Lesbian and Bisexual Women on “Law and Order”

Despite Law and Order’s somewhat positive portrayal of lesbians, the series has had its share of lesbian criminals. A 2002 episode titled “Girl Most Likely” investigates the murder of a teenager Julie Cade, who had blown the whistle on a group of boys from her school who were publishing a website in which they rated other students sexually.

Although the boys seem to be the likely suspects, detectives soon discover that at a recent party Julie announced that she was a lesbian in order to resist the advances of the boys. Her lover was her friend Alicia, who did not want anyone to know.

After Julie came out, Alicia killed her in order to keep their relationship a secret.

Similarly, in the 2003 episode “Seer,” a woman named Rachel is found murdered in a dumpster. The police believe that she was killed by her neighbor, Grayson, who claimed to have visions of her death and was also stalking her. But the investigation takes another turn when the detectives find that Rachel used to attend sex parties with her friend Lee Ann Parker. Although Lee Ann had feelings for Rachel, it seems that Rachel did not return the favor, and thus Lee Ann killed her.

Both “Girl Most Likely” and “Seer” are examples of a tried-and-true plot formula: the killer, who has homosexual feelings for the victim, kills the victim because the victim either does not return the feelings or because they make the killer feel abnormal.

These kinds of stories tend to demonize homosexuality because it is a direct cause of the crime, even if the killers or victims are portrayed in a sympathetic manner.

Thankfully, these kinds of storylines occur less and less these days. But bisexuality — which is rarely shown on television at all — universally tends to be portrayed by L&O as the root cause of violent or psychotic behavior.

In a complex two-part 1999 crossover with Homicide, Law and Order investigates the murder of Vivian McBride, a government economist, whose body is found in Battery Park in New York City. McBride turns out to have been a lesbian, and the prime suspect in her murder is Chesley Purcell, a bisexual hitwoman with links to an imprisoned drug dealer. Further investigation leads the New York team to Washington, D.C., where in cooperation with the Baltimore-based Homicide characters they follow a thread that leads all the way to the White House.

It turns out that the White House Deputy Chief of Staff is a lesbian who was having an affair with a coworker named Katherine Rainer, who was also involved with McBride. The Deputy Chief of Staff tried to promote McBride out of Washington, but when McBride did not leave, she hired a former Drug Enforcement Agent named Dawkins to bribe McBride to leave.

But McBride refused the bribe and threatened to expose him. This led to Dawkins hiring Chesley Purcell to kill McBride.

In this episode, titled “Sideshow,” the numerous lesbian characters are all closeted until the investigation forces them to come out—a not-unrealistic situation in Washington. However, unlike many police procedurals in which closeted people kill in order to hide their sexuality, the murder of McBride was not committed because of anyone’s sexual orientation; it was committed out of a desire to cover up a bribe.

Unfortunately, the fact that the hired killer is a bisexual (for no obvious reason) as well as a prostitute and is closely linked to a drug dealer is not good news: it simply falls into the long-standing tradition of putting bisexuality in the same category as criminal behavior.

In a more recent episode, “Obsession,” which aired on February 9, 2005, a right-wing talk show host is murdered, and the suspects include his wife Miranda, who had affairs with both a man and a woman named Karen. Karen, who is mentally unstable, claims that she only killed the talk show host because Miranda asked her to.

But Miranda denies everything, including having an affair with Karen—until the conclusion of the episode, when her son reveals that he saw the two of them together.

The portrayal of bisexuality in “Obsession” clearly links bisexuality with mental instability, following in a long line of police dramas since the 1960s.

As one of television’s most-watched dramas, Law and Order and its numerous spinoffs can have a significant affect on representations of lesbians and bisexual women. When Law and Order: SVU recently aired an episode in which a lesbian police officer made a pass at Detective Benson (Mariska Hargitay), it seemed to acknowledge the fact that many viewers feel that Detective Benson is gay.

But in 2005, it’s not enough to play coy with viewers. Law and Order’s track record on lesbian and bisexual women is simply not good enough—it still regularly falls back on outdated, negative stereotypes.

Let’s hope that if Detective Benson ever comes out, she doesn’t get fired on the same day.