4. SOAP (1977-1981)
Even before ABC's comedy hit the airwaves, it was the subject of intense media speculation that its plot involving Jodie (played by a twinkly young Billy Crystal) — an openly gay character and candidate for a sex-change operation — would leave the nation in ruins. Condemned from pulpits, Soap inspired one of the first preemptive-strike letter-writing campaigns organized by the religious right, which scared eight network affiliates into not carrying the show. It was also attacked by gay-rights organizations, including the National Gay Task Force, which had understandable qualms about what it might do to their campaign for greater acceptance to be associated, in people's minds, with Billy Crystal.

In the end, the network had it both ways, collecting their big ratings when everyone tuned in at the start to see what the fuss was about, then ordering that the creators downplay the sexy stuff and reshape the central storyline into a murder mystery. The worst damage was done to Crystal's character, who attempted suicide in the hospital after being dumped by his boyfriend on the eve of his gender-reassignment surgery. He survived, but while the character continued to identify as gay, he never hooked up with another guy in the course of the series; instead, he had a quick fling with a woman, got her pregnant, and spent much of his remaining time on the show fighting for custody of his daughter. In the end, a character whose very existence inspired protests by homophobic religious groups became a symbol of the outdated notion that gay men are tragic figures who can only be redeemed by rejecting their orientation long enough to breed.


5. LOVE, SIDNEY (1981-1983)

As Felix Unger on The Odd Couple, Tony Randall played a supposedly straight character using stereotypically "gay" mannerisms to a degree that anticipated Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce on FrasierLove, Sidney gave Randall the chance to play an explicitly gay character, the first ever to be the protagonist of a network show. Sidney was a commercial illustrator who befriended a young actress (played by Lorna Patterson in the pilot and by Swoosie Kurtz in the series) whom he talked out of having an abortion. Sidney, the actress, and her adorable moppet wound up crammed together in his sweet Manhattan apartment. But religious groups, rather than being impressed with Sidney's anti-abortion bona fides, made such a stink about the idea of a gay man on TV that NBC delayed airing the pilot for a year, then insisted that Sidney be gelded. Apparently Sidney was so crushed by the death of his one male lover (whose photo on the mantelpiece watched over the action like a baleful ghost) that he could never date again. When, towards the end of the second season, he dipped one toe back into the dating pool, it was with a woman, as if he'd been on the shelf so long that he'd forgotten his orientation. Love, Sidney ended with its pathetic hero still flying solo and, like Jodie on Soap, fighting off thoughts of suicide.


6. CAGNEY & LACEY (1982-1988)
This "quality" cop series about two women who work together as New York City police detectives began with a 1981 TV movie in which the leads were played by Loretta Swit and Tyne Daly. When CBS decided to go ahead with it as a series, Swit, who was tied down playing Major Houlihan on M*A*S*H, was replaced by Meg Foster. Early ratings were shaky, and the CBS brass decided that it must have something to do with viewers being put off by threatening lesbian vibes. Though both characters were supposed to be straight, it was felt that when the two dark-haired, hard-edged actresses were seen in close proximity to each other, they looked like, in the words of an unidentified CBS executive, "a couple of dykes." It was decided that the best way to solve the problem was to fire Foster and replace herwith the blonde Sharon Gless, who, according to some mysterious executive calculation, was judged more Malibu Beach than Isle of Lesbos. The readjusted version of the show would go on to run for fucking ever; a dozen years after it ended, Gless, God love her, would be prominently (albeit heterosexually) featured on the American version of Queer as Folk.

Commentarium (44 Comments)

Sep 24 09 - 1:50pm

Joss Whedon had it long before Grey's Anatomy on Buffy. I beleive it was season 5 where Willow and Tara actually kiss on air, but they were a couple for most of season 4.

Sep 24 09 - 2:46pm

Not to mention the implied oral sex between Willow and Tara in Once More with Feeling.

Sep 24 09 - 3:52pm

In its original form, this article actually mentioned Buffy as a show that handled lesbianism in a less cynical, more character-driven way; we just ran a little short on space. - ed

Sep 24 09 - 11:20pm

You ran short of space on the internet?

Sep 24 09 - 11:40pm


Sep 25 09 - 9:29am

DJ Conner stood for David Jacob, not Dan Jr.

Sep 25 09 - 9:33am

While I understand the "running short on space" argument, I don't think that sacrificing a POSITIVE portrayal of lesbians on television (i.e. Willow and Tara) in favour of listing all the ways that television got it wrong possibly loses some of the spirit of the article that I was hoping to read. Then again, not my article, so if your aim was specifically to highlight "here's how television quashes all gay romance," then top-notch job. Yes they're all controversies, but it would have been great to see some of the positive outcomes from these incidents! They're definitely out there!

Sep 25 09 - 10:35am

Fair enough. Here's what Phil had to say about Buffy:

There have been lesbian kiss moments on Roseanne, Picket Fences, Party of Five, Ally McBeal, and Friends, among others; Mischa Barton, who dropped in on Once and Again long enough to tempt Evan Rachel Wood, would later be tempted herself, on The O.C., by Olivia Wilde. In a category all its own is the love affair of Alyson Hannigan's Willow and Amber Benson's Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the characters were deeply and believably committed to each other long before they were first seen to kiss on-screen. Even if it's true that their first kiss was delayed because the network had cold feet, the effect may have been to make the relationship seem like less of a stunt.

Sep 25 09 - 2:09pm

Echoing the already stated fact that DJ did not stand for Dan Connor Junior. He was indeed David Jacob. His teacher called him "David Jacob" repeatedly in the early episode in which he won his elementary school spelling bee.

Sep 26 09 - 12:51am

You ran short on space on the internet?

Sep 27 09 - 3:23pm

Hello? Xena?

Sep 27 09 - 3:33pm
Susan A.

Don't forget the first inter-racial kiss on TV: Uhura and Kirk (I think) on the episode Plato's Stepchildren, circa 1968.

Sep 27 09 - 3:49pm
Eric S.

The Brady Bunch was the first program to show a married couple sleeping in the same bed (fully clothed, but still...). That must count for something.

Sep 27 09 - 4:10pm
Shemp Lugosi

You forgot the TV Movie "That Certain Summer" and the same-sex couple on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman that pretended to be brothers. And to Erin S., Bewitched showed a married couple in the same bed long before the Brady Bunch came on the air.

Sep 27 09 - 4:40pm

Do I live in an alternate universe? An article like this an no mention of Will & Grace?

Sep 27 09 - 6:17pm

Hate to jump in deeper into the geek pool, but what about the big psuedo-lesbian moment with Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine? That one pissed off plenty of idiots back in the day . . .

Sep 27 09 - 6:21pm

The first interracial kiss on television was on Star Trek (maybe worth a mention).

Sep 27 09 - 6:24pm
Max Black

I was going to mention the Dax "lesbian" scene in DS9. The writers twisted the whole thing into a pretzel: without going into detail, Dax's female love interest are both aliens who can periodically switch genders. Dax had fallen in love with the lady in question while she (Dax) was male. So, the two ladies got to lay a fairly hot smooch on each other while still having the waters suitably muddied about any lesbian/gay vibe. As a result, Trek had its cake and ate it, too.

Sep 27 09 - 6:25pm
Max Black

That should be "Dax and her female love interest are both aliens...." Woops.

Sep 27 09 - 6:25pm
Amanda Huginkiss

The first married couple in the same bed was on Green Acres: Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor.

Sep 27 09 - 6:34pm

Pretty shocked that there's no mention of Murphy Brown or Ellen here. I didn't watch or care about the shows, but I certainly remember the national brouhaha each of them stirred up at the peak of their controversy.

Sep 27 09 - 7:12pm
Bruce from Missouri

To be fair to Grey's Anatomy, they replaced Dr. Hahn with another lesbian doc, Arizona Robbins, and Callie has continued down the lesbian path. I suspect what really happened was
A: The network decided the pairing was to butch, and the orders came down from the network to replace Smith with a more femme actress.

B: the character was gotten rid of because the character was extremely unlikeable, to an extent she couldn't reasonably come back from(due to bad writing).

Or a combination of the two...I tend to believe that it was 75% column A, and 25% column B.

Sep 27 09 - 7:52pm

Let us not forget about the classic episode "The Contest" (about masturbation) from Seinfeld.

Christian fundamentalists raised a fuss about this episode as well.

Sep 27 09 - 8:00pm

@ Bruce - totally agree! They got rid of the awesome actress who played Dr. Hahn, then replaced her with a sugary sweet younger blonde.

Sep 27 09 - 9:34pm

I Love Lucy was groundbreaking. It was the first program to allow a pregnant actor screen time, but she wasn't allowed to use the word 'pregnant'.

Ozzie and Harriet Nelson were one of the first screen couples to be allowed to share a bed without with each actor being required to keep one foot on the floor at all times. The horrors!!!

Sep 27 09 - 9:35pm

My post is so garbled because the comment box is so small that you can only see two lines at a time. Increase the size of the comment box!

Sep 28 09 - 1:09am

Are you sure that Jodie Dallas ("SOAP") still identified as gay? During the story where he converted the lesbian, he did bring a man home (the scene was for a laugh -- the lesbian brought a woman home, and things were awkward), and then he almost lost custody of his child because of homosexuality, but they still put him in hetero relationships. His last relationship on the show was with the PI who had helped him in the custody fight and when the baby mama ran away. She was played by Maggie Rhodes. Then, realizing the character was long dead anyway, they fully caved to Billy Crystal's "comic" gifts and had Jodie somehow get the personality of an elderly Jewish butcher.

Sep 28 09 - 1:34am

i dont get it, what exactly was this list about? the moments when networks chose the easy path over controversy? or when the networks neutered their best chances at interesting shows? none of these "controversies" changed tv, they just supported the networks ideas that america wasn't ready for the raciness they could offer, but chose to soften. so what is this really about? Please inform me, i don't follow the current titles ideology.

Sep 28 09 - 2:51am

What is bisexuality "back-pedaling"? Do you not consider it a valid sexuality? Do you realize how insulting that is to bisexuals?

Sep 28 09 - 3:11am

Did all of these controversies really "change TV"? Many were arguably trailblazers that were before their time, and I found this a fascinating history of what was controversial before my birth in 1978. If this article is to be treated as comprehensive, post-1980 nothing besides homosexuality was very controversial on TV when it comes to sex. I suppose that time period coincided with the launch of cable, and as cable blazed new ground the networks were able to gradually follow.

In many ways this reads as a list of "things the Networks got squeamish about and weren't allowed to change TV at their time".

Sep 28 09 - 3:33am
Ian Adams

Seriously? No mention of Star Trek?

Sep 28 09 - 5:13am

30 Something having the first gay couple in bed together.

Sep 28 09 - 6:40am

How about the first human-machine sex in Battlestar Galactica, when Helo and Athena get it on and have a child?

Sep 28 09 - 7:17am
Will Overhead

DJ's name was David Jacob

Sep 28 09 - 10:38am

We've updated the post to correct D.J.'s full name. - ed.

Sep 28 09 - 3:50pm

I cannot believe you overlooked mentioning "Seinfeld" for one single reference.

"Master of my domain"? Erika, the phone sex lady? George and Jerry's evil plot hatched to get Jerry in bed with his girlfriend's roommate, and that ingenious ending, so incongruously REALISTIC, for God's sake?

No TV program slashed censorship more. And...Cagney and LACY? Groundbreaking? Because they LOOKED like dykes? Good grief!

Oct 01 09 - 6:20pm

No mention of Maude's (Bea Arthur) open decision to have an abortion of her husband's baby? That wouldn't fly on television even today. Are all of the new Nerve writers sub 25?

Oct 08 09 - 11:35pm
Bubba in TX

Not to nitpick, but the lesbian kiss on "L.A. Law" was not at the end of the episode but about one-third of the way through the episode...which, like Rosalind Shays falling down the elevator shaft, made it all the more shocking than if it had been at the end of the episode. I remember it as if it was yesterday--I was in college and had recorded the episode on my VCR (kickin' it OLD SCHOOL!). I watched it later that night as I was falling asleep, and when the kiss happened, I jumped straight out of bed in shock. I had to rewind it a few times to make sure I didn't dream it. Yes, they downplayed things by the end of the episode, and when the characters did go out on a "date" (several episodes later) it was just long enough to have C.J. dump Abby for not really being interested in women ("Consider yourself two things: dumped...and relieved."), it cemented CJ as one of the most intriguing characters on the show. At least until they watered down her character a season or two later. Hell, everything got watered down by the end of the run of that show.

Oct 09 09 - 4:20pm
Tommy Marx

In an interview, Joss Whedon said he specifically waited to show Willow and Tara kiss until the episode dealing with Joyce's death so the network couldn't advertise the episode as a lesbian kiss thing. Joss didn't want their relationship trivialized like that.

Dec 22 09 - 2:14am

How could you possibly leave out the first televised interracial kiss on Star Trek?

Mar 25 10 - 11:01pm

The high school orgy scene on Without a Trace's epi, Our Sons and Daughters, no big deal the first time it aired, but it ran in an earlier time slot in a re-run and caused a big problem. CBS and WB got fined big time.

Jun 09 10 - 10:52pm


On what planet is Callie Torres butch?

Aug 25 10 - 9:21pm

mumbo jumbo,

Aug 14 12 - 1:15am

Also on Roseanne, the episode where DJ was caught masturbating at school. There were tons of joke about how he played with his instrument, etc, and the closing shot of the episode showed Roseanne arguing arguing with the network's censor over what synonyms for "erection" could be used. I believe the show was fined and Roseanna happily paid it herself.