All we have to do is look back in TV history to see that there were very few past Lesbian TV show characters on TV. It has only been the past decade or less that this seems to finally be changing.
I remember growing up watching TV and while questioning my own identity I looked for any female character that was DIFFERENT that I could relate to. Sadly, there really wasn’t many, if any to be seen. The ones we did see in the beginning, were just snippets of a character. Luckily now, more and more they are writing female characters into the script that are play Lesbian characters. I am going to share some past Lesbian characters of the 80s, 90s and 2000’s on TV to give you an idea how far we have come.
Anyone that follows my blog knows that I was born in the 70s but was a teenage in the 80s. Back in the 80s, watching TV was just becoming a huge thing. Cable was the newest and greatest development for TV. People were super excited about the chance to watch a ton more shows than they ever had before cable. It really changed everything.
We all loved to watch TV. We had come from a small town, and to convince us to move to the big city my dad promised us that we would get cable. Call it a bribe if you will, but he did get us cable.
We officially got cable in the early 80s and POOF my life changed forever. HAHA!
St. Elsewhere 1984
The first time I remember seeing a female character on TV that was portrayed as gay was on St. Elsewhere in 1984. The episode was called “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. In the episode, one of the female doctors asked a medical researcher that was visiting to stay with her. Of course, in true dramatic fashion, the visiting researcher came out as gay and the doctor was so uncomfortable about it decided to tell the entire hospital. The entire hospital was in shock. In true TV fashion she eventually apologizes, and the situation was smoothed over. Still, a very memorable episode.
Golden Girls 1986
Jump ahead 2 years to the TV show the Golden Girls. One of my all-time favourite shows, even today. On the episode called “Isn’t It Romantic” the show took its stab at a gay character. I remember what a big deal it was when Dorothy’s friend Jean came to visit after her partner died. Dorothy knew that Jean was gay but decided not to tell the other ladies.
Well as you can imagine the story took a turn when Jean after spending all her time with Rose realized that she had feelings for her, that were more than just friends. She decided to confide her feeling for Rose to Dorothy. Once the cat was out of the bag, and Blanche grasped that a Lesbian was not the same as being Lebanese, the ladies decided to tell Rose. When Rose found out, she was of course a bit confused, but over-all the show handled Jean’s outing very tastefully and of course with a bit of humor. All was well once again in Golden Girls land.
That same year, on the TV show Hunter, there was an episode called “From San Francisco With Love”. In the episode, Hunter was investigating a double murder of a millionaire and his son. Throughout the investigation he was partnered up with a Detective named Valerie Foster. After doing some great detective work and following his instincts, it wasn’t long before Hunter realized that Valerie was in on it. She was so involved actually that he found she responsible for plotting the whole thing. The 2 murders were a plot with the wife Casey, who she was sleeping with. In true Hunter fashion, he broke the case and got his man, or women should I say!
As you can see the 80s TV shows had a few Lesbian characters on them, not many but a few main shows. To be honest there were far more gay men on TV than women.
In the 90s on TV, there were a few more Lesbian characters on TV. Some were the token 1 episode and done, but magically the 90s did manage to have a few big shows that had characters that made it more than just one episode.
Northern Exposure 1991
The show Northern Exposure did an episode called “What I Did for Love”. In this episode, it was discovered that the 2 founding members of their little northern town were actually Lesbians. Their names were Cicely and Roslyn who in the early 1900s moved from Montana to Alaska in hopes of hiding their sexuality. This story line actually made another appearance in the 1992 episode called “Cicely” throw flashbacks of Cicely’s story. The northern town was rocked to the core just imaging how their town came to be.
All Roseanne fans will remember the episode “Ladies Choice” in 1992 when Roseanne’s friend Nancy Thomas played by Sandra Bernhard came out to Roseanne and Jackie as a Lesbian. On top of that, she shared that she was in a relationship with their friend Marla played by Morgan Fairchild. The conversation between Jackie and Roseanne went something like:
- Jackie: Nancy’s gay? Who would’ve thought? She was married to Arnie.
- Roseanne: That explains it, being married to Arnie would make any woman gay.
Their interaction was a way to tackle this issue with humor. Nancy was their friend and the fact that they were initially shocked by Nancy coming out in the end was not something that either one of them had a problem with. Sandra Bernhard playing the character of Nancy did pop back up in quite a few episodes throughout the years. This was really one of the first times that we saw a reoccurring Lesbian role on a mainstream TV show.
The trend of Lesbian characters showing up on sitcoms continued on Seinfeld in the episode “The Smelly Car” in 1993. On this episode, George and Kramer are in a video store when they see one of George’s ex-girlfriend Susan holding hands with another girl. George goes to talk to Susan, and she informs them him that she became a Lesbian right after their breakup. George being George than internalized the entire situation into thinking that he turned Susan gay. In order to satisfy his own internal turmoil, he tries to win Susan back in the episode just to prove to himself that she really isn’t gay.
Xena Warrior Princess 1995
Next up for the 90s was Xena Warrior Princess. This hit show ran for 6 seasons ending in 2001. For a hit show, this was the first time that we got an inkling that a full-time character on the show might be gay. Not a supporting character like in the other shows. Gabriel was a travelling companion of Xena on the show and throughout the beginning of the show they alluded to the fact that Gabriel was a Lesbian. It took a few years, but the show did imply that Xena felt the same way and that the two had a relationship. They loved and respected each other throughout the entire show and in the end that was what brought them together.
Everybody remembers where they were when the sit-com TV show Ellen made the biggest Lesbian splash on TV. The character Ellen was played by Ellen DeGeneres. To keep things quiet, the show titled the 2-part episodes as “The Puppy Episodes”. Simply done because they didn’t want people finding out what the show was about to do. In the first episode, Ellen is out having lunch with her reporter friend Richard when his producer Susan played by Laura Dern joins them. After supper, Ellen runs into Susan in the hotel at which time Susan tells Ellen that
she is a Lesbian and that she thinks Ellen maybe one too. In order to prove Susan wrong, Ellen decides she is going to sleep with Richard.
The next day though while talking to her therapist, comes clean and says that she didn’t actually sleep with Richard. Her therapist asks her if she has ever had a real connection with anyone before and Ellen admits yes with Susan. She quickly runs to the airport to meet Susan before she leaves. Then inadvertently she blurts out over the loudspeaker that yes Susan was right and that she was gay.
By the time, the 2000s rolled around, Lesbian TV characters had come quite far from the 80s and 90s. Still, though it wasn’t common practice to have a main character on a show that was portrayed as an out Lesbian. By the end of the 2000’s though, the tide definitely shifted in the right direction. The journey to get there was a terribly slow journey and sadly for some actresses almost career ending.
The L Word 2004
The L Word was the first time that I saw a show that 100% focuses on Lesbians. Almost every single main character on that show was a Lesbian. The show followed a group of 5 Lesbian friends that lived in LA. It focused on their friendships, their romantic lives including dating and being in a long-term same sex relationship. This was the first time that we ever saw this open and honest look at the lives of Lesbians.
No stone was unturned on that show. They pushed boundaries every episode and it was unlike any show EVER on TV. After the first season of the show, the ratings and accolades were incredible. It was so popular in fact that the show stayed on the air for 6 seasons. Watching Bette, Tina, Alice, Shane, and Dana go through their lives was an absolute pleasure to watch.
I even remember straight people watching the show, just because it was so well done and such good TV.
With shows like the L Word premiering 5 years earlier and ending in 2009, TV was forever changed. With that momentum for this type of programming now more mainstream on TV, Glee debuted in September of that year. This show managed to capture a much more youthful cast of people that were still in high school. Much of the show included a ton of singing and dancing in the Glee Club environment.
Since the success of the L Word the show was able to portray teenage girls that were Lesbian in a very well-informed and thoughtful way. It truly made the idea that they were gay completely irrelevant. The success of the show was quickly undeniable. People everywhere were becoming “GLEEKS” as they were called, and patiently waiting for each new episode to air. With 6 amazing seasons of TV, the show ended in 2015.
Lesbian TV Roundup
You can see over the decades, how past Lesbian TV characters started as a trickle with small supporting cast roles and built up over the decades to a full-on TV main character. Sadly though, TV and the public still wasn’t ready for a main Lesbian character to be on TV. That was until Glee came out in 2009 and pulled the covers off the big Lesbian phobia. This show took gay characters on TV to a whole new level. The immense success of the show 100% contributed to how TV shows treat Lesbian characters to date.
Without the huge success of Glee and how well-received the public received all of its characters gay or straight is a show that all the LGBTQ community should be thanking.
Although there were many other TV shows that managed to portray a Lesbian character on TV, these examples were some of the ones that stood out the most to me in my life.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my post about the history of Lesbians on TV. I would love to hear from you, just simply drop me a comment below.