Lesbian Kisses On American TV: The Definitive History Of Everybody Freaking Out Over Nothing

Once upon a time in a land not that far away or long ago, you couldn’t show two women touching lips on television, period, and if a network dared to do so anyhow, they’d quickly face a barrage of complaints and advertiser pull-outs. When same-sex kisses between women did happen, they often happened during “sweeps week” — weeks in February, May, July and November when advertisers set rates for the year. Networks would vie for the highest ratings possible with attention-grabbing “lesbian kiss episodes” heavy on shock value but light on staying power or actual queer characters. Usually the kisses were between straight women, or a straight character and a guest actress playing a lesbian or bisexual character. What’s more, these kisses were so laughably brief and sexless that it was ridiculous such a big deal had been made over them in the first place. You’ve probably had more intimate exchanges with a relative, honestly. Growing up during this time period, it was easy to think that same-sex kissing was an act generally reserved for straight women and the lesbian or bisexual friends who had crushes on them.

Even if the kiss didn’t happen on sweeps week, it remained unlikely that one kiss, as it so often does in real life, would ever lead to another. “You can show girls kissing once,” said Buffy the Vampire Slayer producer Marti Noxin, “but you can’t show them kissing twice … because the second time, it means that they liked it.” 


Lesbian and Bisexual Characters and Same-Sex Kissing on American Television: A Timeline

1986

Lindsay Ann Brice played a recurring role as lesbian cop Kate McBride on Hill Street Blues. 

1988

Nurse practitioner Marilyn McGrath and chef Patty of HeartBeat became the first recurring lesbian couple on American television. The introduction of these characters enticed a right-wing fundamentalist protest campaign. It was one of the first shows to portray lesbians in a positive light, but was quickly cancelled “allegedly for low ratings.”


1990: 21 Jump Street (Fox)

21-jump-street
Although L.A. Law‘s 1991 lesbian kiss is often cited as the first, it wasn’t — that honor actually belongs to 21 Jump Street — arguably. While working a case, Judy Hoffs (Holly Robinson Pete) gets close to the former protege of a recently-murdered female teacher at her high school, and the protege turns out to be “confused” about her sexuality, as expressed by her attempt to kiss Hoffs. Hoffs just sits there, stunned, and the girl apologizes the next day. However, the bottom half of their faces, where their lips are located, gets cut off!


1991: L.A. Law (NBC)

L.A Law featured one bisexual female character, C.J. (Amanda Donohoe), a lawyer.

LA-Law

“There are probably twenty-five million gay people out there, all of whom have friends and relatives and loved ones. That is so many more people than those… who are liable to be offended by it that, to us, the advertiser saying ‘We lose business’ is irrelevant. It’s a perception, not a fact.”

– Producer Patricia Green

The first-ever lesbian kiss on network television happened in Episode 512 of David E. Kelley’s L.A. Law, when C.J (Amanda Donohoe), a bisexual lawyer, kissed her female colleague Abby Perkins (Michele Greene). There were hints that a relationship could emerge, but Greene only lasted a season, a one-episode appearance by a former “lover” of C.J.’s was inconsequential and eventually she got a boyfriend. Michele Greene later told AfterEllen that the kiss was a ratings ploy and the show never intended to explore lady-on-lady romance.

American Family Association called for advertiser boycotts, five ad sponsors pulled out but NBC found new advertisers at discounted rates. About 85 phone calls came in, half of which were supportive. But L.A. Law had now created what would become the Lesbians Sweeps Kiss / Bisexual Sweeps Stunt situation — an easy way to boost ratings during the week when ad rates are set without having to deal with any plot-impacting aftermath.

The New York Times described these stunts in 2005 as, “eminently visual; cheap, provided the actors are willing; controversial, year in and year out; and elegantly reversible (sweeps lesbians typically vanish or go straight when the week’s over), kisses between women are perfect sweeps stunts. They offer something for everyone, from advocacy groups looking for role models to indignation-seeking conservatives, from goggle-eyed male viewers to progressive female ones, from tyrants who demand psychological complexity to plot buffs.”


1993: Picket Fences (CBS)

picket_fences_1x21_sugar_and_spice_11

Another David E. Kelly project! In Episode 121, “Sugar and Spice,” a friend of Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs), Lisa Fenn (Alexondra Lee), kisses Kimberly and confesses that she’s in love with her. Kimberly isn’t sure for like a second and then is like, let’s be friends. And that was that.


1993

Sisters features a recurring lesbian character, TV producer Nora Lear (Nora Dunn). Her partner is never seen onscreen, but she does get sperm from a male cast member so they can make a baby.

1994

Friends premieres, bringing with it two lesbian characters — Ross’s ex-wife, Carol Willick, and her new girlfriend (and eventual wife), Susan Bunch.


1994: Roseanne (ABC)

Roseanne featured one lesbian character, Nancy Bartlett, played by Sandra Bernhard.

Rosekiss

ABC initially declined to air Roseanne episode 618, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” which included a scene where Nancy (Sandra Bernhard)’s new girlfriend Sharon (Mariel Hemmingway) invites Roseanne & Jackie to a gay bar and then plants one on an unsuspecting Roseanne. ABC said it stood to lose $1 million in ad revenue and that it would be “bad for the kids to see.” But Roseanne threatened to take the entire program to a new network if they wouldn’t air it, so they did. However, as evidenced above, Mariel’s mane covered the actual lip contact and the show was preceded by a Parental Advisory for Adult Content.


1994: Lifestories: Families in Crisis (HBO)

coming-out-of-heidi

In 1994, HBO made More Than Friends: The Coming Out of Heidi Leiter, an episode of “Lifestories: Families in Crisis,” a series which was HBO’s answer to the afterschool special. Mostly based on true stories, each episode tackled a new “issue” such as AIDS, bulimia or sexual abuse. In one episode, Ben Affleck plays a football player addicted to steroids. This episode told the true story of Virginia teenager Heidi Leiter, who took her girlfriend to prom. It’s framed as an inspirational story because they go to prom and nobody dies or punches them in the face (in that scene), but they don’t really seem to be having much fun, either. In the photo above, the two girls kiss in the hospital after Missy is attacked. 


1995: Courthouse (CBS)

The first-ever black lesbian couple on television, Rosetta Reide (Jennifer Lewis) and Danni Gates (Cree Summer), appeared on the drama Courthouse, which only lasted 11 episodes. Unfortunately, the lesbianism of their characters apparently got “toned down” before broadcast.


1995: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (UPN)

star_trek_deep_space_nine_rejoined_08

Rejoined via ELMS

Star Trek has earned a great deal of criticism about its lack of queer characters in a world where discrimination is allegedly passe. But in episode 406 of Deep Space Nine, two women are given a chance to gaze lovingly into one another’s eyes across the dinner table and even lock lips! Basically, Dax (Terry Farrell) and Lenara Kahn (Susanna Thompson) are Trills, souls who live in different host bodies throughout their existence. Symbionts Dax and Lenara previously inhabited the bodies of a heterosexual married couple, and eventually the two broach the topic of the chemistry between them, inspired by their “history.” The two are separated by politics, falling prey to the taboo of “reassociation,” which is when Trills “try to recapture the experiences of a previous host during a current one.” The fact that the two women are same-gendered is never mentioned explicitly.


1997

NYPD Blue features a lesbian uniform officer, Abby Sullivan, who is friends with a male lead and has a partner named Kathy. She’s a lesbian who — surprise! — gets Greg to be a sperm donor so Abby can get pregnant, and she does. Then Kathy gets murdered during a fake robbery staged by her insane ex-girlfriend!


1997: Relativity (ABC)

Relativity featured one lesbian character, Rhonda, the sister of the show’s lead character, Leo. 
relativity-lesbian-kiss-episode-2

Sarah Warn, founder of AfterEllen.com, wrote in 2002 that Relativity featured “the first real lesbian kiss” on network television because it offered “a kiss between two lesbian or bisexual women.”

This short-lived offering from the producers of My So-Called Life featured a date between two women in Episode 13, “The Day The Earth Moved.” Queer character Rhonda (Lisa Edelstein) rides an “earthquake stimulator” with Suzanne (Kristin Dattilo), and then the two OPEN-MOUTH KISS a little bit and then they go home and have gentle ladysex, which means we see both of them are naked in bed for a second, but it’s super-dark. Suzanne never appeared in the show again and the show was cancelled four episodes later. There’s a lot happening here that we’d never seen before: two queer women kissing each other, two queer women in bed with sex implied, two women open-mouth kissing. But due to the show’s relatively small audience and brief run, it wasn’t a huge deal at the time and many forget about it now.

ABC promoted the episode by calling it “the episode everyone is talking about,” and accusations ran wild that it was just an attempt to boost ratings for a show on the brink of cancellation. But the episode’s writer, Jan Oxenberg, insisted “we didn’t do this to save the show. We would have done this regardless.” Oxenberg is a lesbian herself, and said of the episode “it means a kind of profound acceptance.” Recalling seeing The Children’s Hour at a young age, Oxenberg added: “Kissing is a whole lot better than suicide. That I have a chance to replace those ugly images with the image of a kiss is a dream come true.”

The executive director of the Parents Television Council spoke out against it, the Vice-President of the American Family Association issued an angry press release about it, and ABC and the producers struggled over “how far to push this episode,” with ABC slapping it with a TV-14 and requesting the women can kiss only once. Some advertisers did pull out, but the network found replacements for those spots.


1997: Ellen (ABC)

Ellen featured a lesbian main character, Ellen Morgan, and recurring character Laurie Manning, her love interest.

S5-Ellen-Kiss

Season Five, Episode Five – Ellen goes on a date with Laurie Manning

After the big “coming out” episode in 1997, Ellen DeGeneres’s sitcom predictably continued focusing on the life of its main character, Ellen Morgan, who was a newly out lesbian. Therefore, there was a lot of lezzie shit going down every week, a situation interpreted by the world as being too political and abandoning loyal viewers. This also meant there was, from time to time, lesbian kissing! The capture above is from Ellen’s first kiss with an actual gay lady on the show, from when Ellen went on a date with mortgage broker Laurie Manning.

But the most ballsy of these may have been the kiss in Episode 503 shared between Ellen Morgan and her best friend Paige (Joely Fisher), who is the one member of their social group not totally on board with Ellen’s sexual orientation — she doesn’t even want to change clothes around Ellen, let alone witness her talking to other gay ladies.

In what was like the fourth storyline about Ellen expressing interest in a lady who turned out to be straight or taken, Ellen’s neighbors send a friend over to interview about being her new “roommate,” which Ellen’s friends insist is lesbian code. Paige is made uncomfortable by their flirtatious conversation, which is quickly revealed to be not so flirtatious after all — the prospective roommate is straight. To save Ellen’s face, Paige storms in on the increasingly awkward exchange and declares that Ellen is her girlfriend, they’re getting back together, and this girl better hit the road. An extensive tongue kiss ensues.

s5-ellen-and-paige

A series of outsized reactions to the sight of two women kissing reached its peak with Ellen, effectively frightening a generation of pop-culture-savvy queers out of being lesbians. It also sent mainstream television into what writer Kathy Belge has called “a lesbian dry spell.” Honestly these low-rated seasons of the sitcom consisted of some of the most underrated lesbian television episodes ever produced.


1999: Party of Five (Fox)

1-IMG_0047
Following a breakup with an abusive boyfriend, Julia Salinger (Neve Campbell) falls for her lesbian creative writing teacher, Perry Marks (Olivia d’Abo). In a moment of excitement and passion during episode 523, “I’ll Show You Mine,” Julia goes in for the kiss, which continues briefly and is obscured by Perry’s hair. Later, Perry tells Julia that she doesn’t wanna be Julia’s chemistry experiment, basically — that if Julia truly thinks she’s gay and isn’t just caught up in a crush on a teacher after getting out of a rough situation with a dude, she should figure that out before playing with Perry’s heart. Womp womp.


1998-1999: Ally McBeal (Fox)

ally_mcbeal_happy_trails_02

“Happy Trails” via ELMS

Ally McBeal exploited the same-sex kiss device to the max, despite never actually featuring any queer female characters! This happy trail began in Episode 207, “Happy Trails,” in which lawyer Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) goes for a smooch with her secretary Elaine Vassal (Jane Krakowski) in order to repeal an annoying date.

Ally & Georgia

This went so well that Ally pulled the same trick a few episodes later, in episode 209, “You Never Can Tell,” this time with a more impressively lengthy kiss shared with Georgia Thomas (Courtney Thorne-Smith).

ally_mcbeal_you_never_can_tell_2x09_05

You Never Can Tell via ELMS

Ally & Ling

The big attention-grabber, however, was Ally’s Episode 302 kiss with Ling Woo (Lucy Liu) in “Buried Pleasures.” Ling’s confession that she had a sexy lesbian dream about Ally leads to the twosome dirty dancing after hours and kissing for 21 seconds. It was a blatant bid to improve the show’s ratings.

ally_mcbeal_buried_pleasures_57 (1)

“Buried Pleasures” via ELMS


Are you following us on Facebook?

Pages: 1 2 See entire article on one page

Profile gravatar of Riese

Riese is the 35-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City and mellowed out in California before returning to Michigan for reasons that are unclear to her now — she is currently plotting her return to the West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2384 articles for us.

46 Comments

  1. 0

    Yeah, the double standard on PLL is so glaring these days! Its harder and harder to accept. PLL is such a strange mix when you think about it. Some of the best representation anywhere on TV but Emily still doesn’t quite get treated like an equal and her girlfriends are transient and never given agency like the other Liars boyfriends. Sometimes I make myself sad thinking about how good the show could be if Emily’s love life and partners were treated equally.

    • 0

      No Diamond was cisgender. The transwoman is a woman Normal dates in season 1. I don’t remember if it was tastefully done or not but I remember tjat Normal says he doesn’t care and then the woman says she thinks she’s a lesbian ( and then Original Cindy tries to hook up with her maybe?)

      I liked that even if there was only one lesbian kiss it was assumed that Cindy was hooking up quite a lot!

  2. 0

    I remember distinctly the first girl-girl kiss I saw on TV–Friends, when I was 11 years old. I can remember where I was sitting in the living room and even the pattern on my pajama pants. I remember not understanding the weird feeling in my stomach, and glancing at my mom to gauge her reaction, followed by a short-term obsession with Winona Ryder. Later, that was the first season of Friends I bought when I started buying full seasons on DVD.

    I wish I knew what it was like growing up today, with so much actual (if sometimes flawed) representation in shows like PLL or Faking It (or even Glee a few years ago). I feel like I would have figured things out a lot sooner (and had an easier time of it) if I had grown up watching characters like Paige or Santana.

  3. 0

    I can’t believe I grew up with Friends playing in the background of my life and never, for one moment, knew that Ross’s ex and her “friend” were GIRLFRIENDS! I had a mind blowing moment just now where I grabbed my laptop, yelled WHAT?! multiple times before blinking furiously to make sure I read that right. How did I not know!?! How did I not see?!?

    Excuse me for a moment, I need to process this shit…

      • 0

        Yeah the whole first season, every Ross joke is like “What’s wrong, Ross?” “oh nothing just that MY WIFE IS A LESBIAN” (Cue laugh track). Hilarious.

        And when Susan and Carol get married, this is, verbatim, a joke they make:

        Ross: Susan and Carol are getting married.
        LAUGH TRACK LAUGH TRACK.

    • 0

      There are SO MANY references to them being lesbians though!

      Ross: You sure have a lot of books about being a lesbian.
      Susan: Yeah, you have to take a course. Otherwise they don’t let you do it.

      Susan (on wanting her last name to be included with the baby’s): There’s Mother’s Day, there’s Father’s Day, there’s no ‘Lesbian Lover Day.’
      Ross: Every day is Lesbian Lover Day!

      Joey: And you really didn’t know she was a lesbian?
      Ross: She didn’t know; how was I supposed to know?!

      Plus any jokes about Ross’s first marriage throughout the show are about how Carol was a lesbian. Plus Carol and Susan get married in one episode, and all the Friends attend.

      My partner and I re-watched all 10 seasons of Friends this year. I sometimes forget that not everyone is as Friends-addicted as me.

    • 0

      And yet, despite how patronising the story was and the humour supposedly surrounding every time they said “lesbian”… when the marriage equality “debate” started around 2003/4 I was under the mistaken impression that gay people could get married, it was just rare – because I’d seen it happen on Friends! I’m sure the episode discussed the lack of legal recognition, but the only part I remembered was that they did it. So in some small way, it helped.

  4. 0

    I hated the episode where Carrie dated the bi guy so much! I haven’t seen the show in a long time but I don’t remember the characters being nearly as biphobic about Samantha dating a woman as they were about Carrie’s guy having dated men in the past. It reminds me of How To Get Away With Murder. Analise’s sexual fluidity is presented as being legitimate while Michaela’s ex Aiden’s probable bisexuality is considered an automatic deal breaker or treated like a joke.

    Also how ridiculous is it to act like being bi or pan is some new trend for wacky young folks instead of a thing that has literally been around FOREVER?

    • 0

      That ep ended on such a sour note too, I don’t know how they even got SJP to narrate it. She just leaves the dude at his party without saying anything, and as she’s walking down the stairs her narration says she can’t handle the fluidity of him and his friends, “that’s just me.” Roll credits.

      Note: any time you say “I can’t handle [the concept or core values of xyz minority group], that’s just me,” you’re probably on the wrong side of history.

      • 0

        Yeah and then Carrie, the WILD SEX COLUMNIST, would be like “bisexuality (/anal/dirty talk/whatever that is not missionary straight PIV), this is the first time I heard of it, it’s super freaky and gross but that’s just me!!”

        This is a show that has not aged well.

  5. 0

    Carol Willick is Ross’s ex-wife, Susan Bunch is the girlfriend turned wife, I watch too much Friends. I am also really bitter that they didn’t really have any butch lesbians in their wedding episode, as this is one of the few shows I actually saw growing up.

    “Carrie ends up sharing a kiss with Alanis Morisette” HOLY SHIT I DID NOT KNOW THAT’S WHO THAT WAS. Also it’s not mentioned here because there wasn’t any kissing in the episode, but I kind of love the one where Charlotte starts hanging out with a bunch of lesbians but they end up rejecting her as a friend because she’s straight.

    Oh man, Buffy. Such an important show for my life. Watched it in High School, and I really think it helped shape me in a lot of ways that I would not have been exposed to otherwise. Also that episode is just so intense and gave me so many feelings.

    LOVE this post, I find this stuff super fascinating.

  6. 0

    I distinctly remember that parental advisory warning at the beginning of the Roseanne episode. We watched that show every week in my house growing up, and that parental advisory actually made my parents think twice about letting my sister and I watch the episode. We had to wait until it was in reruns to see it, after my parents deemed it “okay enough” for us to see. I was 10 or 11 at the time and just at the absolute beginning of figuring out my identity. I kept remembering that parental advisory warning as I got older and started to realize I liked girls, that those feelings were something to be warned against, that I was doing or feeling something wrong that my parents (and the rest of society) would object to. I still think about that episode from time to time now. Yeah, it was groundbreaking in its day, and good for Roseanne for sticking to her guns and getting the episode to air, but the circumstances around essentially a sweeps-week Very Special Episode are still a raw wound to me.

  7. 0

    The first girl/girl kiss I saw on TV was Dax/Lenora on Star Trek. I’m a big Trekkie so naturally I was watching the show anyway and I wasn’t even close to coming out or even the realisation that it was gay. It was almost 20 years ago now (damn I’m old!), but I remember watching it with interest, not really having any strong feelings towards it except intrigue. Then my Mum chose that moment to walk in and exclaim ‘what on earth are you watching?’ My reply was ‘it’s alright, one of them used to be a man.’ Oh dear.
    I can now watch that episode with fondness. It is a really sweet kiss.

  8. 0

    This list brought back so many memories. Especially CJ in LA law, when I was still a teenager. I found Amanda Donohoe so sexy! Around the same time was the Beth/Margaret kiss in the UK soap Brookside. It was all such a HUGE shitstorm that to be honest it just convinced my confused teenage heart that I couldn’t and shouldn’t ever come out.

    I often wonder what my life would have been like if I was growing up now. So different.

    And Kerry Weaver was my reason for watching ER for a long time!

  9. 0

    Susan and Carol didn’t leave their lesbian audience hanging completely though. We cheered at the TV during The One Without The Ski Trip where Carol rushes to open the door for Ross or and she is obvs trying to remove some pubic hair from her tongue! I felt like the writers/producers where handing all lesbians a nicely wrapped gift through the TV.

  10. 0

    I’m surprised by how many of these I didn’t know ever happened! Very informative…and also now I want to go plan a night where me and some pals just watch all of these episodes one after the other.

  11. 0

    Interesting story behind the Picket Fences episode. It’s quite possibly the laughable case of network hypocrisy when dealing with this kind of controversy.

    Apparently CBS only approved the episode after the kissing scene was reshot in a darker lighting. However before the finished episode aired, Entertainment Tonight “reported” on the controversy using before and after clips of the scene in question so that viewer could decide for themselves if the original version was too racy for primetime. Apparently the original scene stripped of context was fine for primetime news!

    Of course CBS was fine with giving ET the footage they wouldn’t use. They made have feared losing sponsors or affiliates for that week (Salt Lake City was the only rejector far as I now), but seeing as how the the show was never high in the ratings they seems inclined to use the controversy to their advantage.
    The author of “The Primetime Closet” recalls that story and discusses some of those other episodes here:
    http://www.popmatters.com/column/tropiano030528/

    • 0

      oh… i thought she’d given that big speech about how for her, she used to be heterosexual but now she was homosexual and that it was a choice, and everybody got very upset at her for saying it was a choice? and in the advocate she said “I identify as gay as a political stance. If anybody, prior to my meeting and falling in love with Christine, had asked me about what I think about sexuality, I would have said I think we’re all bisexual.”

      maybe she has said something else since then! but if so, honest mistake, truly.

  12. 0

    Wow, I had no idea there was a lesbian character on TV as early as ’86. I don’t think I have a clear memory of any queer characters before 2002, actually, aside from Friends, ER, and Ellen. Thanks for the TV history lesson!

    This also explains the root of my teenage obsession with Elizabeth Mitchell, which lead me to obsessively watch The Beast even though it was terrible. I had VHS tapes of it. She was just so damn adorable on ER.

  13. 0

    Not *quite* what you’re talking about, but (like Cliff Clavin) I’m still scarred by seeing Carla nibble Diane’s ear in the 1987 “Cheers” episode “Father Knows Last”. So, so wrong. Not quite as wrong as seeing both of them bibbling Cliff’s ears, though.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.