“Relativity” and the First Lesbian Kiss on Primetime Television

Lisa Edelstein - Rhonda in "Relativity" Lisa Edelstein on the cover of 1996's Curve Magazine

Many people remember the LA Law kiss in 1992 between bisexual attorney C.J. Lamb and her bi-curious colleague, and the Roseanne-Mariel Hemingway kiss on Roseanne in 1994 (which was actually shown from the back to block the actual kiss). But few remember that the first real lesbian kiss (i.e. a kiss between two lesbian or bisexual women) on television occurred in the short-lived drama Relativity on January 11, 1997 — the series that also offered the first recurring lesbian character who was a central part of the cast.

The ABC series was produced by thirtysomething masterminds Zwick and Herskovitz (who also produced Once and Again and My So-Called Life, two other shows with pioneering gay characters.) The story follows a twenty-something heterosexual couple, Isabelle (played by Kimberly Williams of Father of the Bride and now According to Jim) and Leo (played by David Conrad), and the lives and loves of their assorted friends and adult siblings, including Leo’s longtime friend Doug (played by the always excellent Adam Goldberg).

Although Leo’s lesbian sister Rhonda was introduced in the beginning of the series, her sexuality was not featured in any of the early episodes except one, in which Isabelle and Rhonda commiserate with each other over their recent respective breakups. Rhonda is played by Lisa Edelstein, who has starred or guest-starred in several television shows and movies, most recently Leap of Faith and Felicity and movies like Keeping the Faith and What Women Want. Rhonda’s love interest is Suzanne, played by Kristin Dattilo who currently stars in Showtime’s The Chris Isaak Show (and was Janie in the Aerosmith video for “Janie’s Got a Gun”).

The kiss didn’t happen until the 13th episode, named “The Day the Earth Moved” because the theme of the episode revolves around earthquakes, sex, and life-changing decisions. The episode weaves several threads involving multiple characters in and out of each other in a humorous and thoughtful way, and a storyline which follows Rhonda and Suzanne’s introduction, their first date (albeit an unusual one), and their first kiss.

For those who haven’t seen the episode, I’ve provided an episode recap on the next page.

Relativity was ground-breaking not only because of the kiss, but for the natural and almost casual way it portrayed the lesbian characters and their relationship with each other, as well as their relationships with other characters on the show. At the time, it was one of the first shows ever to treat its lesbian characters just like the other (heterosexual) characters on the show, with no attempt to sensationalize their relationship or the kiss. The lesbian characters are very likable, and they are treated with affection and supported by the other characters — for once, no one has any “issues” with their sexuality (besides Isabelle’s initial surprise at her friend’s sexual orientation, since Isabelle had only known her to date men previously).

Also unusual was the show’s casual use of the words “lesbian” and “dyke” (in a positive way) in conversation among the characters — another television first (and unfortunately still not that common today).

This episode, like the series, was also a consistent mix of funny, sweet, and serious, with complex characters and an entertaining and realistic storyline.

The series only lasted a few more episodes after this one before being cancelled by ABC due to low ratings-despite considerable critical acclaim — bringing the final total to 17 episodes. None of the subsequent episodes featured the relationship between two women except the last one, in which Leo and Rhonda’s grandfather has a heart-attack, and Suzanne accompanies Rhonda to the hospital, where she is introduced by Rhonda to the doctor as “my lover.”

Conservative Christians and other critics were up in arms when this episode debuted. Tim Wildmon, Vice-President of the American Family Association (AFA) issued a press release at the time denouncing the kiss on Relativity and criticizing the series for taking television “where it has never gone before” by showing “caressing, nuzzling and passionate, open-mouthed kissing” between two women. It went on to say:

The television industry continues to push the homosexual agenda with increasing fervency, with regular homosexual characters, same-sex marriages, and now passionate lesbian kissing scenes. And they won’t stop their assault on morality until American society cries ‘Uncle!’ and fully accepts the homosexual lifestyle as legitimate.

Little did they know that things were about to get much worse, for only five months later Ellen Degeneres and her eponymous sitcom character would come out with a bang (along with Jorja Fox’s character on ER around the same time, and a few other characters on other shows within the same year) and not only would Ellen kiss a woman on television (more than once), but she would raise the level of public awareness around the issue of how lesbians were, or were not, represented on television.

Almost five years later, the number of lesbian and bisexual television characters has significantly increased — current examples include Willow on Buffy, Dr. Weaver and firefighter Sandy Lopez on ER, the lesbian couple on Queer as Folk, Detective Greggs on The Wire, various women on MTV’s The Real World, the upcoming series The L Word, and more one-episode guest-star lesbian plots than anyone can count, including Denise Richards on Spin City and Winona Ryder on Friends.

Lesbian kissing is still not de rigueur on television, however — and although several shows have depicted women in bed together, that’s not a frequent occurrence yet either.

But both events are common enough that they no longer make any media headlines when they happen, and they don’t generally impact advertising support in a negative way — developments for which we have shows early shows like Relativity to thank.