(Originally published as my Mombian newspaper column.) The groundbreaking coming-out episode of Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom Ellen saw its 20th anniversary recently. DeGeneres’ pioneering role as the first out actor and character to head a television series is worth celebrating in itself—but it’s also worth noting that her show gave us one of best representations up to that time of an LGBTQ parent and their child on TV. Let’s look at what she did and at some of the previous portrayals.
In the November 1997 episode, “Public Display of Affection,” the newly out Ellen meets Holly (Kayla Murphy), the 12-year-old daughter of her girlfriend, Laurie (Lisa Darr). The scene is funny and positive despite some understandable initial awkwardness between the two characters. Holly gives Ellen (and viewers) a matter-of-fact explanation of assisted insemination, complete with turkey-baster analogy, and berates Ellen for being afraid to hold Laurie’s hand in public. She’s proud of her mom (who is clearly a loving mother), wants her to be happy, and doesn’t have time for Ellen’s fear.
The first fictional television show to include a sympathetic LGBTQ parent, however, was ABC’s 1972 movie That Certain Summer, about a divorced dad who comes out to his teenage son about his partner. It showed the boy struggling to come to terms with his father’s revelation, but was a step up from “Discovery at Fourteen,” an episode of NBC’s The Bold Ones: The New Doctors earlier that year, which showed a teen suffering from a bleeding ulcer, caused by stress when he worries whether his father’s homosexuality is hereditary.
A few TV docu-dramas followed. ABC’s A Question of Love (1978) was based on the real-life story of lesbian mom Mary Jo Risher’s custody battle with her ex-husband. The network’s Two Mothers for Zachary (1996), told the story of Sharon Bottoms, a lesbian mom who lost custody of her son to her own mother. NBC added Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story (1995), about the Washington National Guard colonel and mother who fought the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.
One of the first regular fictional gay characters in a television series, Jodie Dallas of ABC’s Soap, became a father in 1979 after a one-night-stand with a woman—but his portrayal is problematic, starting with his desire for sex reassignment surgery just so he can marry his boyfriend. His custody battle with the child’s mother ends up with her kidnapping the child and him marrying the female private investigator he sent to find them, then undergoing hypnotherapy that convinces him he’s a 90-year-old man. Slightly better is 1980’s “The Child Stealers” episode of ABC’s Barney Miller, in which gay character Darryl Driscoll is fighting his ex-wife for visitation rights with their 10-year-old son.
The 1990s saw a spate of lesbian moms on TV. The 1993 CBS afterschool special, Other Mothers, was about a teenage boy who is harassed and shunned at school for having lesbian moms. In September 1994, in the second-ever Friends episode, we learn that main character Ross’s ex-wife Carol is having a baby she conceived with him and will be raising with her new partner, Susan. A few months later, in December 1994, character Norma Lear of the NBC show Sisters, already out as a lesbian, asked another character to donate sperm. And one day before Ellen’s coming-out episode, on April 29, 1997, lesbian Detective Abby Sullivan of ABC’s NYPD Blue told a colleague she’d like him to be her sperm donor. She gave birth in an episode almost exactly a year later, on April 28, 1998.
It’s unclear whether we should count two Roseanne characters as queer parents. In the last season, in November 1996, Roseanne’s mother comes out as a lesbian—until the controversial last episode in May 1997 said that the plot of the entire season was something the character Roseanne had made up, and revealed that in fact her sister Jackie, not their mother, was gay. Jackie had had a child in a different-sex marriage, so it seems she was a queer mom—but it’s uncertain whether her character was really written with this intention earlier. Similarly, Roseanne’s gay ex-boss Leon and his partner Scott had announced they were planning to adopt a child, but this seems to have been reversed with the rest of the season, and we never see them as parents.
Ellen went beyond the shows focusing on insemination to give us the voice of an older child with LGBTQ parents. She also avoided the heartwrenching sadness of the custody stories. And Holly’s well-adjusted, proud take on being the child of a lesbian mom showed that having LGBTQ parents didn’t have to mean experiencing the angst that previous fictional teens had shown. If the show hadn’t been cancelled, we might have watched Laurie and Ellen raising Holly together.
We’ve seen progress, though—more recently, with queer parents and our children as the focus of shows such as Freeform’s The Fosters, ABC’s Modern Family, and Amazon’s Transparent. And while we have to be careful not to present all LGBTQ characters (especially female ones) as parents or desiring parenthood (a stereotype that has often served to desexualize lesbians and make them “safe” for viewing, as Sarah Warn, founder of After Ellen, noted in a 2003 article), it remains vital to see authentic, positive, and varied stories of LGBTQ parents and our children on television. Ellen, Laurie, and Holly helped pave the way.