If you are old enough, think back on how television dealt with gay plots and characters before the original Roseanne aired. There were a lot of gay prostitutes, cross-dressers used as gags, sissies, and tragic gay characters infected with HIV. Some examples:
Linda Gray played transgender fashion model Linda Murkland, the first transgender series regular on American television on the Norman Lear sitcom All That Glitters (1977). She was played for cheap laughs, but no one watched, and the show only lasted one season.
Jodie Dallas was a character from the sitcom Soap (1977-1981), played by Billy Crystal. Also played for laughs, he was one of the first gay characters on American television. Despite being gay, Jodie fathered a child from a one-night stand, and many of his storylines throughout the series centered on his involvement with women. Religious organizations disapproved of his sexual orientation, while Gay Rights activists saw his portrayal as stereotypical.
Love, Sydney (1981-83) had Tony Randall playing the first gay lead character in a network series, although the character was deeply in the closet for all 40 episodes. In a special hour-long episode, aired 35 years ago, May 1983, Sidney agrees to date his new co-worker, but the courtship ends because of Sidney’s lack of passion. He explains that his heart had been broken by a previous love, and he could never love anyone again. Left alone, the date tearfully remarks about Sidney’s former lover: “…if only she knew what she was missing” and the camera pans to a framed photograph of Sidney’s former lover Martin from the pilot. The following episode, the next-to-last in the series, has an openly gay guest character: a psychiatrist who befriends Sidney after he talks him out of suicide. Oh, and it was a comedy.
On Dynasty (1981-89), Blake Carrington (John Forsyth) reveals he is disgusted by Steven’s (Jack Coleman, and later Sarah Chalke) homosexuality, and Steven’s refusal to “conform” sets father and son at odds.
Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) had Eddie, a gay male sex worker who becomes friends with Sgt. Belker (Bruce Weitz) after helping him take down his pimp. He appeared on several episodes of the show before dying of AIDS.
NYPD Blue (1993-2005) had regular minor gay character, the terrific Bill Brochtrup‘s John Irvin, an administrative assistant who had little to do but sit behind a desk and look bemused or throw shade.
On L.A. Law (1986-1994), Amanda Donohoe played C.J. Lamb, a British bisexual lawyer who has a brief involvement with Abby (Michele Greene) in Season 5. The two share a kiss in the 1991 episode He’s A Crowd and America went bananas.
David Marshall Grant and Peter Frechete were the first two men to be shown in bed together on network telelvsion, in the 1989 episode, Strangers, on thirtysomething (1987-1991). Afterwards, five of the show’s ten sponsors dropped out, costing ABC $1.5 million in revenue.
Things got better when Carol, Ross’s (David Schwimmer) ex-wife, who had realized that she is a lesbian, marries her partner Susan in network television’s first lesbian wedding on Friends (1994-2004).
All those baby steps, yet Roseanne (1988 – 1997), was for me, a very funny, realistic look a working-class American family, the Conners who happened to have gay friends and family. The series was Number One in the ratings, the most watched television show in the United States from 1989 to 1991. The show remained in the top four for six of its nine seasons, and in the top 20 for eight seasons.
Roseanne had one of its main characters, Nancy, played to perfection by the lovely Sandra Bernhard come out in the cold opening of the episode Ladies’ Choice, becoming the first openly lesbian recurring character on an American sitcom. What’s interesting about the decision to make Nancy a lesbian is that she’d previously been a romantic interest for Dan’s friend Arnie (Tom Arnold, at the time married to Roseanne the actor), and there had never been any hint of her being anything other than straight. Roseanne and her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) are stunned.
Jackie points out that sleeping with Arnie could be enough to turn any woman gay, before she catches and corrects herself with “some women”. The joke is that Jackie herself once hooked up with Arnie. Jackie’s lesbian-ness comes up throughout the episode. Roseanne remarks that Nancy doesn’t look like a lesbian, because: “lesbians are big ol’ truck drivers that wear flannel shirts and faded jeans”. They both laugh, then Jackie catches herself again. She is wearing a flannel shirt and faded jeans, and she has worked as a truck driver.
In the episode Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Nancy and her girlfriend Marla (Morgan Fairchild) take Roseanne, who wants to prove how cool she is, to a gay bar, and while there Roseanne gets a long, deep kiss from Mariel Hemingway. After the fact, Roseanne begins to realize maybe she wasn’t as cool as she’d like to be, and she freaks out. But, remember, the character is a blue-collar straight woman living in Lanford, Illinois; wanting to prove that she is modern, until she realizes maybe she not.
ABC threatened to pull the episode, with network executives telling the writers:
”A woman cannot kiss a woman. It is bad for the kids to see.”
Roseanne told them that if Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell didn’t air, she would move her hit show to another network. It aired March 1, 1994.
There was also the wedding of Roseanne’s boss, Leon, the great Martin Mull, to his boyfriend, Scott, the even greater Fred Willard. Roseanne, who’s acting as the wedding planner, adds every gay stereotype imaginable to the ceremony, including male strippers, flamingos, and a sign proclaiming ”Gay Love, Gay Power”.
Cringe inducing, but it is supposed to be, Roseanne was a comedy. The writers didn’t need to include gay characters or gay kisses or gay weddings. In the mid-1990s, most shows didn’t.
This exchange, between Roseanne and Leon after he begins freaking out about getting married, reveals the era:
Leon: ”What if I’m not even gay?”
Roseanne: ”You couldn’t be any gayer if your name was Gay Gayerson.”
Leon: ”Think about it. I hate to shop, I’m positively insensitive, I detest Barbra Streisand, and, for God’s sake, I’m a Republican!”
Roseanne: ”But do you like having sex with men? ”
In a confusing set of plot twists during the show’s final season, Bev (Estelle Parsons), Rosanne and Jackie’s mother, comes out as a lesbian according to one of Roseanne’s fictional twists on her family, along with winning the lottery. In the series finale, Roseanne states that her mother is not a lesbian, but Jackie is; she just thought it’d be interesting to put a radical twist on her mother, who lived her life according to her husband’s rules, and because she wished her mother had a better sense of herself as a woman. Bev’s relationship with her own mother (Shelly Winters) is very similar to the one her daughters have with her.
We’re lucky to live in a time where there are now 58 LGBTQ characters out of 901 regular characters on broadcast television identified as LGBTQ, and on cable the number of regular LGBTQ characters is 92.
Interesting that the season after Roseanne folded, NBC debuted the truly groundbreaking Will & Grace, from creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, who know how to do a reboot. After the final episode of the original run aired in 2006, Will & Grace was credited with improving public opinion of the LGBTQ community, with former Vice President Joe Biden commenting that the show “probably did more to educate the American public on LGBT issues than almost anything anybody has ever done so far.”
In the 21st century, other shows have handled LGBTQ characters with more tact and grace: The Sopranos, The Wire, The Office, Glee, Modern Family, Nurse Jackie, Roseanne was one of the first.