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Entertainment Weekly

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Book excerpt: Friends threw a gay wedding, but was it a gay-friendly show?

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The following is an excerpt from I’ll Be There For You: The One About ‘Friends’ by Kelsey Miller, a definitive retrospective of NBC’s iconic sitcom which combines behind-the-scenes anecdotes, history, criticism, and interviews with the cast and crew, exploring the show’s beginnings as well as its significant cultural influence. The book publishes on Oct. 23, and is available for pre-order.

Everything about Susan and Carol’s wedding was designed to be as familiar and unprovocative as possible. Candace Gingrich was there, but not identified, and would likely not be recognizable to anyone who wasn’t involved in gay activism. Gingrich was dressed in traditional ministerial robes (though devoid of any religious symbols), in keeping with the rest of the scene. As Dr. Danuta points out, the brides walked down the aisle to classical wedding music, holding bouquets, and on the arms of men—“one in full military garb, to further the imagery of inclusion.” And still there was, as Sibbett calls it, a sense of pulling back. Costume designer Debra McGuire did not make their gowns in bridal white, but soft silvers and muted earth tones. She accessorized them each in a decorative hat—the suggestion of a veil, but not quite. But there was no question that they would be in dresses. “We took it very seriously,” McGuire recalled. “I really loved the idea of these women being women, of them looking beautiful and feminine, because of the stereotypes about gay women.”

This is where Friends reveals itself to be truly a product of its time—a homophobic era in the most literal sense of the word. In the mid-’90s, the gay rights movement was gaining more traction than ever before. The right to legally marry still seemed a remote possibility, but civil unions would soon be offered by a handful of states and countries. A small number of high-profile politicians and celebrities had come out (this was before Ellen DeGeneres did but after Melissa Etheridge). It was by no means an easy time to be gay, but it was a hopeful moment when things seemed, little by little, to be changing.

And, as ever, people responded to change with fear. In 1996, the “gay panic defense” was still an acceptable legal strategy. Jonathan Schmitz—who shot and killed his friend Scott Amedure, after Amedure came out to him on The Jenny Jones Show—successfully used it and was convicted of second-degree murder, rather than first (and was later paroled). President Clinton instituted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a military policy that simultaneously forbade the harassment of closeted gay, lesbian, or bisexual service members, and banned them from coming out of the closet. Specifically, they were not allowed to disclose their sexuality, nor indeed any information that might suggest they weren’t straight (what kind of information that might be was anybody’s guess). As the policy stated, openly gay people would put the military at “an unacceptable risk.”

At the time, DADT was seen by many as a win for the gay community. Until then, there were no protections against discrimination on the basis of sexuality, and being gay had simply been grounds for discharge. Clinton had campaigned on the promise of finally ending the ban on gay service members—with no such qualifiers about being in or out of the closet. Polls indicated that most Americans supported the move. But Congress and military leaders opposed him, and after months of negotiation, Clinton announced the new policy, calling it an “honorable compromise.” And at least some gay people agreed. Former army captain John McGuire told the New York Times: “People I worked with in the army knew I was gay, but I didn’t hold up a huge sign…If you are a gay man or lesbian and join the military, you want to fit in. You want to conform.”

That was certainly the case on television, too. Confirmation, assimilation, inclusion—whatever you want to call it. It was okay for gay characters to exist as long as they didn’t hold up a big, flashy sign. Carol and Susan could be lesbians and even wives, as long as they didn’t kiss or touch or cut their hair short. Twenty years later, Jessica Hecht remembered getting the call from a casting associate to come in and read for the role of Susan: “She said they were looking for somebody who could play a lesbian but didn’t look like a lesbian…somebody who could look good in, like, antique clothes, but not really be too aggressive.” The character description put it in no uncertain terms. Susan, it said, was “a lipstick lesbian.”

There are, of course, many gay women who do dress like Susan and keep their hair long. Many others prefer short hair and suits. Actress and comic Lea DeLaria had a small part as one of Carol and Susan’s guests. She said of the wedding scene: “They needed at least thirty or forty more fat dykes in tuxedos. All those thin, perfectly coiffed girls in Laura Ashley prints—what kind of lesbian wedding is that? And no one played softball afterward?”

Who knows? Maybe they did. Susan and Carol were not main characters, after all, and they presumably had a whole life and social circle that we never got to see. But that’s the point: Friends allowed for all manner of gay jokes, but in its brief glimpses of actual gay people, they played it as straight as possible.

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I spoke with television writer Ryan O’Connell about this “honorable compromise” so often made on sitcoms. “When you remove any kind of gay quality from a character, it’s almost homophobic,” he told me. O’Connell wrote for the rebooted Will & Grace, another NBC comedy that first debuted in 1998, and returned in 2017. That series did have gay lead characters, including Jack McFarland—a singing, dancing, sign-waving gay man. During the show’s initial run, Jack was a polarizing character, who many criticized for being too recognizably gay. O’Connell summarizes the backlash: “Here’s how we went in gay culture: Jack McFarland comes on TV. We’re like, ‘Yay!’ Then there’s this movement that says, ‘Oh, I don’t know. Jack is very stereotypical.’” After that, television saw a wave of gay male characters who were written as the anti-Jack: jocks, cops, conservative Republicans, and other straight-dude archetypes. In reaction to one Jack, says O’Connell, there were years of gay male characters “who had no signs of being gay, other the fact that they like men.”

Gay jokes, he says, weren’t really the problem with Friends. Like Beauchamp, he grew up watching it as a gay kid in the ‘90s. He heard those jokes everywhere, off-screen and on. “[They] were just so ingrained into the fabric of every show that it didn’t even phase me.” The real homophobia on Friends, and virtually all of its peers, was the constant straightening out of the gay community.

But—and this is not the kind of “but” that erases everything that came before it—with Carol and Susan, Friends still stepped up its game. The show did depict the first lesbian wedding on television, in prime time. Kiss or no kiss, that was no small thing. Two network affiliates—WLIO in Lima, Ohio, and KJAC in Port Arthur, Texas—refused to air the episode, but that just wound up backfiring when viewers in their regions raised angry protests, and GLAAD decried the censorship, giving the episode even more press. NBC hired extra temp staff to field phone calls, expecting to hear from thousands of outraged viewers. In the end, they got two calls. Almost 32 million people tuned in to watch “The One with the Lesbian Wedding.” It was the highest rated program on television that week, and the first episode of Friends ever to hit #1. That is no small thing, either. To have the most popular TV comedy take this risk and not just survive but succeed tremendously revealed that yes, things really were changing. It made clear that Americans would not merely tolerate a gay couple on television, but tune in and cheer for them. Friends cleared a path for other shows to follow, with far less trepidation.

Furthermore, the story of Carol and Susan and Ross explored another common experience in gay people’s lives (albeit through the eyes of a straight character). “I thought it was even better having a character like Ross there,” Sarah Beauchamp told me, reflecting on the wedding episode. “Because he needed to warm up to it and be convinced of it. [In] a lot of families, when a kid comes out, their dad or their mom is getting used to it. So, I liked that they showed that side of it, too.”

Yes, Ross spends one and a half seasons moping about his lesbian ex-wife and sparring with Susan—which, Beauchamp adds, is probably how it would go in real life. And it does happen in real life, because gay people often have heterosexual relationships before coming out, and that makes for a complicated breakup. “That’s something you have to process…Ross definitely didn’t handle it well, but I don’t know anyone who would,” says Beauchamp. Even in the idealized world of Friends, “I don’t think anyone whose wife leaves them for a woman and finds out she’s pregnant would be like, ‘Oh great! Let’s all coparent! This is so comfortable for me!’” Ross’s initial reaction, she says, was a pretty authentic mix of hurt, anger, and ignorance. “That’s reality.”

At one point Ross even tries to convince Carol that they should get back together. There’s a scene in Season One where the two of them wind up at a hibachi restaurant, reminiscing about old times. “Here’s a wacky thought. What’s say you and I give it another shot?” says Ross. “I know what you’re gonna say, you’re a lesbian…but there’s something right here. I love you.” True, he’s being unbelievably unfair, and Carol shouldn’t have to put up with it. But their deep connection is obvious; they share years of history and complicated feelings, not to mention a child. The talk ends with a brief kiss before she tells him no—of course, no. Jane Sibbett recalled the scene as one of her fondest memories from working on the series: “Because it says so much about our relationship, and that there can be so much love between two people.” The scene doesn’t come off as offensive, but heartbreaking and intimate.

It’s Ross who Carol seeks out the night before the wedding, after her parents refuse to attend and she considers calling it off. This the moment when Ross finally comes around, puts his own hurt feelings aside, and steps up. “Look do you love her?…Well, then that’s it,” he tells Carol. “If my parents didn’t want me to marry you, no way that would have stopped me. Look, this is your wedding. Do it.” He then fills in for Carol’s father, and walks her down the aisle (hanging on to her arm just a little too long before letting her go). Is he totally over it? No. He might never be. But it’s a turning point for him, and for this newly blended family. Later on at the reception, Susan asks Ross to dance. “You did a good thing today,” she tells him.

One act of decency doesn’t erase what came before it, but “The One with the Lesbian Wedding” was a good thing, both for Ross and for Friends. In light of how much the world has changed in the years since it first aired, the episode stands as an uncomfortable reminder of a time, not long ago, when gay jokes were far more acceptable on-screen than gay people—let alone gay marriage. Even now, when representation is at an all-time high, queer characters make up only about 6% of those on scripted television (most of which are male and white). In 1996, any degree of visibility made an impact. And to give these two women a wedding, to show them surrounded by family and friends, standing up in support of their love—even if just for a minute of screen-time—was an undeniably good thing. “I think for the gay community it was huge, to actually be able to see that,” said Sibbett. “I wish that there had been more.”

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