On a January 2005 episode of the hit crime drama Law & Order, Assistant District Attorney Serena Southerlyn (Elizabeth Rohm) was unexpectedly fired. Even more unexpected was what she asked her boss immediately after receiving her dismissal: “Is it because I’m a lesbian?”
Those words were a telling marker of the status of lesbians on television over the past year. They implied that being a lesbian has become something less shocking than normal—so normal, in fact, that sometimes it’s not even worth mentioning.
The growing normalcy of homosexuality has been marked on television in 2005 by increasing numbers of lesbian and bisexual characters on reality television, from Kim Stolz of America’s Next Top Model 5 to Ivette Corredero on Big Brother 6.
That throwaway comment also implies that coming-out is no longer as big of a deal as it was when Ellen DeGeneres uttered the famous words “I’m gay” on her television sitcom in 1997. And because coming-out is no longer the huge issue it once was, it is now possible for teen characters to come out without much homophobic backlash.
In 2005, three television programs introduced coming-out storylines for their teen characters, including The O.C., One Tree Hill, and more recently, South of Nowhere.
Finally, the fact that Elizabeth Rohm’s character did not come out until the very last moment she appeared on Law & Order indicates something that has not changed much over the years: even when characters are out lesbians on network or cable television, they rarely get to have a social life that includes their sexual identity. They can work as hard as their straight counterparts, but they don’t get to go out on dates, as we can currently see on shows like ER, Nip/Tuck, and Out of Practice.
For well-rounded lesbian characters with both careers and personal lives, you have to turn to cable television, which has continued to push the envelope this year on programs ranging from The L Word to Lackawanna Blues (HBO), in addition to the fledgling gay cable channels Logo, here! and Q Television.
By the Numbers
Scripted television in 2005 featured 13 lesbian characters and nine bisexual characters. This is a marked increase in the number of bisexual characters on television in previous years, but this increase is also due to the fact that many of the female characters on television who had same-sex relationships in 2005 either went back to dating men after their same-sex relationship, or previously had dated men. There are still relatively few characters on television who openly identify as bisexual.
Once unscripted television is added into the equation, the total number of lesbians rises to 17, and the total number of bisexuals rises to 10. Though this may seem like a large number and in fact has risen from previous years, lesbians and bisexual women make up a minority of LGBT characters on television. According to GLAAD, lesbians and bisexual women comprise only 22 percent of the LGBT characters on broadcast TV, with gay/bisexual men comprising 78 percent.
The proportion is much more balanced on cable television, where The L Word helps lesbians push ahead.