2013: The Year in Lesbian/Bi TV

In last year’s TV Year in Review, I touched on the idea that pop culture and politics are locked in mutualistic relationship, and that fact is more obvious than ever in 2013. This year, same-sex marriage became legal in England, Wales, France, Brazil, Uruguay, and New Zealand. Six U.S. states began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The first openly lesbian US senator assumed office. And the United States Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and invalidated California’s Proposition 8, in two of the most significant pro-LGBT cases in American legislative history.

While that was going on, American TV networks introduced 35 new lesbian and bisexual characters and outed an additional five queer female characters. Add that to the already established line-up and we saw over 70 fictional gay ladies — the most ever! — on our TVs in 2013. Just to put that into perspective: When I started writing for AfterEllen in 2008, there wasn’t a single leading lesbian or bisexual character on primetime broadcast television.

But we didn’t just succeed in the world of make-believe. 2013 also saw a record number of real-life queer women on TV. From political pundits to talk show hosts to sketch show stars to reality TV participants to lesbian/bi actresses to professional athletes, gay gals made their presence known across genres and networks and viewing mediums.



Orange Is the New Black — No show embodies the forward progress of LGBT TV quite like Netflix’s original series Orange Is the New Black, which landed on our laptops this summer. Because the show was created for an on-demand streaming video site, it was able to bypass all the Standards and Practices rigamarole that beleaguers network TV shows with queer characters. Sex, for example, was directed, filmed, and edited for lesbian couples the same way it was directed, filmed, and edited for straight couples. No cutaways, no closed-mouth kissing followed by hair-braiding. OITNB‘s sex scenes were real and raw and resonant with the gay ladies in the audience. The show also introduced seven lesbian and bisexual characters and one transgender character of varying body types and skin colors and ethnicities. The only show to ever air a pilot with that many gay ladies was The L Word, a full decade ago, and that show was white, white, white.

The Fosters — When ABC Family announced its plan to team-up with Jennifer Lopez to produce a two-mama drama, we held our breaths and hoped against hope that we’d finally get to see two loving, stable, sexy, complicated, relatable gay moms on our TVs. The Coach and Mrs. Coach of lesbian couples, if you will. But in our wildest dreams, we never imagined that’s really what would happen. But it did! Teri Polo and Sherri Saum have chemistry for days, and the authenticity they lend to Stef and Lena Adams-Foster is sometimes overwhelming to watch. They canoodle, they tease, they bicker, they miscommunicate, they laugh, they try their hardest to keep their gaggle of kids from exploding in a cacophony of insecure teenage hormones. And they also got married in the season one finale!

Orphan Black — One of this year’s critical darlings was BBC America’s first foray into scripted TV: the Canadian-based sci-fi series Orphan Black, in which Tatiana Maslany plays half a dozen clones (with different looks, personalities, accents, body language, and backgrounds) with stunning finesse. One of the three main clones is Cosima Neihaus, whose sexual identity the show’s creators called “bisexual” (if you had to codify it), but maybe she’s ready to self-identify as gay.” Midway through season one, Cosima falls hard for Delphine Cormier, and while Delphine has never been with another woman before, she isn’t dissuaded from reciprocating Cosima’s feelings. And not in that fauxmosexual “hope my boyfriend don’t mind it” kind of way. No, Delphine’s feelings are way more sexy science than all that: “As a scientist I know that sexuality is a spectrum, but social biases codify sexual attraction, contrary to the biological facts,” she tells Cosima right before shagging her. That’s the beauty of science fiction: The degrees of separation from real life are pronounced enough that it allows us to have discussions about nature vs. nurture (Born This Way vs. Freewill) and smashing the binary of sexual orientation.

Under the DomeCBS’ adaptation of Stephen King‘s bestselling novel was the summer’s biggest hit. The pilot was the most watched drama premiere on any TV network since 1992! Like The Fosters, Under the Dome featured a pair of lesbian moms. Unlike The Fosters, Under the Dome didn’t close out its season with those moms dancing around to “Same Love” in their wedding dresses, holding hands with their children. Instead, it gave us the death of one-half of the gay mom tag-team. While it’s hard not to give into fits of hysteria and despair when TV shows kill off their lesbian characters, 2013 did provide us with ample opportunity to reevaluate our feelings about the trope. Alice’s death, rather than being based in homophobia or indifference, provided an emotional anchor for the audience as they grappled with the harsh reality of the Circle of Life inside the Dome.

Defiance Like Orphan Black, Syfy’s original series Defiance surprised and delighted us in 2013. The future-dystopian show didn’t boast any self-identified gay characters when it premiered, and it seemed like the spotlight romance would take place between the lady mayor and the manly sheriff, but as the season progressed, the real relationship exploration happened between the lady mayor’s brothel-owning sister and the manly sheriff’s arch-nemesis’ wife. Stahma Tarr, a cunning, duplicitous woman trapped for thousands of years in one of the most oppressively patriarchal alien society’s in any known galaxy, found herself falling in lust (and probably even a little in love) with human apocalypse-survivor Kenya Rosewater. Sadly, their love story ended in murder. Of course, it’s science fiction, so no one really dies; who knows how Kenya will be resurrected from the grave when the second season gets underway in 2014?

New shows, new characters — Plenty of other new shows offered up supporting or recurring lesbian/bisexual characters this year. Lucy is desperately (but kind of secretly) in love with her best friend Mina on NBC’s Dracula. Betty is a prostitute who sleeps with men but is actually in love with a woman on Showtime’s critically acclaimed Masters of Sex. Julie and Laurie are two ladies in love on the US remake of the French vampire drama The Returned (Les Revenants). Kate Moennig is back with that swager, this time as Lena on Showtime’s Ray Donovan. FX’s cop drama, The Bridge, gave us a kick-ass Latina lesbian in the character of Adriana Perez. And Mistresses introduced two lesbian recurring characters and a straight main character whose bicuriousty lasted for nearly a full season.

Old shows, new characters — A few long-running series introduced new lesbian/bi characters in 2013, either by creating new roles or having existing characters come out of the closet. The most publicized among these was Amber Tamblyn‘s addition to the cast of Two and a Half Men. She joined the sitcom as a guest star to play the deceased Charlie’s long lost lesbian daughter, and while I’m still not exactly sure how we feel about the show as a whole, I’ll admit to being pretty happy that Tambyln was bumped up to a series regular after only a few episodes. NBC’s Canadian police drama Rookie Blue introduced Holly, a lesbian forensic pathologist for whom Gail fell really hard (really fast!). The Killing made the refreshing addition of a young, androgynous lesbian to its cast this year. Not so refreshing: Poor Bullet was murdered before the season was complete. Once Upon a Time finally allowed Mulan to come out of the closet as she revealed (to the audience, at least) her love for Aurora. And Hell on Wheels gave us a badass lesbian reporter named Louise.

Promising futuresSuper Fun Night has been hinting at letting Marika come out of the closet all season. She even attended the equivalent of a Xena:Warrior Princess convention that ended with her playing late-night football with Xena herself. And Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gave a one-episode guest arc to one of Marvel comics’ most iconic lesbian characters, Agent Victoria Hand, even though the show hasn’t mentioned her sexuality (yet).