11 landmark TV moments that changed lesbian representation forever
From Carol and Susan’s wedding in Friends to Nicola Adams’ history-making turn on Strictly Come Dancing, here are 11 TV moments that changed lesbian representation forever.
In honour of Lesbian Visibility Week, we’re casting our minds back to some of the most iconic watershed moments for sapphic viewers everywhere.
From coming out scenes to first kisses, marriages to steamy sex scenes, read on for 11 iconic moments of lesbian representation that we’ll be remembering for a very long time to come.
1974: Alison Steadman and Myra Frances in first post-watershed lesbian kiss
Alison Steadman – more popularly known as Gavin & Stacey‘s Pam – was part of TV’s first lesbian kiss in a then-controversial BBC play Girl about gay women in the army, filmed as part of the drama anthology series Second City Firsts.
The icon shared a smooch with Myra Frances – and gained even more ‘legend points’ for recently telling The Guardian that while she was initially “very nervous about the whole thing”, she immediately “got over it”. Please give this advice to transphobes everywhere.
Even though the kiss was broadcast after the watershed, the moment was still groundbreaking. A pioneer. Pam, we salute you.
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1991: First kiss between two women on a US Network in L.A. Law
Stateside, the first lesbian kiss aired in cop show L.A. Law – although it was followed up by disappointing character development for both of its participants.
CJ Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) kisses straight lawyer Abby Perkins (Michele Greene) after the latter helps the former brush up on her detective skills. A landmark moment!
However, not only did the lesbian kiss feature one straight woman, but CJ was written off the show very soon after and Abby ended up with a man.
Disappointing to say the least – and despite producers insisting they wanted to give CJ more character depth, Greene later said the kiss was merely a publicity stunt.
1994: Brookside airs the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss
Proof that the Brits do it better, soap Brookside aired the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss in 1994, a solid 20 years after Alison Steadman and Myra Frances in Girl.
The smooch, which was between Beth Jordache and Margaret Clemence (Anna Friel and Nicola Stephenson), was carefully thought out, with Friel adamant that her character would “stay gay” after the kiss, rather than it just being for shock value.
The TV soap kiss was also featured in the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony, and was screened without censorship in many countries where same-sex relationships were still illegal, making it even more remarkable than intended, all those years ago.
1996: Friends airs TV’s first lesbian wedding in ‘The One With The Lesbian Wedding’
Despite perspectives having now shifted, when Friends aired it was considered groundbreaking and “The One With The Lesbian Wedding” is evidence of such.
The episode is the 11th instalment of the sitcom’s second series, and saw Ross’s ex-wife Carol (Jane Sibbett) marry her partner Susan (Jessica Hecht) in American TV’s first lesbian wedding.
In a distinct positive for a sitcom that has otherwise muddied waters when it comes to diversity, Friends can take this as a win. We still think Monica and Phoebe should have ended up together, though.
1997: Ellen comes out
Another cultural phenomenon that has not aged all that well is TV pioneer Ellen’s relationship with the general public. We’ll give credit where credit is due, however, to the comedian for coming out on “The Puppy Episode” of her eponymous sitcom.
Featuring guest star Laura Dern, the coming out scene went right to the heart of America’s zeitgeist. The series was cancelled after one more season despite the episode garnering huge levels of publicity (it was the highest rated episode of Ellen ever), and it even won an Emmy.
Ellen’s airport coming out speech also still lives rent-free in the minds of many viewers:
“Why can’t I say the word? I mean, why can’t I just say … I mean what is wrong? Why do I have to be so ashamed? I mean, why can’t I just say the truth, be who I am? I’m 35 years old, I’m so afraid to tell people … I mean, I just … Susan, I’m gay.”
2000: Willow and Tara’s relationship in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
It’s hard to distil Willow and Tara’s relationship into one particular watershed lesbian TV moment, and that’s partly down to just how much of a mould-breaker the pair were.
For much of the late 90s and early 2000s, the pair, played by beloved actors Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson, were some of the only positive representation viewers had when it came to lesbian relationships on TV.
They did end up falling into the pervasive ‘bury your gays‘ trope that plagues same-sex relationships in media to this day (more on that later) – but up until then, they were treated like any heterosexual relationship, which was groundbreaking in itself.
2012: Santana and Brittnay get together on Glee
Our next watershed moment is almost an extension of Willow and Tara, in that cheerleaders Santana and Brittnay (Naya Rivera and Heather Morris) were treated with as much depth as their heterosexual counterparts in perpetually chaotic, frequently problematic, often hilarious comedy-drama Glee.
The pair broke up, got back together and even married – giving us some sickening duets along the way, including somehow making “I Want to Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” even gayer.
It’s also worth noting that Glee is primarily a children’s show that held nothing back when it came to openly exploring queer characters.
Along the way, we also got distinct character development from both of them over Glee‘s six series. They both are seen in relationship with boys before realising that lesbians, do in fact, do it better – and they have a double gay wedding with characters Kurt and Blaine, which is just a phenomenal concept.
2015: Sense8 screams ‘trans rights’ with lesbian relationship
Pair that with the fact that Nomi’s experience as a trans woman is explored delicately and respectfully, and the pair’s storyline easily reads as a watershed lesbian TV moment for viewers everywhere.
The series was a Netflix original released at the very peak of Netflix’s cultural hype, meaning Nomi and Amanita’s love story – including their wedding – was watched by huge numbers of viewers all over the world.
They couple are a watershed moment because the relationship seemed more like an honest portrayal of the contemporary queer experience – with sci-fi sparkles sprinkled on top.
2016: Black Mirror‘s ‘San Junipero’ episode
Tumblr ate “San Junipero” up back in 2016, but its cultural relevance stretches way beyond that. Part of the often too-dark-for-its-own-good anthology series about the evolution of technology and what that means for the human race, this episode was one of the only ‘nice’ moments in the entire series – and it was all about lesbians!
In a brilliant subversion of ‘bury your gays’, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Kelly and Mackenzie Davis’s Yorkie live in the future where the titular San Junipero is a simulated reality for the elderly to inhabit, even after death.
One heartbreaking coming-out storyline later, and Kelly and Yorkie quite literally drift off into the golden afterlife together. Back in the real world, the episode won two Primetime Emmys and earned its place in TV history forever.
2016: A standout ‘bury your gays’ moment in Orange is the New Black
Similar to Sense8, Orange is the New Black (OITNB) was a Netflix-manufactured zeitgeist slayer. The show, set in a prison, featured trans prisoner Sophia Bursett (Laverne Cox) and queer relationship Piper and Alex as the show’s crux.
The reason that OITNB has made it onto the list, however, is Poussey Washington’s (Samira Wiley) death in a 2016 episode of the show’s fourth series. The beloved lesbian TV character died in a prison riot – and fans were not happy. It was one of the first times that the internet truly united, seemingly against the show’s writers.
The ‘bury your gays’ phenomenon is essentially when a queer character gets killed off for shock value, often just after it looks like their plot line is ‘on the up’. Case in point, then, with Poussey, who had just started to develop a romantic relationship with inmate Brook (Kimiko Glenn), before she was suffocated by a prison guard.
The moment makes the list because viewers – queer and otherwise – were angry at Poussey’s death. It was a turning point at which viewers said: ‘We won’t be happy if you kill lesbian characters for no reason.’
2020: Nicola Adams on Strictly Come Dancing
In 2020, Olympic boxer Nicola Adams joined the cast of the eighteenth series of British TV staple, Strictly Come Dancing, as one half of the first ever same-sex pairing with professional Katya Jones.
Although the pair were forced to withdraw in the third week of the series due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they smashed stereotypes and prejudice to dance right into the homes of the British public, placing third in every episode they competed in. It was a watershed lesbian TV moment for sure.
Nicola, come back to the dance floor soon, please.
Up til now …
There’s no denying that we’re heading in the right direction, and as times goes on, by very definition, the word ‘watershed’ will become less and less applicable.
In the meantime, PinkNews’ Lesbian Visibility Week coverage includes the incredible lesbians off screen who are loud, proud and making the world a better place.
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