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