In the mid-’90s I went to Catholic high school and lived in rural New Jersey. Monday through Friday I wore a gray pleated skirt, white button-down, and a blue V-neck sweater. I was on the track team and edited our literary magazine. I wasn’t popular, but the other girls didn’t make my life a living hell either.
I was also worried I might be a lesbian.
Somewhere in between my first kiss with a boy and diving into fervent debates about Team Dylan vs. Team Brandon on Beverly Hills, 90210, I would get fizzy, swoony feelings about different girls in my class. I often wondered what it would be like to kiss them, but before I would allow myself to imagine more, my shame and embarrassment would gut-punch me back into heterosexuality.
After all, I didn’t read any books or see any movies with lesbians living “normal lives,” and the only gay friends my parents had were my two uncles who lived together a la Bert and Ernie as far as their families were concerned. I just assumed, therefore, that to have those feelings was at best something to be hidden and at worst something to be ashamed of.
By the time Friends arrived in September 1994, Ellen DeGeneres still hadn’t announced that yep, she was gay, and the only time I had really heard the word “lesbian” aloud (let alone seen someone acting like one) was during the controversial Roseanne episode that had aired earlier that year.
But within the first three minutes of the Friends pilot, the L-word came rolling off Joey’s — a.k.a. the “hot guy’s” — tongue like it was no big deal, like it wasn’t out of the ordinary to mention during primetime. My interest was immediately piqued until my impressionable brain also registered that this lesbian they were speaking of was also the punchline. It was a joke that Ross had unwittingly married her, yes, but without the lesbian, there would be no joke. Later in the same episode, Ross is drinking a beer when he laments of his ex-wife, “This was Carol’s favorite beer. She always drank it out of the can. I should have known.” Cue more laughter because the only thing funnier than a lesbian is one who fits stereotypes.
Still, with my 16-year-old-self desperate to both ignore and hide being a girl who liked girls, I so wanted to belong in this fun, vibrant New York City where you got to hang out all day with your pals in a coffee shop resembling a living room with mismatched furniture and drink from oversized coffee mugs. Yes, I was only in high school, but this was aspirational viewing, a live-action vision board for where my dreadfully boring suburban life could end up. No one told me life was gonna be this way, but this was definitely the way I — and apparently 21 million others who tuned into the premiere — wanted it to be.
At my school, the effects of the new series were rampant: “The Rachel” spread like a brush fire through the oppressed uniformed student population whose self-expression was limited to haircuts; and it seemed everyone started venturing into New York City to explore Greenwich Village, instead of hanging out at the mall. We still watched 90210 and Melrose Place, but Los Angeles may as well have required a passport to get to, whereas we could conceivably be in New York City in an hour, sipping bowls of overpriced lattes while wearing babydoll tees and floral prints.
Carol (played in one episode by Anita Barone, and Jane Sibbett thereafter) had a significant role in the arc of the first season, even getting an episode centered on the birth of her and Ross’ son, Ben, but the landmark representation didn’t come without a price: Similar to the pilot, the lesbian stereotype was a seemingly bottomless well drawn from time and time again. Take the second episode where Ross meets Carol’s girlfriend Susan (Jessica Hecht) for the first time: after shaking her hand, he jokes, “Good shake, good shake.” Or, mid-season, when an unprovoked Joey teases Ross about his child having a mom who’s a lesbian. In that same episode, Ross mistakes a picture of Carol and Susan’s friend for Huey Lewis.
As if that wasn’t enough, series writers dove headfirst into the sexuality trope pool when Ross and Carol find themselves on an accidental Valentine’s Day date in “The One With the Candy Hearts.” Ross asks Carol to give them another shot before saying “No, I know…you’re a lesbian. What do you say we just put that aside for now?” And while Carol does eventually set Ross straight (no pun intended), they first have to kiss — something Carol and Susan never share onscreen, not even after the birth of the son they become the primary caregivers for or after their own wedding in the second season.
In fact, in the first season, Carol and Susan factored into only six of the 24 episodes, and, yet, throughout, “Bobo the sperm guy” is seen sharing more affection with Carol, often leaving Susan to look more like a female roommate/third wheel to either set up or to be the punchline in the lesbian joke.
When the first kiss between women finally did happen on the show that’s patted itself on its back about its LGBTQ inclusion, it didn’t occur until the seventh season, and it was done as a sweeps week ratings grab between Rachel and her former sorority sister (guest star Winona Ryder) not the show’s actual lesbian couple.
Certainly, the Friends’ lesbian storyline was groundbreaking in many ways. It was the first show to feature a wedding between women, and while I definitely didn’t notice it at the time, I did recently read in an interview with Sibbett in The Guardian that in “The One Without the Ski Trip,” when Ross barges in on Carol who’s in her robe, he asks her if she’s been sleeping. She quickly says, no, and, according to Sibbett, pulls a “little pube” out of her mouth. It was a barely perceptible yet arguably monumental sleight of hand to pull off for network television.
And, I must admit that for a teenager in New Jersey, Carol and Susan’s relationship did impress upon me that gays could have families and the world wouldn’t stop spinning. But, even as recently as the last few years, the creators have found themselves defending the series’ gay panic jokes, insisting that Chandler’s paranoid one-liners weren’t low-hanging fruit, and touting the inclusion of Kathleen Turner as Chandler’s father as evidence of their landmark envelope-pushing. Their defensiveness, though, reads more like a white person who cites having a black friend as reason for their not being racist. They may as well have said they were body positive for featuring “Fat Monica.”
The lesbian jokes didn’t ease up over the rest of the series’ 10-season run. In “The One With All the Thanksgivings,” Ross tells his mom in a flashback that his new girlfriend Carol is on the lacrosse team and the golf team. “She plays for both teams,” he says to a chuckling audience. Even after Carol and Susan were no longer seen on the program, the show still kept drawing homophobic water. In “The One With the Cheap Wedding Dress,” the episode after Sibbett’s last appearance, in an effort to impress Gabrielle Union‘s character, Kristen, Joey jokes, “It just seems like Ross is the kind of guy who would marry a woman on the verge of being a lesbian and then push her over the edge,” implying yet again in the course of the show’s history that sexuality is a choice. And in season 8 with both Carol and Susan long gone from view, there was an entire episode driven by Ben being bullied by Sting’s son for having two moms.
There are only so many times you can go to a well before it runs dry, and for a teenager trying to figure out whether to push or pull on that closet door, the empty well helped ensure a full closet. I laughed along with both my Friends and my friends as I processed Carol and Susan’s sitcom of a relationship, but deep down I knew that I was burying myself in self-hatred and shame for being both a coward and a lesbian, only at that time I didn’t know which was worse.
It would be 10 more years before I was finally able to come out of the closet, and while I admittedly still find myself turning to my Friends in times of nostalgia or boredom, I at least see the cultural touchstone for what it really is: an old friend I’ve thankfully outgrown.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the character Joey was trying to impress was Charlie played by Aisha Tyler. It was Kristen played by Gabrielle Union.