Interview With Jane Sibbett

Whenever a list of queer TV firsts is compiled, an episode from the second season of Friends titled “The One With the Lesbian Wedding” is included among the milestones. The episode, which originally aired Jan. 18, 1996, on NBC, centered on the wedding of Ross’ ex-wife, Carol Willick (Jane Sibbett), and Susan Bunch (Jessica Hecht). It also featured out lesbians Candace Gingrich and Lea DeLaria as guest stars.

NBC affiliates in Port Arthur, Texas, and Lima, Ohio, refused to air the episode, but that did not stop it from being the highest-rated TV program for the week it aired.

Carol and Susan were recurring characters on Friends throughout its run, providing occasional prime-time glimpses of a loving lesbian couple for nearly 10 years. At the end of the first season, Carol gave birth to her and Ross’ son, providing an unusually lighthearted depiction of lesbian parenting on television.

We have Ray Romano to thank for Jane Sibbett’s longtime work on Friends. She had been offered the part of Raymond’s wife, Debra, on Everybody Loves Raymond by CBS and DreamWorks. But when Sibbett found out that Romano wasn’t aware that she had been hired for a role he wanted Patricia Heaton to play, she graciously stepped aside.

That graciousness and integrity extend to Sibbett’s beliefs in social justice. She has been an outstanding ally for the LGBT community, especially during the press brouhaha surrounding the lesbian wedding on Friends.

Sibbett, who was a presenter at last year’s POWER UP benefit, was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She moved to Southern California to attend UCLA and lives in Topanga Canyon with her husband, Karl Fink, and their three children, though they are currently preparing for their long-dreamed-of move to Hawaii.

In the midst of it all, she recently took time to speak with us about Friends, lesbian relationships and her disappointment about not being able to kiss Jessica Hecht on-screen. How does it feel to be part of an episode that will forever be known as one of the milestone moments of broadcast TV, the first lesbian wedding?
Jane Sibbett:
I love that. That makes me so proud. I think everyone wants to be the first, but to be the first at something significant like that?

I wish I could take more credit, that it was a really thoughtful decision. I really did it because I loved the writing so much. I think that’s how the producers of Friends approached the characters. They didn’t want it to be so landmark; they wanted everyone to realize how very normal it was. And how very beautiful and special it is in its own way, just like any relationship is. So, to find the icing on the cake — that it’s made a difference for people — that’s been a real pleasure for me to be a part of it.

AE: What do you recall about the reception “The One With the Lesbian Wedding” received?
When we first did interviews, I met with all sorts of contrasting opinions, and I was always surprised. And it’s funny, because I came from a pretty traditional background. But I came to Los Angeles, and I went to UCLA, and one of my dearest friends is a lesbian — and, you know, it just seemed normal to me, that it was a regular thing.

So, when I saw that it was a big deal to so many people for different reasons — it was a big deal in Lima, Ohio, and in Texas, for instance, they blacked us out, which was the best publicity we could have ever had — I didn’t realize that it was so hard for a lot of people to accept, and, on the other hand, how much it meant for other people who were working so hard because it was time, that we needed representation of the gay and lesbian community.

AE: Did any advertising get pulled?
I don’t think so. Two TV markets blocked it, but many people were having vigils around the TV stations [that did air it]. It was really amazing. I did the talk show circuit, and on Geraldo I got into it with a fundamentalist woman about the Bible, and I had this fabulous book, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. I’ve had to do a lot of research to defend my beliefs on all fronts. …

But when you come down to it, it’s about the heart anyway. The main message is about spreading love and all that. So, I’ve had no issues at all. I’ve been really glad to extend my heart to embrace people who have been challenged like that, who don’t understand.

AE: What I remember about seeing the lesbian-wedding episode for the first time — with a group of friends on the night it aired — was everyone saying, “They didn’t kiss!”
Yeah, Jessica and I had a hard time with that one too. We wanted to do the kiss as well. I don’t know where the decision came from, but we didn’t [kiss]. It was a long time ago. … I do remember that we had discussions about it, and we wished and put our intentions in that we really wanted to kiss.

But what I also remember about that episode is that the wedding was really the fringe — it was the B or C story line, really. To us, we wanted it to have more significance, but all the swirling around with what Marlo Thomas [who played Rachel’s recently separated mom] was doing grew in significance.

It was what we wanted to do, and I mentioned it afterwards. We snuck in as much sex as possible. We did all we could do to make it as normal and loving a relationship as possible.