CSI’s Mixed Track Record on LGBT Characters

Catherine Willows with closeted lesbian killer Kate Armstrong in "Friends and Lovers"FTM transgender killer Paul Millander in "Evaluation Day"

Despite the fact that Ann Donahue, one of CSI’s executive producers, is openly lesbian, the popular CBS crime drama's track record on LGBT characters has significant room for improvement. CSI still routinely depicts LGBT characters driven to kill due to their sexuality: they are desperate to hide their sexual orientation, psychotically jealous of their lovers, or criminally insane due to gender dysphoria.

These representations call to mind the negative stereotypes that pervaded crime dramas in the 1970s and 1980s, when criminals who were gay killed because of their sexuality.

Over the course of its five seasons to date, six episodes have focused on LGBT characters: two about lesbians, two about gay men, and two about transgenders. The first three episodes—one about murderous lesbians, one about a killer gay man, and one about a female-to-male serial killer—aired in the first two seasons of CSI. After two years in which no LGBT characters were included, another three episodes beginning in March 2004 aired with slightly more positive representations.

The most progress was made in the representation of transgenders, but even that improvement was limited by the fact that the killer in the episode was a psychotic male-to-female transgender who killed other (more sympathetic) MTFs. Three of the six episodes aired during sweeps periods, and one of them (“Ch-ch-changes”) drew more viewers than any other CSI episode that has ever aired.

Obviously, queer killers are still a popular draw.

Killer Lesbian Syndrome

CSI’s depiction of lesbian murderers has evolved since the 1960s and 1970s, when television dramas depicted lesbians as sexually repressed killers. The two CSI episodes involving lesbian killers present these women more sympathetically, suggesting understandable, human reasons for their homicidal behavior. Nevertheless, CSI’s first episode featuring killer lesbians did directly connect the killer behavior to sexual orientation.

In “Friends and Lovers,” a first season episode that aired on November 3, 2000, the Las Vegas team investigates the death of Vernon Woods, a private school dean. When Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) first views the scene, in which Woods’s bludgeoned body is lying in a blood-spattered office, she declares, “A lot of passion in this one.”

The main suspect is school founder Kate Armstrong, who claims that Woods attacked her first and she had no choice but to defend herself. But based on the blood spatter evidence, Catherine and fellow CSI Nick Stokes (George Eads) conclude that Kate was not alone when Woods was killed. When confronted with the evidence, Kate readily admits that her colleague Julia Eastman was present, but only as a witness in case Woods sexually harassed her—something that Kate claims he had been doing repeatedly.

After additional evidence reveals that Julia held Woods down while Kate bludgeoned him with a paperweight, the women admit that they are lovers, and that Woods had been blackmailing them with his knowledge of their relationship. Julia and Kate had finally decided to put an end to the blackmail, but when Woods threatened to reveal their relationship to the entire school, they killed him. “Julia and I would have never survived a rumor like that. We panicked. The school is our whole life,” Kate explains at the conclusion of the episode.

Kate and Julia’s violent reaction to Woods’ threat to expose them as lesbians is a classic TV example of internalized homophobia exploding in homicide. Kate and Julia are so frightened that being outed will destroy their career that they are willing to kill to stay in the closet. The episode, and others like it in the 1970s and 80s, suggests that it’s better to be a murderer than to be gay.

CSI’s second episode to feature killer lesbians was “XX,” a fourth season episode that aired on March 11, 2004. Set in a women’s prison, “XX” concerns the murder of prison inmate Antoinette “Baby Girl” Stella, whose body was tied to the bottom of a prison bus. The autopsy of Baby Girl’s body shows that she is pregnant, even though no conjugal visits are allowed. The process of DNA elimination, combined with some semen found in the back of the bus, reveals that the father of the baby is Doug, the bus driver.

Antoinette also has half of a heart tattooed on her, and the CSI team soon finds that the other half is tattooed on the arm of Antoinette’s ex-cellmate, Juanita, who was also her lover. When Juanita discovered that Antoinette was pregnant, she became extremely jealous and the two fought. But shortly after they reconciled, Antoinette was transferred to another cell because she was caught smuggling a necklace into the prison. Juanita believes that Antoinette arranged the transfer on purpose to break off their relationship. When Juanita discovers Antoinette in a compromising position with Doug in the back of the bus, she kills her with a combination lock wrapped in a sock.

At the episode’s denouement, Catherine Willows tells Juanita that she believes Antoinette had smuggled the necklace into the prison to give to Juanita. Juanita, who is now about to do even more time for murder, simply looks depressed as she considers that she killed the person who loved her.

“XX” is an improvement on “Friends and Lovers” if only because Juanita and Antoinette do not appear to have been trying to hide their relationship, and there seems to have been true feelings of love between the two women. Unfortunately, Juanita’s love escalates into murderous jealousy, suggesting that there is a thin line between lesbianism and psychotic behavior.