McBeal, Calista Flockhart and Lucy Liu lock lips on the Fox show’s blatant attempt to boost ratings.

In December 2000, Queer as Folk premiered on Showtime. Amongst all the boy-boy action, lesbian couple Melanie and Lindsay, have a pretty active sex life of their own.

2001 saw more girl-girl action than the previous ten years combined. Buffy the Vampire Slayer broke new ground with by developing a relationship between lesbian witches Willow and Tara. The unique thing about Buffy was that the lesbian characters remained on the show and weren’t just hyped for their first on screen kiss.

Also in 2001, we see Sapphic moments on Friends, with Jennifer Aniston and Winona Ryder and Lisa Kudrow, on Dark Angel, Grosse Pointe, 24, Spin City and ER, when Dr. Kerry Weaver comes out of the closet.

In the years that follow, lesbians appear more and more on TV. From the cop shows Fastlane and The Wire to The Simpsons and All My Children, lesbians on TV are here to stay. Although Rosie O’Donnell waited until her talk show ended to come out in 2002 on Diane Sawyer, Ellen DeGeneres’s show is one of the most popular talk shows on television now and she is about as out as you can get. Her show was nominated for a record 12 Emmy awards.

Of course, the real ground breaker is Showtime’s The L Word, where lesbians are not just relegated to sweeps boosting sub-plots, but where lesbians and their lives and loves are portrayed front and center, every week in an honest, and somewhat realistic fashion.

Sources: Curve Magazine, The Prime Time Closet : A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV by Stephen Tropiano.

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