Lesbians have been kissing since the dawn of time, but it was only in February of 1991 that Americans really started paying attention to women kissing, thanks to a television innovation and a still-notorious episode of L.A. Law.
According to NBC, they were just trying to add “texture” to the character of C.J. Lamb, a law-firm attorney who had described her sexual self as “flexible”. The February 7, 1991 episode entitled “He’s a Crowd,” featured Lamb growing close to another attorney named Abby Perkins. Eventually they share a private kiss, then Perkins becomes flustered and drives away (you can see it at 26:40 in the episode below).
There was a bit of a backlash to the very chaste, momentary kiss. Five advertisers pulled out and NBC had to replace them at a reduced rate. The homophobic American Family Association called for a boycott that never really materialized — fewer than a hundred calls came into the network, many in support of the kiss.
“There are probably twenty-five million gay people out there,” said producer Patricia Green, “all of whom have friends and relatives and loved ones. That is so many more people than those…who are liable to be offended by it that, to us, the advertiser saying ‘We lose business’ is irrelevant. It’s a perception, not a fact.”
Any hope of a further lesbian relationship soon faded. The Abby Perkins character was written off the show at the end of the season. And while C.J. Greene had a brief rekindling of interests with an ex-girlfriend, she eventually became involved with a male attorney. Eventually, her character was written out as well, with the strange explanation that she had left to work with female golfers.
Although the kiss didn’t have much impact on the characters, it dramatically changed the television landscape . L.A. Law became known almost exclusively for its lesbian kiss, and it gave rise to lesbian kisses as a stunt for “sweeps week,” an annual period during which networks sought high ratings as a way to negotiate higher advertising rates for their shows.
The lip-locking-lesbian trend survived for a little over a decade before it was no longer the controversy magnet it initially was. Two years later, a lesbian kiss between characters Kimberly and Lisa on Picket Fences sent a gay panic through their town as rumors about the two young women abound — a mother of one of the characters tells her daughter to focus moreso on her heterosexual feelings. A lesbian relationship never developed between the characters, but CBS requested the show’s producers to re-shoot the scene with lower lighting to make the kiss harder to see.
The following decade saw lesbian kisses, primarily during sweeps, on Roseanne (with Mariel Hemingway), on Relativity, on Ally McBeal and on Party of Five. There was also a widely acclaimed lesbian storyline on Buffy that started in 2001 and involved more than just a gimmicky kiss. Young witches Willow and Tara had a prolonged story arc involving an intense committed relationship — a story that many queer women still cite as the first same-sex couple they identified with on television.
Sure, the L.A. Law kiss and many of the kisses that followed were probably cheap ratings ploys. But without them, we might never have gotten to the much more meaningful relationships a decade later.