In one of the most famous — and puzzling — conclusions to a Law and Order episode ever, Assistant D.A. Serena Southerlyn (Elizabeth Rohm) was unexpectedly outed at the end of “Ain’t No Love,” which aired on January 12, 2005, when she responded to her dismissal with the question, “Is it because I’m a lesbian?”
Southerlyn’s unexpected outing is one of the few episodes in Law and Order’s 15-year history that has included a lesbian or bisexual character. Although Law and Order aired episodes about gay men beginning in its very first season, lesbians rarely made appearances on the crime drama until its ninth season in 1999.
Since then, lesbians or bisexual women have been victims of crime, engaged in closeted love affairs, and fought for child custody.
With a new season of the long-running series debuting next week, it’s worth examining how queer women have been portrayed on Law and Order to date.
Overall, Law and Order’s track record on lesbian and bisexual characters is mixed. Although some episodes about lesbians do not fall into old-school stereotypes, some do; on the other hand, bisexual characters are overwhelmingly portrayed as psychopaths.
A few episodes, including “Ain’t No Love” in which Southerlyn was outed, include lesbian victims in storylines that don’t necessarily have anything to do with lesbianism.
In a Season 10 episode titled “Panic,” which originally aired on February 16, 2000, Law and Order presents a ripped-from-the-headlines episode based on the life of Patricia Cornwell, the bestselling mystery novelist.
In this episode, a mystery writer named P.K. Todd is shot while walking with her accountant; although Todd survives, the accountant dies. The investigation reveals that Todd was having an affair with a female FBI agent, and detectives quickly conclude that the FBI agent’s husband tried to kill Todd out of jealousy.
In court the husband’s lawyers attempt to use the infamous “gay panic” defense that has been used numerous times to acquit heterosexual killers, but the judge rejects the defense.
In a last-minute twist, it is revealed that the couple’s daughter shot Todd after she saw her mother and Todd together.
This episode’s storyline, despite its moderately sensational aspect, doesn’t seem to have much to do with lesbianism; the daughter’s attempt at murdering her mother’s lover has more to do with infidelity than homosexuality.
A more recent episode, “Married With Children,” that aired on February 4, 2004, tackled gay marriage and its impact on child custody cases. After a woman is killed by being pushed off her hotel balcony, her ex-wife flees with their child.
When the police find her, they charge her with kidnapping and murder, but in a creative twist the woman’s lawyers claim that because the state in which she lived with her partner did not allow gay marriage or gay adoption, she should not be charged with kidnapping because she would not have been charged with that crime if she had been the heterosexual spouse of the victim (and thus the parent of the child).
This episode was notable because A.D.A. Serena Southerlyn was an outspoken advocate for gay marriage, and also for its unique spin on gay marriage laws.