Very Special Gay Episode: In 1986, Golden Girls Created the Most Enduring Lesbian Joke on Television

Welcome to Very Special Gay Episode, a fun little series where we recap of standalone lesbian episodes from classic TV shows that are not otherwise necessarily gay. In this installment, we will discuss Golden Girls Season Two, Episode Five: “Isn’t It Romantic?”


I didn’t really start watching Golden Girls until Betty White died. I mean, I am gay, so I knew enough to get along. I had the basic rubric covered, if you will: all the words to the theme song, that Blanche is… let’s say, sex positive, Sophia’s snark is legendary, Rose is ditzy and Dorothy has the all the quotable one-liners.

This is redundant to say about what’s considered one of the greatest sitcoms ever created, but I’ve been stunned — and I mean just straight up floored! — by how tight the jokes are in Golden Girls. Every refrain is a one-two punch. Watching it this month, I could barely recover from my first laugh when the next came barreling in, either a light cackled Huh or a straight up fucking screammmm. It’s also infinitely comforting — right from the earliest chords of “Thank You for Being a Friend,” which again, yes, I am the last one to the party here. I know it. Don’t judge me.

But not knowing Golden Girls isn’t the same as being lost to its looming legacy, right? I first heard the infamous “Lebanese joke” when Santana Lopez came out on Glee a decade ago. Her future girlfriend and wife, Brittany, knew but the rest of the Glee Club didn’t yet. So when everyone went to perform Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” proudly wearing black-and-white t-shits declaring what made them different, Britney makes a shirt for Santana that says “Lebanese” — Santana’s confused, “I’m Hispanic.”

More than a decade before that, when Ellen pretty much changed gay television as we know it (and it’s sad where we are with Ellen now, but it’s still true), she joked on the The Rosie O’Donnell Show in ’96 about coming out as “Lebanese”, even though neither comedian was out yet.

So that brings us back to Golden Girls because 10 years before Ellen, 25 years before Santana (and if you’re keeping track — 35 years from today), Blanche Devereaux launched the joke that just will not die.

Because you see, all the way in 1986 Dorothy had a gay friend. That gay friend was Jean, who as Sophia correctly clocked back when the girls were in college — is a lesbiannnnn. Le gasp!

To quote Sophia, “Jean is a nice person. She happens to like girls instead of guys. Some people like cats instead of dogs. Frankly, I’d rather live with a lesbian than a cat… unless the lesbian sheds, that I don’t know!” (Is announcing your lesbian character with a cat joke a bit stereotypical? Sure, but we’re still making cat jokes now in 2022. This is 1986! When cat jokes were fresh! 10 out of 10. No notes.)

A Blonde woman in the 1980s in a multicolored robe

(Did I mention that Jean the lesbian is hot? It matters that she’s hot.)

So Jean was married to Pat, who’s recently passed on. The other women in the house have been assuming that Pat was a man and Dorothy’s been unsure about what to say.

Jean tells her that she’s fine with being a lesbian, “I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of who I am” and that if the roommates can handle it, “I’d prefer to tell them” — that is until Rose comes out, right on time as always, with Clown Sundaes, complete with raisins for eyes and ice cream cones turned upside down as party hats. If this had been me that obviously gay sundae would’ve only been more reason to drop the news, but Pat worries that The L Word will just be a little bit too much… so they decide to keep it to themselves.

Blanche: “Dorothy has told us so much about you, I feel as if we’re bosom buddies.”
Dorothy, to Sophia: “Ma, not a word.”’

WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT THOSE TIGHT ONE-TWO QUIPS. What. Did. I. Say!!!! Ok moving on.

When Rose tells story of growing up in Saint Olaf (it’s always Saint Olaf) and her dairy cow, it’s not hard to see right away — Jean’s smitten. Soon they’re regular lunch dates during Jean’s time together and really “hitting it off” according to Blanche.

In fact, Jean decides she’s needs to leave early. Dorothy worries that something serious has happened back home. And no, it’s not “back home” but damn it is serious. Jean thinks she’s falling in love with Rose. Jean hasn’t felt this way since Pat died. Alright, so record scratch —

How long has Jean been in the house? A week MAX? And already she’s in love with Rose, a woman she certainly hasn’t known more than 7 days. But also we’re talking about lesbians here. So sure, that tracks. Back to the show —

Wrestling with Jean’s news, Dorothy can’t sleep, she wakes Sophia up.

Dorothy: “How would you react if you were told one of your kids were gay?”
Sophia: “Your brother Phil is gay? I knew it! When he was a kid we couldn’t keep him away from those Gladiator movies.”
Dorothy: “Ma, Phil is not gay.”
Sophia: “You mean you’re gay? What your friend Jean is having some sort of membership drive?”
Dorothy: “Ma..”
Sophia: “Dorothy, I know you don’t get many dates, but stick with what you know! At your age, it’s very hard to break into something new. Goodnight.”
Dorothy: “Ma, I am not gay. I just wanted to get your reaction.”
Sophia: “I’ll tell you the truth Dorothy, if one of my kids were gay, I wouldn’t love him one bit less. I would wish him all the happiness in the world.”

And yes it was necessary that I transcribed that entire conversation!! I don’t know that I’ll always take long deep dives into the historical context of these Very Special Episodes that we look at in this lil time capsule of my creation, but the pronoun switch (going from Jean, a lesbian, to Sophia’s hypothetical son) is definitely on purpose. Not to over simplify things, but we all know what’s happening with gay men in 1986, right? We get what’s happening here, what our government wasn’t doing (still isn’t) and which vulnerable populations they absolutely weren’t taking care of. Oh and hey — guess what, in 1986 Golden Girls was a Top Five most watched show in America. Sophia making this statement, at this moment? Not a coincidence.

So Dorothy tells Sophia that Jean’s in love with Rose, which is absolutely preposterous because… Rose is Rose, so they both start laughing so loud it wakes Blanche up, too. And that leads us! To the moment we’ve been waiting for!

Blanche: “What is going on?”
Sophie and Dorthy, in unison: “Nothing!”
Blanche: “Come on, I heard you laughing. What’s so funny?”
Sophia: “For starters, Jean is a lesbian.”
Blanche: “What’s funny about that?”
Sophia: “You aren’t surprised?”
Blanche: “Of course not! I mean, I haven’t known any personally, but isn’t Danny Thomas one?”
Dorothy: “Not Lebanese, Blanche! LES-BIA-N.
Blanche: Lesbian. Lesbian. (gasps) LESBIAN.

Dorothy and Sophia are in bed, Dorothy tells Blanche: "Not Lesbian, Blanche"

Blanche looks confused in a nightgown as she ponders the word "lesbian"

(If we were really gonna go there with our queer analysis on this Sunday morning, we’d talk about how this exchange happens in bed. But I have pancakes to eat. So moving on.)

From here things wrap up more or less as you’d expect. Jean eventually comes out to Rose. Rose, much like everyone else, takes the news with love and compassion that should be corny but somehow isn’t. Everyone fits in one last laugh (Dorothy and Blanche crouched outside the kitchen window to hear what’s going on) to wrap up… drumroll.. our Very Special Gay Episode!

OK, Is It Worth It? In addition to the whole birthing a 35 year old lesbian joke thing, for this episode Terry Hughes actually won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing of a Comedy, along with Emmy nominations for Jefrey Duteil (writing), Betty White (of course), and Lois Nettleton (Jean, for Outstanding Guest Performer in a Comedy). We’re talking elite shit. 10/10, Would do it again.


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Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 515 articles for us.

50 Comments

  1. I watched it when I was younger but I’m rewatching it. They address LBGTQ+ topics a lot more than you would think.

    Matt Baume did a YouTube video on Gay Men relationship with Golden Girls that I found interesting. It talks a bit about the relationship the women had to the LGBTQ+ community outside of the show.

    Golden Girls truly has some amazing writing and I still laugh and cry as I watch it.

    • Here in Australia they would play episodes of the golden girls on the big screen at our local gay men’s pub/bar, the exchange hotel in Melbourne. That was back in the 1980, I was still a teenager then and 50 now. Thankyou for reminding me of what memories I had forgotten.

  2. I was 6 years old when this episode aired. I remember watching TGG growing up and laughing but not really knowing the significance. Throughout the years, I continued re-watching the show, I mean c’mon, I hate the news so from 8-10 it’s TGG on while I work (shhh). Lol.

    It never gets old. Never. It’s seriously one of the funniest and most relevant comedies ever written. It will never age because as a society we haven’t aged out of the same issues that have plagued us from our nation’s birth. I loved those women. I still do. Always will. They were like family and now they’re all gone. I hope they knew the impact they had on so many, and that many of us will forever thank them for being a friend.

  3. For the record, would totally be here for a Carmen-watches-Golden-Girls regular feature. So many gay moments to discover!

    I’ve seen every episode dozens of times, literally, and still find so much joy in the writing and acting. So sharp to still be so funny. If I had only one show to watch the rest of my life, it would absolutely be Golden Girls.

    Love the episode, loved the recap!

  4. I went to a queer conference a few years back that had a Golden Girls panel! We talked about camp and history ans watched this episode specifically.

    Best moment is being in a room full of gays singing along to the Golden Girls theme song

  5. Hey Carmen! I just wanted to say say how much I loved your hilarious analysis right here. I grew up with the golden girls and haven’t seen this episode in years but it was one of the first times I was exposed to anything remotely lesbian on television and Damn I forgot how good it was.
    Thanks for the laugh. (I hope you enjoy those pancakes.)

    • Oh yeah. I forgot how much I used to watch Designing Women and the golden girls as a kid. Both were shows that had way more positive gay representation (from what I remember anyway) than I would have expected given the settings.

  6. this lebanese/lesbian mixup ALSO happens in Bend It Like Beckham. . . which is the first and only place i’ve actually seen it – i had no idea it’s a running thing! (right after another excellent line, “get your lesbian feet out of my shoes!”)

  7. This episode is one of my favourite episodes of TV, period. The jokes are pure fire, the Lebanaese vs Lesbian joke will never be old. I do declare. Blanche getting angry at Jean for being into Rose instead of being into her is hilarious. Sophia’s love for Jean and her statement about loving her potentially gay children is beautiful (and her reaction to Dorothy potentially being gay is hilarious). My favourite moment is that short, tender moment when Rose talks about how difficult it was after her husband died, and you have that short shot of Jean mourning the loss of her wife and the pain she feels. It’s a blink and you miss it moment, but the love and compassion this episode shows Jean is so wonderful. Even after Rose realizes what’s going on, she still wants to be friends with Jean and loves her just the same.

    People who might criticize the jokes are missing the point. Like you said, this was all going on during the AIDS crisis. Lesbians weren’t shown on TV at all except for a punch line, and in this episode, Jean is shown as being a wonderful person who is almost completely out (which hello, it’s the freaking 80s!), a very dear friend of Dorothy, loved by Sophia, and completely accepted by all of the Golden Girls. I love the Golden Girls and I rewatch this episode a few times a year because I love it so much.

  8. oooo, if you’re doing a series on standalone gay episodes in old tv shows, can you do Rejoined from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (season 4, episode 5)? it’s *so gay* and *so good*. I saw it for the first time last year, and honestly, if it had aired today, it would still be a good episode of tv

    • Carmen, not sure why you didn’t just play a clip of the setup and the joke, but I guess you’re explaining it to the ‘kids’ who have never seen the show.

      Jean was played by the great Lois Nettleton, not “Loise”.

    • Yes! I was about to comment how it’s a theory that when Janice and Regina were bffs in 8th grade and the whole lesbian thing went down, it was because Regina confused Lebanese for Lesbian when Janice told her about her Lebanese heritage.

  9. The funniest part after Blanche discovers that Jean is a lesbian, not Lebanese, is when she is truly offended that she chose Rose over Blanche!

    There are also some episodes where Blanche is in denial over her brother being gay.

    I love the GG, they don’t hit you over the head with stuff, and it’s much funnier than most of the stuff today. I also like Frasier for the same reason

  10. The Golden Girls is such a great show, and it’s held up pretty well. They also just deal with the realities of being older woman, worrying about money, dating, it’s really great. My friend and I will watch the marathons and text each other our favorite lines.

  11. Also used on Dickinson. I’d say Vinnie’s response to Sylvia Plath — “No she’s American!” — when Plath says Emily was a lesbian, is also a throwback to this GG episode. I’ve not seen this mentioned anywhere, but as soon as I saw that scene on Dickinson, I immediately thought of this brilliant, classic GG scene, which I watch 3-4 times a year and STILL laugh.

  12. I’m going to take this thread back to the 1930s. According to Hollywood legend,the movie producer and master of malapropisms Samuel Goldwyn had bought the film rights to “The Well of Loneliness,” and when one of his minions told him that the story couldn’t be filmed because it was about lesbians, he reportedly replied: “That’s all right, we’ll make them Hungarians (or as sometimes told “Americans”).” The same story was told about the 1934 rights to “The Children’s Hour” with the response “That’s okay; we’ll turn them into Armenians.”

  13. I was in my 20s when this show was broadcast, and it was so fun to watch the show in a bar full of raucous gay guys on a “Golden Girls Night.”

    Estelle Getty (Sophia) was an early and fervent supporter of AIDS charities. As an actor in the NY theatre community, she saw the early days of the epidemic firsthand. Later, she helped found an AIDS hospice.

    TGG gets slammed sometimes today. I’ve met CIS-women and people who are non-binary who hate its stereotypes, as well gay men who wince at its cliches. I think it’s hard to grasp how much things have changed,and how quickly, unless you’ve lived it. I was in my 20s when the Supreme Court decision Hardwick v. Georgia said it was OK for states to criminalize homosexual acts. (TGG was in its 2nd season at this time.) I was in my 40s when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in all states. To see those two things happen in one lifetime is incredible. We’ve gone from The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name to national news stories that begin “Jim Parsons and his husband have long been animal right supporters…”

    The ground-breaking storylines of TGG aren’t surprising when you look at the actors’ personal lives.
    Betty White was the first woman to create, produce and star in a TV show, long before Lucy. Beaa Arthur’s rMaudew was 11st broadcast to discuss alegal abortion. Rue McClanahan (Blanche) was running her own successful dance studio by 16e,Ewhen women pcouldnt have na bank aLoan. Gettyi worked in
    an office and
    parented rkids anda uditioned .She starred in “Torch Song Trilogy” when many women of her age and social status barely could say “gay.”

    Although most of the writers and producers and all of the directors of TGG were men, the three actors all had years working the angles in a male-dominated system.
    I
    For many years, I fell asleep to TGG when reruns were aired after the nightly news. Evsn today, when my daughter has trouble falling asleep, I play TGG on my phone with the screen off. Works.every.time. When Betty White died, daughter said, “They’re all forever angels now.” Well said, baby girl, well said.

  14. The Golden Girls is one of my favorite sitcoms of all time. Oh and this article is an excellent homage to one of the best episodes of tv about lesbianism (and the Lebanese). I started watching the show in college when the reruns were airing on basic cable and I eventually got all of my friends to watch with me. To this very day, I encourage people to watch because the jokes and the subject matter hold up so well and it was so far ahead of its time because it talked about issues that America still refuses to have honest conversations about.

    As Annie said above I would love to read a Carmen-watches-Golden-Girls regular feature.

  15. My favorite scene in one of my favorite episodes of one of my favorite TV shows! I was a kid when the show was originally airing, and it still holds up all these years later.

    I think the humor has held up because it was character-driven, and so it’s never gotten dated. (Same reason why the show was and is funny no matter what the age of the viewer.)

  16. My late mom never watched “Golden Girls” but she butchered the English language more than comedian Norm Crosby. She told me once that Ellen DeGeneres was a Lebanese! I told her I knew Danny Thomas was & knew Ellen was from New Orleans, but I had no 8dea she was Lebanese. She started clucking her tongue, like I was stupid & said, “she likes women!” I had to explain to her thar she was a lesbian & said she might be Lebanese, too, I didn’t know!🤣🤣

  17. The first time I saw this reference was even before GG in a compilation of Dear Abby Letters when a reader asked Abby if two women living alone across the hall “could be Lebanese” . . . . So it’s been around. Great Article. Makes me want to re-watch all the episodes now.

  18. Geez in 1986 I was 21. I am older now and still watch reruns.

    In Tucson I remember when the Golden Girls were aired the music stopped at the gay bar and for a half hour it was non stop laughter. I watched every week on a 10″ black and white portable t.v.

    Betty White and the rest of the girls will live on for ever. I miss her and she knows the “secret” now. She is with her Allen and her animals!

  19. Love the recapping of standalone lesbian episodes from classic TV shows! Makes me watch episodes of shows I probably would never see otherwise. I found Golden Girls to be pretty charming😊 And I loved how they handled this topic. Pretty amazing that this is from 1986 and they handle it a lot better than shows nowadays! I wouldn’t mind having Sophia as my grandmother, she was so understanding and great about the whole thing💖 Thanks for the recap💖

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