I Still Can’t Believe is a TV Team series where we remember the things happened on television that baffle us — in good and bad ways — to this very day.
Seven months after coming out to myself, I posted a personal history of trans representation on Tumblr. The list ranged from serial killers to cruel jokes to pitiful attempts at Oscar bait. It ended with The Danish Girl and it began with Friends.
Friends is a boring show to talk about. The conversations that needed to happen have already happened. We all know about its transphobia and its homophobia and how it’s a rip-off of Living Single. Anyone who chooses to revisit its world of 90s heteronormative whiteness has come to terms with the compromises or prefers to live in ignorance.
I am not here to lament the first example of a trans woman I saw on screen. I’m not here to discuss “Chandler’s dad” played by Kathleen Turner who was a punchline again and again and again. I’m not here to unpack the ways that shaped my views of transness and kept me in the closet. I don’t care about her. She wasn’t a person to me. The show did its job to ensure as much. Friends was the first time I saw my transness on TV, but it wasn’t Chandler’s dad — it was Chandler.
My family loved Friends. They loved it so much that starting in season nine — when I was only eight years old — I was allowed to watch it with them. Being my media-obsessed self even back then, I did not settle for inclusion in family viewing night. I needed to catch up. I needed to start from the beginning. I needed to know everything. My family took a lot of road trips and that year my parents bought my sister and I a portable DVD player. I picked out the first season DVD box set at Tower Records and my fixation began.
We sped through the first season and I begged for more. By the time the show’s tenth and final season began, I owned the first nine on DVD and had watched every episode twice. Friends taught me about sex and so much more. It became my comfort show — something that felt sophisticated while being family friendly in the most literal sense. When I got a TV in my room I began cycling the DVD sets through my dreams. White noise with a laugh track.
I haven’t watched Friends with any consistency in a decade and yet I can still recite scenes by memory. Sometimes I’ll think of a sentence in a certain tone and wonder where it comes from and embarrass myself when someone tells me I’m quoting Friends. But there’s one line that twisted its way through my brain stickier than the rest. It occurs less than three minutes into the series.
Ross has entered the group’s coffee house hangout with his soon-to-be signature “Hi.” He’s depressed because his wife Carol has just moved out. Like all Carols, she realized she was a lesbian. Joey asks if Ross really didn’t know and Ross is incredulous. “Why does everyone keep fixating on that?” he whines. “She didn’t know. How should I know?”
Cue laugh track. Cut to the wide shot. Chandler, feet on the table, eyes staying on a magazine, says, “Sometimes I wish I was a lesbian.” Everyone looks at him. Titters on the laugh track. He lifts his head and we go to a close up. “Did I say that out loud?” Laughter erupts.
The first time I read an article about how Friends was actually homophobic and that meant it was actually bad and that actually we should all hate it, this line was included. I was horrified. I wanted so badly to be a good ally to women and gay people — I was literally in college on a scholarship for queer activism — and yet apparently this line that had meant so much to me was homophobic. I didn’t understand why.
I knew it was inappropriate to walk around announcing that I wished I was a lesbian, but privately I felt like this wish from Chandler signaled a version of masculinity I could comprehend. Three minutes into the show I understood this character more than I’d ever understood a character and throughout the ten seasons I felt comforted by his awkwardness and softness and how everyone thought he was gay. I felt so confused in myself and here was a character who felt similarly confused. Here was a character introduced by expressing my greatest desire — everything would make sense if only I was a lesbian. Just don’t say it out loud.
The week before moving into my first real apartment, my first real girlfriend and I broke up. She was studying abroad and we’d made the smart choice to not try long distance. I sobbed into my friend’s air mattress. All I wanted was to meet a girl and fall in love and get married. All I wanted was someone to project my gender feelings onto. I’d come the closest I ever had and now she was gone. The thought of being single, of random hook ups, of normal college exploration, all felt miserable to me. I didn’t want it.
One morning, while we were eating breakfast, my friend’s lesbian roommate came home from a night out. As she recounted her wild evening, gluey oatmeal slid down my throat in thuds. Every word she said made me ache. Her story that involved a date, an ex, a threesome, and car sex, did not titillate me — it haunted me. I had no interest in having those kinds of experiences as myself. But as a lesbian? It was all I wanted. I must’ve looked upset, because my friend swooped in and told her about my break up. “You must be devastated,” she said. “Your girlfriend was so hot.” My mood shifted immediately. My ex was lesbian-approved. That would have to be enough. Three days letter my ex reached out begging to get back together. She didn’t have to beg. I’d already been convinced.
I brought up the roommate’s story months later to my friend. I asked if they remembered that moment in the pilot of Friends when Chandler says that he wishes he was a lesbian. My friend said yes. I asked if they knew why it was homophobic. My friend said no. In fact, they’d always liked that line too. At the time, they also identified as a straight man. They don’t anymore.
I don’t think Chandler Bing was a trans woman. I’m not going to give that to a character and a writing staff so explicitly transphobic. But I sure wish she was. When a character we don’t know is mocked, we are told that character exists for mocking. We do not want to be that character. But when a character we know says something unexpected, we listen. We may laugh, but we listen. They’re a person and we think maybe we can be that kind of person. If only we saw more kinds of people. If only I knew Chandler’s wish didn’t have to be a secret. If only I knew it could be my reality.