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

1998: Sex and the City (HBO)

miranda-satc

Miranda Hobbes, played by now-out-lesbian actress Cynthia Nixon, gets set up with a woman named Syd, played by Joanna Adler, because Miranda’s co-worker assumes Miranda must be gay ’cause she’s single. Just to be sure, Miranda kisses Syd in the elevator, then immediately declares, “Yep, definitely straight.” Because that’s exactly how it works! You peck somebody on the lips and then you can decide how you feel about sleeping with, romancing and partnering that gender forever! Good job, Darren Star!


2000: Queer as Folk (Showtime)

Queer as Folk featured two lead lesbian characters, Melanie and Lindsay.

Season One, Episode Two

Season One, Episode Two

Over on the safety of Showtime, Queer as Folk didn’t waste much time getting its lesbian lovers, into bed — but Mel and Lindsay’s sex life never got the same kind of attention as the male cast members. (To be fair, it’s likely Queer as Folk‘s audience as as interested in Mel and Lindsay’s sex life as The L Word‘s would’ve been about a gay cis male couple.) But we sure did get to see them be Moms a lot!


2000: E.R. (NBC)

E.R. had two lesbian characters at two different times: Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) and Maggie Doyle (Jorja Fox). Kerry had two love interests, Kim Legaspi (Elizabeth Mitchell) and Sandy Lopez (Lisa Vidal).

2000-ER-Kerry-Weaver-Kim-lesbian-kiss

E.R. upped the ante by creating an actual lesbian character, Kerry Weaver, who would go through two relationships and all kinds of drama as her storyline progressed across several seasons. It was a truly groundbreaking turn. Her first on-screen kiss took place with Kim Legaspi, played by Elizabeth Mitchell.  “I will say that the chemistry that existed between Elizabeth and I was much better than the chemistry that existed with any of the guys they hooked me up with,” actress Laura Innes told The Advocate. “It’s great that there are gay and lesbian characters on shows like Six Feet Under and Queer as Folk, but there’s nothing that compares to this battleship that is E.R. in terms of the mainstream nature of it, how many people it reaches.”


2000: Talk To Me

This short-lived TV series featured an episode in which Janey (Kyra Sedgwick) and her friends attend an advertising party which is SUPER boring, so they dare Janey to go flirt with Teresa, played by Paulina Porizkova. She does, and she even plants a kiss on Teresa and feels guilty enough about it to go out on a date with her, and even enjoys the attention and gifts she’s given. Soon Teresa learns that Janey is straight. Teresa turned out to be a one-episode character on what turned out to be a three-episode show… thus no visual evidence of the show’s existence anywhere on the interwebs!


2000: Friends (NBC)

Friends had two minor lesbian characters — Ross’s ex-wife Susan and her girlfriend Carol.

Rachel and her roommate share a kiss on Friends

I remember this one all too well, because it was blown into THE BIGGEST DEAL OF ALL TIME despite the fact that it was a total non-event. Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) runs into her old sorority sister, Melissa Warbuton, played by Winona Ryder, and invites her to dinner later. Rachel confesses to Monica that once upon a time in college, she and Ol’ Mel got tanked and made out, but Phoebe doesn’t believe Rachel would do something SO outrageous, so to prove it, she presses Melissa about it at dinner, but Melissa feigns ignorance until Rachel plants one on her, which inspires Melissa to confess that she’s BEEN IN LOVE WITH RACHEL ALL THIS TIME. Crazy lesbians harboring secret crushes ALL THESE YEARS! What cool idea these shows gave me of what it meant to be gay! Wheee! Phoebe, interested in “what all the fuss was about,” then kisses Rachel and admits “Eh, I’ve had better.” That part made me laugh.

Friends featured another brief same-sex kiss in a 2003 episode, between Ross and Rachel’s babysitter and her girlfriend. It’s kinda ridiculous considering that the show never featured any affection between Carol and Susan, who were recurring lesbian characters throughout the entire series.


2000: Sex and the City (HBO)

carrie-and-alanis-lesbian-kiss

This was a really delightful episode in which Carrie Bradshaw dates a bisexual guy and CANNOT HANDLE IT. It’s really absurd, especially (or perhaps predictably) on a show written by queer men. Eventually, Carrie goes to a party hosted by her new man’s ex-boyfriend, which really blows her mind. Basically the whole episode is the four women being alternately confused and empowered by these crazy kats and their wild ideas about gender and sexuality! Obviously this party involves playing Spin-the-Bottle, because everyone at the party is bi and poly and pan and queer and JUST ABSOLUTELY WILD, and that’s how Carrie ends up sharing a kiss with Alanis Morisette that inspires the extras to cheer enthusiastically and make suggestive facial expressions despite it being a pretty tame situation overall.


2001: Dark Angel (Fox)

Dark Angel featured one lesbian character, Original Cindy, played by Valarie Rae Miller. She was best friends with the show’s lead, Max, played by Jessica Alba.

dark-angel-lesbian-kiss

Original Cindy‘s ex-girlfriend, Diamond, comes back to town in the episode “Shorties in Love,” and share the series’ only lesbian kiss. Of the character, Sarah Warn wrote “By featuring such a complicated and sympathetic black lesbian character during its two-season run, Dark Angel offered one of the most identifiable and entertaining lesbian characters on network television before or since — if only for a minute or two each week.”


2001: Sex and the City (HBO)

sex-and-the-city-samantha-maria-kiss

At last we get lesbian kissing and lesbian sex within the context of a same-sex relationship — only to have Samantha declare the relationship tedious and complain, “All we ever do is talk talk talk. The talking in our relationship has replaced the fucking in our fucking relationship! I don’t want talk, I want passion! I want fireworks!”


2001: Spin City (ABC)

spin_city_shes_gotta_habit_09

Mayor Charlie Sheen is intimidated when he finds out his new girlfriend Jennifer Duncan, played by Denise Richards, is bisexual. Caitlin Moore (Heather Locklear) tells Charlie Sheen to stop freaking out about it. But of course the insatiable bisexual trope rears its ugly head and Jennifer can’t leave their lunchdate without giving Caitlin a lesbian kiss on the mouth.


2001: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer had one lead queer character, Willow (Alyson Hannigan), one major lesbian character Tara (Amber Benson) and recurring character Kennedy (Iyari Limon), Willow’s slayer girlfriend. 
Tara and Willow having a lesbian kiss on Buffy the Vampire Slayer

In the scene “The Body,” Joss Whedon allegedly fought with The WB to finally give Willow and Tara a liplock and also allegedly “snuck it in” at the end. It wasn’t used in any of the episode promos, just all of a sudden, it was there. It was also a really depressing episode — if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.

The distinct lack of romantic physical contact between the two girls, especially compared to what we see of the heterosexual couples on the show, already makes the show feel undeniably dated. That being said, Buffy was the first show to really go all out with a lead lesbian character in an actual relationship that lasted through many episodes, actual acknowledgment of the two girls having sex, frank discussions of sexual orientation, a non-catastrophic coming out, and not one but two eventual female love interests for Willow.

This is when things really started changing. As Kathy Belge wrote in Lesbians on TV: A Brief History, “2001 saw more girl-girl action than the previous ten years combined.” Lesbian characters became increasingly common, showing up on The Wire, The Simpsons and All My Children. We got little storylines on The O.C. and Once and Again. In 2004, we got The L Word, filled with characters who often took off their shirts!

This isn’t to say that things have changed completely — they haven’t. Yes, we (finally) get to see women kiss women on television, but it’s often very chaste compared to what we see between opposite-sex couples on those same shows. Pretty Little Liars is a good example of this double-standard: whereas we’ve seen disrobing and extended love scenes between the heterosexual couples, we don’t get that with Emily and her female paramours. We’ll keep pushing for representation and if history is any indication, we just may get it, one of these days.

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Riese is the 39-year-old Co-Founder and CEO 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 and then headed 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.

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46 Comments

  1. 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.

    • 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. 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. 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…

      • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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. 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?

    • 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.

      • 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. 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. 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. Ah, Friends.

    I had *just* come out to my mother, and it had not gone well; I thought watching am episode of Friends together would diffuse the tension.

    And then it turned into an episode where every second word was “lesbian”, *sigh*.

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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/

    • 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

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