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VIEWS How the Golden Girls fought for gay rights
by Ella Vincent
2015-09-23

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A sitcom about four elderly heterosexual women living together is an unlikely vehicle for LGBT rights. However, The Golden Girls became a classic with the gays throughout its seven year run by addressing LGBT issues in a progressive and funny way.

The Golden Girls debuted 30 years ago and detailed the lives and loves of Blanche ( Rue McClanahan ), Rose ( Betty White ), Dorothy ( Bea Arthur ), and Sophia ( Estelle Getty ). In 1985, when The Golden Girls debuted, there were few representations of LGBT live on TV. Rock Husdon died of AIDS that same year, when the belief was prevalent that being gay was a sin and AIDS was the punishment.

Despite this homophobic background, The Golden Girls, showed the humanity of LGBT people. In the second season of the show, one episode, "Isn't It Romantic,'' featured Jean, a lesbian friend of Dorothy's who fell in love with Rose. When Dorothy and Sophia tell Blanche, after initial disbelief, she's not upset that Jean is gay; she's more upset that Jean doesn't find her attractive. "To think Jean would prefer Rose over me, that's ridiculous!'' huffs Blanche. When Jean professes her love, Rose isn't disgusted; she is flattered by Jean's feelings instead.

A special episode in 1990 addressed the AIDS epidemic in a compassionate way. The episode "72 Hours'' featured Rose possibly contracting the disease through a blood transfusion. When she asks why she could get the disease when she lived a "clean'' life, Blanche snapped, "AIDS is not a bad person's disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins!'' Blanche voiced the frustrations of gay people who were HIV positive in the 1980s and 1990s, but were ignored and denied treatment by because conservative politicians who saw gay people as immoral.

The Golden Girls also addressed overcoming homophobia in a refreshingly honest way. In the "Sister of the Bride'' episode, Blanche's brother, Clayton was marrying his partner Doug even though Blanche was in denial about him being gay. "There must be some homosexuals who date women,'' said Blanche.

"Yeah—they're called lesbians,'' quips Sophia.

The episode aired in 1991 and made the simple argument for marriage equality years before it became a reality in America. When Blanche asked why her brother had to get married, Sophia asked her why she married her husband. When Blanche replied that they wanted the world to know they loved each other, Sophia replied, "That's what Clayton and Doug want. Everyone wants someone to grow old with, and shouldn't everyone have that chance?"

The Golden Girls not only fought for LGBT rights, but addressed the issue of gender non-conformity. When Dorothy's brother Phil died, he was buried in women's lingerie. While Phil wasn't gay, his dressing in women's clothes was a contentious issue for Sophia until Rose helped her see that his cross dressing didn't mean anything was wrong with him—or with her as a mother.

Not only was The Golden Girls a pioneering show for LGBT rights, but in real life, the actresses helped LGBT causes as well. When Bea Arthur passed away, she bequeathed $300,000 to the Ali Forney Center for LGBT youth in New York. Betty White also advocated for LGBT rights in a live-and let-live way. "I don't care whom you sleep with. It's 'what kind of a human being are you?''' said White when asked about gay marriage.

When The Golden Girls premiered on Sept. 14, 1985, the love the show received from gay viewers proved that there is a space for people who choose their own family and live life on their own terms. The Golden Girls endures as a gay iconic show today because it fought for gay rights at a time when it wasn't popular. Although the show is 30 years old, the message that people deserve love, respect and laughter is timeless.

Ella Vincent is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago.


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