Classic Gay TV: Roseanne, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

In Classic Gay TV, Louis Peitzman looks at classic and new-classic gay-themed episodes of television. Was this a major step forward in LGBT representation or a cringeworthy relic of the past?

Series: Roseanne
Episode: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Season 6, episode 18)
Original Air Date: March 1, 1994

Plot Points: Roseanne and Jackie finally get to meet Nancy’s girlfriend Sharon, played by Mariel Hemingway. Sharon invites the sisters to go dancing at a gay bar called Lips. Jackie is weirded out, concerned that everyone will think she’s gay. (“Well, then you can just think they’re gay right back at them,” Roseanne says.) Determined to prove she’s cool enough to hang, Roseanne agrees to meet Nancy and Sharon at the club.

Once at Lips, Jackie is exactly as freaked out as you’d expect. She even asks Leon to be her fake boyfriend, despite the fact that Leon is wearing a (hideous) rainbow sweater. Roseanne has fun tormenting Jackie by pretending they’re a lesbian couple, which doesn’t stop Jackie from getting hit on. Sharon and Nancy show up, and Roseanne ups her cool factor by dancing with them. Then things get a little awkward in a private moment, as Sharon flirts heavily with Roseanne and finally kisses her.

Roseanne plays it off like it’s no big deal — she’s evolved, you know — but she’s clearly a little freaked out by the whole thing. She and Nancy end up butting heads, not because Roseanne kissed Nancy’s girlfriend, but because Roseanne’s being a total drama queen about the kiss. Nancy accuses Roseanne of being a hypocrite for not embracing her inner lesbian. The friends eventually make up: Nancy tells Roseanne she doesn’t like to think about what Roseanne does in bed with Dan either.

What Makes It Gay: Oh, just about everything. Roseanne and Jackie go to a gay bar. We see queer characters Nancy and Leon in their natural element. Roseanne kisses a woman. The same-sex kiss was a huge controversy at the time, with ABC initially pulling the episode. (Now ABC airs its fair share of explicitly gay entertainment, although the same-sex smooches are still few and far between.) This wasn’t a one-off either — even if Roseanne’s lesbian moment was short lived, Nancy remained queer throughout the series.

How Does It Hold Up: Roseanne remains a more progressive show than a lot of what’s on now. It’s rare to find such frank depictions of sexuality as a spectrum — Roseanne talks about not being entirely straight, and Nancy dates both men and women — as well as internalized homophobia. The episode is so light and entertaining that it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking it was, and that’s maybe the best reflection of its impact on LGBT representation.

Key Lines:
“You’ve never been able to accept our alternate lifestyle. Well, it isn’t a choice, you know.” (Roseanne)

“Is that you, Roseanne? I thought it was a drag queen doing a really bad Liz Taylor.” (Leon)

Roseanne: “Next time let’s leave the wives at home.”
Sharon: “You read my mind.”

Nancy: “Sexuality isn’t black and white. There’s a whole gray area.”
Roseanne: “I know about the gray area.”
Nancy: “And you’re afraid that just one tiny little percent of you might have been turned on by a woman.”

Louis Peitzman is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, spending most of his time as the weekend editor at Gawker and a contributor to WitStream and He’s a little bit Dorothy, a little bit Blanche. You can follow him on Twitter.

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