The story behind Friends’ banned lesbian wedding episode, almost 28 years on

Susan (L) and Carol (R) in 1996 Friends episode 'The One with the Lesbian Wedding'.

In January 1996, popular sitcom Friends aired the season two episode “The One with the Lesbian Wedding”, which was banned by some local networks in the US.

The NBC series Friends is a comedy classic, cementing itself as a US television staple after premiering in 1994 and making household names out of its stars, which included Jennifer Aniston and Matt LeBlanc. The early seasons offered rarely-seen lesbian representation onscreen, as Ross (David Schwimmer) navigated post-divorce life with his ex-wife Carol (Jane Sibbett) and her partner Susan (Jessica Hecht).

In episode 11 of season two, which originally aired in January 1996, Carol and Susan break the news that they getting married and invite Ross to the wedding. Although Ross is initially reluctant, a catering disaster means that he and Monica (Courtney Cox) must provide the food for the wedding and he soon comes around.

Ross gives Carol a heartwarming pep talk after she gets cold feet when her parents tell her they won’t be attending the wedding. He eventually ends up walking her down the aisle and repairing his frosty relationship with Susan.

Ross walking Carol down the aisle in Friends.
Ross walking Carol down the aisle in Friends. (NBC)

As one of the earliest portrayals of a gay wedding to air on US TV (Fox series Roc delivered the first in 1991) and 15 years before same-sex marriage became legal in New York, “The One with the Lesbian Wedding” was an overnight ratings success, with 31.6 million viewers tuning in across the country. But NBC executives had braced themselves for a major backlash.

Two local network affiliates – KJAC-TV in Port Arthur, Texas and WLIO in Lima, Ohio⁠⁠ – refused to air the episode, citing objectionable content, while NBC executives had phone operators at the ready for the anticipated high volume of complaints.

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“When we did the lesbian wedding episode of Friends, everybody was up in arms,” Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman told The Hollywood Reporter 20 years after the episode first aired. “NBC put 104 operators on for fear of getting a million phone calls. They got two.”

Actors Sibbett and Hecht appeared on ITV talkshow Lorraine in 2017 where they discussed the reception to the storyline.

“It was the first lesbian wedding to ever be shown on TV and they blocked it out in some affiliates,” revealed Sibbett. “But it all worked out as we got so much press because they blocked it.”

Hecht added: “We won awards for that. That was nothing to do with us but we won a GLAAD Award, so it was remarkable.”

Sibbett also recounted a powerful encounter she had with a gay man after an awards ceremony who told her about the life-changing impact Carol and Susan had on the LGBTQ+ community.

“I remember meeting a man at one awards ceremony that was held by an organisation that works with gay families,” Sibbett said.

“He said to me that if he’d had Carol and Susan as role models when he was a young boy, he probably wouldn’t have tried to [die by] suicide so many times. I hadn’t even thought of that.”

Despite Friends‘ impact, it wasn’t always on the mark when it came to LGBTQ+ representation. Chandler’s trans parent, played by Kathleen Turner, was regularly rolled out for cheap transphobic laughs.

And even Carol’s identity as a lesbian was considered enough to regularly cue the laugh track, centred around Ross’s discomfort – although Sibbett has previously said that the show was “never poking fun at being gay”.