“Switched at Birth” gives us new kinds of lesbian characters

ABC Family has really stepped up their lesbian representation over the past few years (probably because all the other shows realized Pretty Little Liars challenged them to the Gayest Race and had a head start). And Switched at Birth has been trying to join the race for a little while, but keeps having short little fake-out sprints and has yet to actually fully commit.

For those of you who don’t know, Switched at Birth is a show, towards the end of its third season now, about two teenage girls who find out that they have been—well—switched at birth. Bay Kennish was raised in a wealthy white household, while Daphne Vasquez has been raised in a less wealthy Puerto Rican household. The show has been about them all trying to figure out how to be one big twisted family. It’s usually wrought with the typical teenage drama and heavy-handed life lessons often found on ABC Family-type shows, but with one major twist: Daphne is deaf. She goes to a deaf school (which eventually her hearing siblings get integrated into) and a lot of her friends are deaf. I don’t know about you, but with the exception of Sue Thomas, F.B.Eye, I haven’t seen much deaf culture represented on mainstream television (and I might have been the only person who watched Sue Thomas, to be honest) so I found that aspect of the show extremely refreshing. Not being deaf myself, I can’t speak to how well or accurately the community is represented, but they do have a significant number of deaf actors on board, so I think they’re probably doing OK.


One of said actors is Marlee Matlin (aka Jodi Lerner from The L Word), who plays a pretty significant role (and is one of my favorite characters on the show). She’s not the only actor on the show we would know from their stints as gay characters; Glee’s Max Adler had a recurring guest role, as well as Sandra Bernhard, also from The L Word. On top of THAT, Bernhard, an out bisexual actor, isn’t the only queer actor—Meredith Baxter played Bay’s (slash Daphne’s) grandmother, and Carlease Burke plays the principal of the high school.

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It’s all very gay-adjacent. They have, however, waded in lesbian waters. Without further ado, a breakdown of everything gay that has happened this season on Switched at Birth, plus a mini recap of last night’s episode.

Lesbian Editor

One of the mothers, Kathryn Kennish, decides to write a book about what they call “the switch” and her book editor is a woman who is dating another woman (whom they call her partner). The editor, Lydia Kaiser, has a fairly small role, and her partner an even smaller one, but it’s a nice detail.

Fake Lesbians

In last week’s episode, Kathryn and the other mother, Regina, pretended to be lesbians to evade the advances of a creepy man from Kathryn’s past. The kiss was probably unnecessary, but it was kind of entertaining, and it spawned rumors that they were having an illicit post-switch affair, which they all just found amusing, not horrifying or offensive, so that was nice.

tumblr_n9t8ntryhw1rlb6iho2_400via swedishfishrule.tumblr.com

Teenage Lesbian

The real queer representation, and the reason I’m even writing about this show at all right now, is one of Bay and Daphne’s classmates, Natalie, played by Stephanie Nogueras. What’s cool about her is that she is an out, non-white, deaf, teenage lesbian. The only problem is, they haven’t made very good use of her yet. It was nice that she was out before she came onto the scene. Natalie’s story arc began as someone who was adamantly anti-Bay (which is totally understandable; Bay can be an entitled brat) but the two eventually reach a truce and Natalie is just one of the gang of secondary characters at Carlton High School who come and go depending on the storyline.

We first learned Natalie was queer in a Valentine’s Day themed episode, when Bay, in the spirit of their new friendship, asked her if she had anyone she wanted to send a rose to. Natalie said that she had a girl in mind, and Bay got this look of mild panic on her face because she’s so self-centered that her first assumption was that the girl was her. Natalie assured her that it was not (because she’s not INSANE) and that was that. The next time her lesbianism is mentioned with any depth is in a recent episode, when Daphne’s friend/Bay’s boyfriend Emmett is catfished and beat up by one of his ex-friends, Matthew. Matthew was also blackmailing Emmett with photos he sent the “girl” he thought he was talking do during the catfishing shenanigans, so he and Bay broke into Matthew’s laptop to get it back. They found the photos in question, but Bay also found a love letter Matthew had written to Emmett, confessing that his feelings for him were real, even though the girl persona he had been using was not.

In a rare moment of intelligence, Bay realized she was in over her head, and approached Natalie to ask her advice on the whole situation. Natalie told her she was lucky; she’s always felt comfortable with the fact that she was gay, and her parents were cool with it. Her coming out was easy, and now she has a girlfriend and she’s happy, but it’s not the same for everyone. Natalie tells Bay that everyone’s coming out is a unique and personal experience, and to not push it or get involved, to let Matthew figure things out on his own. He just needed some time.

Natalie in the Spotlight

Finally, in last night’s episode, Natalie got her due. Though somehow the storyline still ended up being more about Bay than about Natalie and her girlfriend, they did shine a bit of a spotlight on them, and it was a nice little arc.

The story begins with Bay and Emmett being elected Prom King and Queen, much to Bay’s dismay. Of course, if she hadn’t gotten Prom Queen, surely she would have spent the episode complaining about THAT, but this week she’s not feeling the Prom Queen vibe. Natalie jokes that she’ll take it, and her girlfriend says she’ll be Natalie’s king. They kiss and Natalie’s girlfriend dips her quite romantically.

Emmett says they are definitely keeping their titles and Bay reluctantly agrees.

Unfortunately, later, the Carlton kids find out that there is a new dress code in place for prom this year: Girls have to wear dresses and boys have to wear tuxedos, no exceptions. The boys don’t understand what the issue is, but Hilary, Natalie’s girlfriend, points out how archaic it is. Saying you have to dress appropriately is one thing, assigning entire outfits based on gender is entirely another. The boys are still at a loss as to why Hilary can’t just wear a dress for this one night, and she says it would be like if they were forced to wear a tutu. She hasn’t worn a dress since she was two, and she would be uncomfortable.

SAB-2That’s how I feel about the dress code too, girls.

After she storms away, Bay asks Natalie what this means for prom, and Natalie sort of shrugs sadly and says she guesses this means they won’t go. Emmett is more worried about what this means for their joint limo and after party, which makes me concerned that Bay’s selfishness is rubbing off on him, since he’s usually a lot more sympathetic.

Later, Bay finds Natalie looking sadly at her car. It’s decorated with ribbons and flowers and has “My Prom Queen” in giant letters on the side. Natalie says Hilary put it up between classes, before the dress code went out. Natalie tells Bay that Hilary has always felt like she missed out on those classic high school moments they show in movies, but that she was actually getting excited for Prom, to be like everyone else for once. Natalie looks sad but shrugs it off, saying it’s cool, and starts to take off all the car decorations. Bay gets that mischievous gleam in her eye which means she’s going to meddle, which only works out about 50% of the time.

However, in a moment that absolutely floored me, while trying on prom dresses with her birth mother, Regina, Bay actually realizes her privilege for once in her life. She realizes that she’s never had to fight for the right to be who she was, and how entirely unfair it was, especially for something as simple of not wanting to wear a dress to a school dance. It turns out Hilary had tried to get a petition going, but the principal said it was out of her hands, that the ruling came from the school board. Regina tells her that she’s the queen now, as if that has any bearing on anything, but then rightly points out that Bay is a public figure (read: loudmouth/busybody) and could maybe affect some change here.

When Emmett comes to pick Bay up for prom, and all three of her parents and her brother wait with varied amounts of excitement, she surprises them all by coming downstairs in a tux. It’s a lovely black tux, with which she’s wearing a lacy white shirt and a string of silver beads, her hair pulled up in an elegant ponytail.

SAB-3I love a girl in a tux.

After the initial shock, her parents all fawn over and snap photos of her. Emmett, on the other hand, sees her and his face falls. Regina is proud of her, Kathryn tells her she looks beautiful, but Emmett just kind of shrugs and makes a snide comment about them being twins.

The doorbell rings and Natalie and Hilary show up, and Kathryn continues to take pictures like the typical over-enthusiastic mother she is.

SAB-4I would take pictures of them, too. THEY’RE SO CUTE.

Bay’s friend Mary Beth and her boyfriend, Travis, show up, also both in tuxedos, and they proceed to have an adorable pre-prom photo shoot. No, seriously, it’s adorable.


Bay and her crew stroll into prom, looking badass in their tuxes, but Mr. Z tells them that he can’t let them in. Hilary says it’s discrimination, but Mr. Z says it’s not discrimination, it’s just policy. Apparently last year some guys showed up to prom drunk with dresses on and ruined the evening, and somehow this turned into drawing a gender line in the formalwear sand.

The first sign that Mr. Z maybe isn’t the best adult for the situation is the fact that he’s a teacher/chaperone at a deaf/hearing integrated school and he is speaking to a group of three deaf and three hearing students, but isn’t signing anything. I don’t remember if he came from the other school that Carlton absorbed or what, but he isn’t even TRYING. Even Mr. Kennish and his clunky signing is better than not even trying.

Hilary has to interpret for Natalie, and she doesn’t like what Mr. Z has to say. She starts to flip out, but Mr. Z, but he is apathetic to their plight. He says it’s prom, girls need dresses. And to stay in the kitchen and by the way he’d love a sandwich. He takes this moment to also sling a snide remark to a boy standing nearby in a tux who is also wearing pink heels just in case you were having doubts that he was the worst.

Mr. Z tries to compare this scenario to not wearing sweatpants to class out of respect for the dress code, but the students point out that it’s entirely different, because it’s not like they’re in their pajamas. They are all very well-dressed and in formal attire, they’re just not adhering to the school board’s old-fashioned gender constructs. And can I just say, my senior prom was almost 10 years ago (oof) and there were girls wearing “formal” gowns that had a good 80% of the midsection missing and a slit up to their hip. Just because something is what really old books would consider gender appropriate, doesn’t mean they’re appropriate in the broader sense.

SAB-6Natalie’s attitude-face is the best.

Mr. Z is finally pushed to reveal how he really feels and blurts out that nobody wants to see girls dressed like “freaks.” Natalie is pissed and everyone else is close behind, but Emmett says “enough” and drags them all away.

Emmett is tired of the social justice. He just wants Bay to go home and put on her dress and be quiet. Emmett doesn’t understand why this is suddenly so important, and Bay says it’s because she knows what it’s like to feel like an outsider. Which is almost a relief, because when I thought Bay was being entirely selfless, I thought there was some sort of alien body snatching invasion thing going on. She says she wants to stand up for these girls, who just want to be treated like everyone else. Emmett admits why he’s so resistant to Bay and her social protest: He wanted to make up for the fact that, after their last prom, he got drunk and cheated on her. Bay says that’s really sweet of him, but that if their friends can’t go in, she doesn’t really want to be the queen. *cue Train music*

In solidarity for their friends and for the right to wear tuxedos to prom, Bay and her friends have their own mini-prom outside. Natalie thanks Bay for standing by her side, especially since Natalie wasn’t always exactly the nicest to her. And hey, Bay looks pretty good in that tux. To make things a little gayer, Matthew shows up to the anti-prom, and makes a silent but meaningful truce with Emmett and Bay, who say they’re glad to see him. Matthew dances with another solo friend, Sharee, and they all dance the night away.

Next week is the season finale, so I doubt Natalie and Hilary will make much of an appearance. Daphne, Bay, Emmett, Natalie and Hilary are all seniors in high school now, and next week will be their graduation, so it’s unclear what the future holds for Switched at Birth next season. They could theoretically send Natalie and/or Hilary to one of the schools the main characters go to, or this season could mark the end of teenage lesbians on Switched at Birth. Only time will tell.

Have you been watching Switched at Birth? What do you think of Natalie’s storyline?