If you were a queer kid growing up in the ’90s, there was one place you could turn to for support —
your family your school Roseanne.
Remember, this was the pre-Drag Race era. Whatever you think of the show now, back then, the show was remarkably ahead of its time when it came to the LGBTQ community. Roseanne the character, whose friends included a bisexual woman and a gay man, sparked a feud with ABC when she became one of the first women to kiss another woman on air in 1994.
Roseanne was one of the earliest shows on television to depict a gay wedding. And even though Darlene technically wasn’t out as a lesbian, she became a gay icon for the haven’t-yet-realized-they’re-queer teen community. (As a member of this demo, I have yet to recover from my lingering resentment of David.)
20 years later, Roseanne now includes a gender creative child and with it, a critical conversation about gender identity, performance, and acceptance. It’s a radical-ish historical moment, and it’s happening in the medium we need it most — corny network TV.
Listen. Given Roseanne the actress’ wildly conspiratorial, fact-free views on Twitter, there’s a very solid case to be made that the current show is doing more to normalize the Trump administration’s transphobic and xenophobic worldview than subvert it. On a good day, Roseanne’s views are deplorable, and on a bad day, they’re dangerous. I’m not sure we need to reward someone who spent the past few years spouting anti-Muslim propaganda on Twitter with dozens of laudatory thinkpieces. *Nods head, points at self.*
Alas, here we are. Roseanne exists and with a full cast, only one of whom is a disciple of Trump on Twitter. The show’s audience for its premiere was disproportionately rural and wealthy, much like Trump voters themselves. If Roseanne the show is able to access those voters, and teach them a lesson or two about accepting LGBTQ kids, I’d argue that it has real, positive cultural value — as much as it hurts me to type that.
I wish I could say I’m overstating my case. But Roseanne was there for the gay community at a time when other shows were doing everything in their power to deny their existence. The show predated Will and Grace, Ellen, and Buffy‘s Tara and Willow. Back then, it was revolutionary to see any gay men on television who weren’t dying, but were, in fact, falling in love. For so much of America, homosexuality was still synonymous with AIDS. Leon and Scott’s 1995 wedding, blessed with male strippers and flamingo iconography, gave the community a full hour of hope, even if it was just on TV.
More progressive yet, Roseanne produced gay characters who defied emerging stereotypes. Take a look at this conversation between Roseanne and her gay boss Leon:
Leon: What if I’m not even gay?
Roseanne: You couldn’t be any gayer if your name was Gay Gayerson.
Leon: Think about it. I hate to shop, I’m positively insensitive, I detest Barbra Streisand, and, for God’s sake, I’m a Republican!
Roseanne: But do you like having sex with men?
Leon, Nancy (Sandra Bernhard), and Marla (Morgan Fairchild) were the show’s principal queer characters. But queer teens latched onto the character of Darlene. Even though Darlene may not have been openly queer, she occupied what critics call a “gay-straight” space on the show. (For a more thorough dissection of Darlene, read Angela Watercutter’s excellent treatment of the subject.) Darlene had all of the ’90s queer signifiers — a masculine-of-center aesthetic, hostility towards authority, a sarcastic affect, artistic lit mag vibes, and a platonic boyfriend. (Darlene and David had sex? Give me a break.) She wasn’t quite gay, but she certainly didn’t perform straight, and that was something.
It was a radical artistic compromise for the time — just enough gender ambiguity to attract the alterna teens and queers, without quite alienating ad-buying lamestream America.
Fast forward 20 years and Roseanne is still pushing the LGBTQ conversation forward on America’s favorite family network, ABC. During the show’s premiere, Roseanne and Dan confront Darlene with what they/I believe to be the truth: Darlene is gay.
“We already came to terms with the fact that you were gay,” Rosanne says, speaking of Darlene’s childhood attire of basketball jerseys and shorts.
Darlene dismisses the allegation, to the dismay of her Xennial gay goth fans. Still, the scene manages to teach something of a lesson: Whether it’s that people can be straight and have a non-traditional gender presentation, or that coming out in 2018 is still super hard and many young people like Darlene live in denial. (For the purposes of my mental health, let’s advance theory #2 as fact.)
And it’s not just Darlene. The Roseanne reboot goes beyond sexual orientation to tackle thornier and more modern issues of gender identity. Darlene’s own kid, Mark, is gender creative. He identifies with the gender he was assigned at birth and enjoys wearing girl’s clothing, including pearls. (Mark, as a culture writer who wears her mother’s sneakers, I’m not trying to shame you in any way, but pearls are a sartorially questionable choice, regardless of your gender identity.)
Roseanne and Dan initially try to get Mark to change into more masculine pants. He refuses, so Dan gives him a knife to protect himself — which sounds like something writers think working-class guys do, not what they actually do. A school suspension follows. 30 minutes later, Mark has achieved total acceptance from his family — a process that takes most of us in the queer community years, if not our entire lives.
It’s a radical moment on multiple levels. Not only does this family sitcom have a gender creative character, that character is deeply loved by his working class family. In 21st century America, queerness or gender nonconformity is still seen as a luxury identity. Working class people can’t afford to deviate from the norm, the theory goes. Their families can’t risk accepting them. Gayness has become synonymous with affluence, bigotry with the working class.
That’s why shows like Roseanne and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy are so important, regardless of their bad dialogue. Both demonstrate that you don’t have to have written your senior thesis on Judith Butler to be gay or memorized an Adrienne Rich poem to love queer people. Education is irrelevant. You just have to be kind.
Of course these shows are fantasies. There’s no way that five gay men can change a straight man’s life forever by teaching him to make a faux-gourmet hot dog. And I’m sorry, it takes longer than 24 hours for anyone to go from handing a gender creative kid a lethal weapon to embracing them fully. Trump voters like Roseanne the character (and Roseanne the actress) aren’t known for welcoming trans people insomuch as denying their legal right to exist. These shows are limited by their show length and for Roseanne, especially, by their whiteness.
That doesn’t mean fantasy doesn’t have cultural value. Queer Eye has been a remarkable critical success. Over 18 million people tuned in to watch Roseanne last Tuesday, making it the most highly viewed premiere of the 2017-2018 season. People are watching and listening, including people who haven’t been friendly to the LGBTQ community. Let’s hope they’re learning something too.
And if, in between the facile cultural commentary, dismissive portrayals of progressive voters, and starchy narrative arcs, I can find something resembling compassion, I’ll hold onto it — just like I did twenty years ago. We’re living in the darkest of timelines. The bad men are in control. I know I’m not alone when I say I’ll take empathy in any form, from any person, on whatever channel I can find it.