How ‘Roseanne’ Helped Make It OK to Be Gay on TV

Before there was Kurt Hummel, before there was Mitchell and Cameron, before there was Oscar Martinez, before there was Tara and Willow, before there was Will and Grace, and before there was Ellen, there was Roseanne Conner.

Roseanne, of course, isn’t gay, unlike every other name listed (minus Grace), but I’d argue that she did more for the ways homosexuals are portrayed on television than any single gay character or couple has done in the years following.

It’s tough remembering a time where gay characters on TV weren’t featured on issues of TV Guide, a time where even just the mention of a two women or, even worse, two men (shocking!) would make a network either threaten to pull the episode, or at the very least change the show’s time slot for a week.

In other words: a time where True Blood would be considered porn more than an Emmy-nominated, ratings smash. But that time wasn’t so long ago: it was only the late-1980s and early- to mid-1990s, and it wasn’t until Roseanne did things other shows, let alone other hit comedy shows (Roseanne finished in the top four ratings-wise for six of its nine seasons), wouldn’t dare to do.

I mean, take a look at how some of the biggest shows on TV dealt with gay plots around the time Roseanne aired: there were a lot of gay prostitutes, cross-dressers used as gags (but that’s one been around for awhile), the use of the word “sissy,” and, worst of all, gay characters infected with HIV, like on thirtysomething. There were very, very few just “normal” gays in primetime.

Roseanne, on the other hand, had one of its main characters, Nancy Bartlett (played by Sandra Bernhard), come out in the episode “Ladies Choice,” where Nancy tells them she’s dating Mariel Hemingway’s Marla, who would later lock lips with Roseanne.

Ah, yes, that kiss. It’s just one of many “Lesbian Kiss Episodes,” which are usually used by writers and networks to garner ratings — not Roseanne, though. L.A. Law was the first to have one, followed by Picket Fences. Roseanne came next, and ABC almost wouldn’t let it air. The kiss is totally harmless — there’s nothing sexy about it, which is exactly the point. It’s just a non-sexual kiss between two women. In “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Marla takes Roseanne, who wants to prove how “hip” she is, sister Jackie, and Nancy to a gay bar, and while there, the kiss happens. After the fact, though, Roseanne begins to realize maybe she wasn’t as “cool” as she’d like to be, freaking out about the whole thing. That’s an understandable action for a blue-collar straight woman living in Lanford, Illinois (not a real town, but I think you can picture what it looks like); wanting to prove that she’s up with the time, until she realizes maybe she doesn’t like it as much as she says she does.

Besides, Roseanne’s actions off-stage were doing more than enough. After ABC threatened to pull the episode (according to Tom Arnold, network executives told him, “A woman cannot kiss a woman. It is bad for the kids to see”), Roseanne told them that if the “Don’t Ask” didn’t air, she’d move her hit show to another network. The episode aired March 1, 1994.

A year later, slightly after Northern Exposure’s gay wedding, there was also the wedding of Roseanne’s boss, Leon (Martin Mull), to his boyfriend, Scott (Fred Willard). To discuss this episode, it’s important to remember something that was said before: many people, especially those living in hick towns like the Conners, didn’t quite understand homosexuality the way we do now. That’s why Roseanne, who’s in charge of planning the wedding, adds every gay stereotype imaginable to the procession, including male strippers, flamingos, and a sign proclaiming “Gay Love, Gay Power.”

It sounds a little cringe inducing, and it is, but Roseanne is also a comedy, and the writers didn’t need to include gay characters or gay weddings or gay whatever; it was the mid-1990s, most other shows weren’t. And this exchange, between Roseanne and Leon after he begins freaking out about getting married, solves everything:

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?
Leon: Well…
Roseanne: Gay!

There’s even a remarkably subtle callback to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” where Roseanne’s husband Dan feels a little uneven being at the wedding (he’s a Man’s Man, after all, so give him credit for actually being there), and she tells him that there’s nothing wrong with two men kissing. Then, without saying a word, Mariel Hemingway sits down next to her. Later in the show, Roseanne’s mother Bev would also come out of the closet, although we find out in the final episode (SPOILER) that nearly everything that happened in the previous two seasons didn’t actually happen, and it’s in fact Jackie who’s gay (which makes sense considering Roseanne’s real-life sister and brother are gay).

This was the first gay wedding I remember seeing on TV, as was the kiss. I grew up in upstate New York, in a town that made me envious of Lanford. Our biggest employer was also a factory (a rock quarry, technically), but it was so small that even the McDonald’s eventually went out of business. It’s the proverbial town-where-everyone-knows-your-name. All I knew about what “gays” were like is what TV told me, meaning they were either extremely flamboyant, or were doing something morally wrong (there were many students in my school who believed that one). I liked to believe the first more than the second, but even something about that felt wrong. It wasn’t until I began watching Roseanne that I began to understand, to get a sense of what someone is gay like, that a gay man was no different than me, other than he liked to kiss other men.

This might sound like a “no shit,” preachy point, especially from a straight man, and I’ll admit that it’s odd re-reading that paragraph now that I’ve lived in New York City for four years. But remember, we’re lucky enough to live in a time where there are 23 gay characters on broadcast networks and 35 on cable, numbers that while not as high as they should be, are still better than what it used to be, only 15 years prior. To an isolated kid, TV is culture. And while other shows have handled gay plotlines with more tact and grace (The Sopranos, The Wire, The Simpsons, and even Nurse Jackie come to mind), Roseanne was one of the first.

A good TV show leaves you with a lingering memory of why you liked, while a great TV show leaves you with a message. Roseanne is one of the greats, and it was one of the first to say that being gay is OK.

Josh Kurp still doesn’t think the final episode of Roseanne was a cop-out.

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