Wanted: Lesbian after-school specials, please

Maybe it’s some kind of morbid curiosity, the same kind that leads me to watch horror films and documentaries about murderers and unsolved crimes, but I’ve always been a fan of after-school specials. They are tamer, to be sure, but they came with a lesson or some kind of truth. My favorite series was on HBO in the ’90s, my prime learning years, and it was called Lifestories: Family in Crisis. Some big names starred in episodes about issues (or “crises”) teens were dealing with. The promo said it all: “Drugs! Child Abuse! Alcohol! Sex! Guns! Steroids!” (Somehow that last one doesn’t quite fit.)

What I remember more than Calista Flockhart playing bulimic or Ben Affleck having the ‘roids addiction was the episode where Heidi Leiter took her girlfriend to prom (More than Friends: The Heidi Leiter Story).

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Sabrina Lloyd played Heidi, a basketball player who fell for her older teammate, Missy. They finally share their feelings for one another just before Missy leaves for college. (“I’m really gonna miss you you know. I mean, it’s been fun, practicing with you.”) There’s no real coming out, but soon Heidi’s parents take her to the therapist, Dr. Johnson, who is luckily educated enough to school Heidi’s mom, who insists her daughter’s gayness is just a stage.

“It’s all I ever really felt,” Heidi explains. “The way I feel for Missy I’ve never felt for anyone. It’s not just physical. … It’s emotional too. I don’t know, she just makes everything right.”

Heidi’s dad seems supportive and understanding, but her mom keeps encouraging Heidi to date guys and call Dr. Johnson. (Funnily enough, years later after coming out to my own mom, she wanted me to call our family therapist, also named Dr. Johnson. Spoiler alert: I did not.)

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Heidi is one head-strong lesbian, and she decides to bring her girlfriend to prom with her. Her younger sister, played by Claire Danes, outs her at school (how could you Claire?) and Heidi gets an earful in the locker room from some bitch:

“I think what you’re doing is gross! Don’t ask to borrow my lipstick again! The things you are thinking of doing with that girl in bed…”

I needn’t worry, though, because Heidi knows just what to say to haters.

“Nobody invited you into my room to look, OK?”

This episode aired in 1994, two years after the real Heidi Leiter told her story in Glamour magazine. From the eight-page article:

    “A lot of people don’t think they know any gays, but they do,” Heidi says.
     “They’ll be sitting there saying they don’t know any gay people, and I’ll be thinking, ‘Oh yeah?’” says Missy.
     “That’s one reason we’re going to the prom,” Heidi says, “to let people know we’re out and we’re just like everybody else.”
      “Like the saying goes,” Missy adds, “‘We are everywhere.’” These two young women want to be counted.
The article has some problematic language (“Heidi’s mother vehemently opposed the idea of Heidi going public with her gay life-style.”) but the episode of Lifestories is well-written and holds up over time. But even back in ’94 a critic from the Orlando Sentinel noted how differently it was treated than the Roseanne lesbian kiss that famously aired the same year.

Thank you, ABC, for giving us time to cover the eyes and ears of our impressionable young against exposure to such provocative adult material. I’m kidding, of course. Becky’s va-va-voom attire and the snickering guy talk were not the occasion for the parental warning. If they were, we would have seen the same warning before on Roseanne.

No, ABC hauled out the advisory for last week’s episode because it dared to show two women kissing – Roseanne and a lesbian played by Mariel Hemingway. ….

The Coming Out of Heidi Leiter is based on the true story of a high-school girl’s agonizing decision to come out of the closet by inviting her girlfriend to the senior prom. This is a discreet, tasteful drama – just one light kiss on the lips between the girls – that plays more like a CBS Schoolbreak Special than it does a fleshy HBO production. The focus is not lesbian sex (sorry, voyeurs), but rather the bigotry and ostracism visited on the couple by heterosexuals – and the girls’ courage in facing up to it. …

Heidi Leiter is also lucky she’s on HBO. On ABC, her life would carry a parental warning.

Yet somehow the Roseanne kiss is one most people remember. Sure it was network TV and on a progressive, boundary-pushing show, but Heidi Leiter was on the ground, challenging societal norms and shrugging off assholes that called her a dyke and threatened her and her girlfriend.

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“Is that the girl taking another girl to the prom?” she heard someone whisper to a cluster of classmates. Once, as she left the building to go home, she heard a boy cry out, above the din of a departing school bus, “Dyke!”  “Yes, and proud of it!” Heidi shouted back.
Of course the HBO version has some dramatic elements that did not happen in real life, like Heidi and Missy going on a talk show where they hear from the audience about homosexuality and why it’s wrong (the Bible) and a scene where they try on tuxes in hopes of looking like Marlene Dietrich in Morocco. While in the store, two guys come in and tell the owner, “Mister we just want to check out the dykes. Better get some insurance on those tuxedos ‘cuz they aren’t coming back real neat.”
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After Missy gets attacked by them and lands in the hospital, she tearfully says to Heidi, “I was just some dyke to them.” Hearing “dyke” on television is jarring, even today. You’d think I’d be used to the word by now, reclaiming it and all that. But maybe when I hear it several times rewatching a ’90s docudrama and think about how lesbian couples are still barred from going to proms together in parts of the country, just like they were in rural Virginia where Missy and Heidi blazed their trail, it makes me wish afterschool specials were still par for the course. Maybe these kinds of stories, as cheesy as some of them can be, are just as necessary as seeing fictional girls kiss on TV shows. Heidi Leiter was and is a real person, as she spoke at the end of her Lifestories episode:

My name is Heidi Leiter. The story you just saw is my story. You may think it’s strange that I’ve been so public about part of my life that is private, but I didn’t do it for attention. It wasn’t about that. It was about being allowed to do something every other kid in America does.  … This is who I am. This is who I’ve always been. Being gay is not a choice I made. It’s not something I just decided to be. The only choice I made is not to lie about it.

In 2010, ABC Family was reportedly working on a TV movie version of the Constance McMillen story, which followed a lesbian teen whose high school did not allow her to bring her girlfriend to prom. She sued and eventually won, coming out victorious and hailed as a young activist. It looks like the network isn’t moving forward with the film. Maybe they feel like they don’t have to anymore, with shows like lesbian-positive shows like Pretty Little Liars and The Fosters. But are we missing something when we’re not telling more real stories? Not instead of the lesbian characters created for TV, but in addition to them.

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Like the 2011 film Bully, for instance. It’s on Netflix now, and out lesbian teen Kerby talks of her harrowing experiences in podunk, Iowa. She faced discrimination from her peers and her teachers, 17 years after Lifestories premiered Heidi’s story.

Sabrina Lloyd, who played Heidi, said in an interview that it was her favorite role. (“We were nominated for two Emmys for that. It was pretty wonderful.”) You can find it on YouTube and revel in its ’90s-ness, but you’ll also appreciate the message and how it’s delivered.

“Everything we do in the open is political,” Missy says to Heidi when she’s debating going to her prom. “We don’t make it that way, everybody else does.”

I tried to find any trace of Heidi Leiter on the internet, but the only thing I could track down was an obituary for her mother, who died young at 59 in 2008. Heidi is listed as as a survivor, and next to her it says “and partner Teri Pike of Gainesville, Virginia.” Some people might consider that political, even after all this time.

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