Film and TV | Gay Iconography | Roseanne Barr | Sandra Bernhard | Television

Gay Iconography: Is Roseanne An Icon?


Welcome to Gay Iconography, a new feature where we present highlights from a pop culture gay icon and ask you to weigh in on their impact for the LGBT community.

It's tough to remember what life was like when Roseanne first premiered on ABC twenty five years ago. The brash comedian came out swinging with a sitcom that wore its feminist ideals proudly on one sleeve and its Middle-America, blue-collar values on the other. Then, with both arms, Roseanne embraced the gay community.

Inspired by her gay siblings, Roseanne populated the fictional town of Lanford with LGBT characters. There was series regular Nancy (played by Sandra Bernhard, a lesbian icon in her own right), Leon (Martin Mull) and his husband Scott (Fred Willard) and even Roseanne's mom, Bev (Estelle Parsons). Then there were marquee guest stars like Mariel Hemingway and Morgan Fairchild, who both played Nancy's girlfriends. The show was daring enough with its portrayal of LGBT characters to warrant backlash from the network and advertisers, but, in its prime, mainstream audiences couldn't get enough. The show's rank was in the top four in the Nielsen Ratings for six of its nine seasons.

Relive some of Roseanne's pivotal gay moments and tell us what you think,


Leon Comes Out: There are still a lot of folks in 2013 who wouldn't be comfortable coming out to a poker table full of guy's guys smoking cigars and drinking beer. Leon hardly blinks in this 1991 episode as he matter of factly tells the guys he's gay.

Nancy's News: Having previously been married to Arnie (Tom Arnold), Nancy's coming out shocked her friends Roseanne and Jackie, but it made her character so much more interesting. 


Here Come the Grooms: When Roseanne plans Leon's wedding to his partner Scott, she throws the most over-the-top, campy party. In a way, this sequence confronts the show's own at times stereotypical portrayal of gay characters.

The Kiss: Perhaps the most controversial scene of the show's history, guest star Mariel Hemingway plants one on a shocked Roseanne at gay bar. Laughably tame by today's standards, the kiss heard 'round the world drummed up so much controversy, many wondered if it was a ratings ploy all along.

Bev's Big News: More shocking than Nancy or Leon's coming out was that of Roseanne and Jackie's mom, Bev. 

Roseanne may always be a polarizing figure, but the characters she introduced on her show exposed huge audiences to LGBT men and women. Do you think Roseanne showcased positive portrayals, or were they too stereotypical and controversy-courting? Tell us why you think Roseanne is (or isn't) a gay icon in the comments.

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  1. Roseanne, with the exception of the last 2 seasons (Whenever it got CRAZY) is one of the most important shows in American history. It is a handful of shows that showed a realistic american family as well as american poverty. It was a vital show as it reflected the attitude, stress and means of the average in a way that no show has matched.

    The fact that it was also groundbreaking in it's portrayal and execution of gays is astonishing. You can dislike her or the show all you want but it was and always will be amazing.

    Posted by: Fenrox | Nov 8, 2013 1:53:10 PM

  2. There's nobody like Roseanne, and the world is a much better place with her in it. Icon? I don't know, but I'm glad to have her on our side.

    Posted by: Jack M | Nov 8, 2013 1:56:49 PM

  3. Of course she is an Icon. I agree with the first comment that no other show has matched hers in it's realistic depiction of Americans at that time.

    I remember being a young boy working in my family's diner, and her show was on. It literally seemed like she was telling my family's story, and the first time I ever saw anything gay on TV was her show.

    She is vastly underrated in her cultural impact.

    Posted by: James | Nov 8, 2013 2:02:03 PM

  4. As far as I'm concerned, she'll always be a gay icon just for this line she used to say in her stand-up comedy routine early in her career:
    "If it wasn't for gay guys, us fat chicks wouldn't have anybody to dance with."

    Posted by: dommyluc | Nov 8, 2013 2:07:19 PM

  5. @James,

    Yeah, sometimes I would cringe at the show because it was too close to life, it practically embarrassed me.

    Posted by: Fenrox | Nov 8, 2013 2:12:44 PM

  6. I would say Yes, indeed! Probably the first show to break out with positive gay and lesbian characters on prime time.

    Soap had Billy Crystal's character Jodie, but it was such a cliche, as was the 2-D Steven Carrington (gay? bisexual? wtf?) on Dynasty.

    Roseanne gave us characters that were a lot more dynamic and not cliches.

    As much as Will & Grace gets all the attention and kudos, it was on Roseanne that a much more positive image of gays and lesbians was first portrayed on American tv.

    Posted by: Lucca | Nov 8, 2013 2:14:00 PM

  7. You keep saying LGBT - but the only representation Roseanne gave was LG, maybe B. As usual T was ignored and Rosanne has since been exposed as a transphobe. We should be standing against her out-moded ideas in solidarity with the trans community, not nominating her as an icon.

    Posted by: mac | Nov 8, 2013 2:15:56 PM

  8. You keep saying LGBT - but the only representation Roseanne gave was LG, maybe B. As usual T was ignored and Rosanne has since been exposed as a transphobe. We should be standing against her out-moded ideas in solidarity with the trans community, not nominating her as an icon.

    Posted by: mac | Nov 8, 2013 2:15:56 PM

  9. Watching her show - as a then still-partially-closeted gay man - I felt like the future was going to be better since she was showing gay people on her show who had standard issue lives. While it might have shocked some people, for my small group it was a real breakthrough and she won us over as fans FOR LIFE.

    In my eyes, the woman can do no wrong, even on her worst day.

    Posted by: johnny | Nov 8, 2013 2:17:00 PM

  10. I always liked her. But the word "icon" is as over-used, and abused, these days as "diva" and "porn star". Superlative words stop being superlative when they don't make distinctions.

    Posted by: Profe Sancho Panza | Nov 8, 2013 2:21:15 PM

  11. i love rosanne, but never saw her as an icon.

    Posted by: northalabama | Nov 8, 2013 2:32:48 PM

  12. Yeah, "ICON" might be overstating it - but her show was Amazing - and she pretty much continues to be. I'd forgotten how matter-of-factly gays were often presented on "Roseanne," so thanks for the reminders.

    Posted by: Zlick | Nov 8, 2013 2:37:40 PM

  13. Mac, please. Roseanne is not a "transphobe". Does she go off with her big yap sometimes? Yes, but she is absolutely no transphobe. Those who are trying to perpetuate this meme are doing themselves a disservice and alienating many.

    I remember watching "Roseanne" in the midwest during my coming out process. As the series progressed, I would watch it with my gay and ally friends and we would just HOWL at what she was able to get away with to show LGB people living out and openly.

    For those who were put off by the last season, I highly suggest watching the last two episodes which explains the kookiness of that last season in such a heartbreaking and poignant way. I now watch the last season episode repeats in a whole new light. They're not stellar writing but knowing what she was going for is amazing.

    That, and the last season lets you get to see Roseanne and Jackie hanging out with Pats and Eddie.

    Posted by: Rey | Nov 8, 2013 2:46:00 PM

  14. Any actor that stands up for gays and lesbians, and stands her ground for what she believes in, is definitely a gay icon. She has earned that title many times over.

    Posted by: Stephen | Nov 8, 2013 2:46:14 PM

  15. Comedy icon for sure.

    Posted by: jeffinla | Nov 8, 2013 2:50:46 PM

  16. Roseanne Barr is indeed transphobic:

    Posted by: Pierre | Nov 8, 2013 2:52:00 PM

  17. While I completely admire what she was able to do with her show, I don't think she's ever really merited "gay icon" status.

    Posted by: D.B. | Nov 8, 2013 2:52:35 PM

  18. I've always said her show was way ahead of its time. Go Roseanne!

    Posted by: reality | Nov 8, 2013 2:53:34 PM

  19. Yes her show truly was groundbreaking with it's lesbian and gay characters but did not quite have the impact of later shows like W&G and Modern Family. But it certainly was a good start.

    Roseanne herself is a dichotomy. Kind of Gay Icon but... not really. She does not have the mystery, allure, or magnetism of a true gay icon. She is talented but her behavior is so out of left field. She is somewhat common in a way. Not a beautiful goddess (domestic goddess yes) like Liz and Marilyn or having massive emotional talent like early Barbra or Judy.

    Gay Icons often reinvent themselves too and I don't think Roseanne has done that.

    Posted by: Max | Nov 8, 2013 2:54:06 PM

  20. Absolutely. I watched her show as a kid, and loved loved loved it. The Gay Issues started to come into storylines when I was still a 'tween, and I remember watching them, vividly. Again, all part of the growing culture that helped and inspired me to come out when I was in my teens. SO yes. Icon status assured.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Nov 8, 2013 2:55:09 PM

  21. I remember an episode where Leon might be fired for being gay and Roseanne stood up to their boss about it. Powerful show for the early 90s.

    Posted by: reality | Nov 8, 2013 2:55:16 PM

  22. Pierre: The trans* community would be well-served to not model themselves after stereotypical emotional, shrill women. Look to the stronger women who are able to engage in debate and education instead of screaming, "TRANSPHOBE! TRAAAAAAAANSSSSPHOBE!" at people.

    Roseanne, just like Cher and many of us, can grow with understanding but this current approach is doomed to fail and set back the trans* community.

    Posted by: Rey | Nov 8, 2013 3:00:56 PM

  23. Dan: Hey honey, why didn't you tell me Leon was gay?
    Roseanne: What difference does it make? You're all pigs!

    Love. Her.

    Posted by: Jon | Nov 8, 2013 3:05:56 PM

  24. Just stop it with the "icon" business. This line of thinking is what keeps you in your place.

    Posted by: Eric8 | Nov 8, 2013 3:26:41 PM

  25. "Roseanne" is an iconic tv sitcom absolutely, but Roseanne a gay icon? I'm not sure.

    Posted by: Brian in Texas | Nov 8, 2013 3:50:35 PM

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