‘Friends’ Lesbian Panic

As one is wont to do over the holidays, I found myself watching some episodes of Friends, a show I caught only sporadically when it was airing the first time around, with my family. I found myself particularly struck by the episode where Ross gets anxious over the possibility that a new girlfriend will turn out to be a lesbian because she’s hanging out with Susan, his lesbian ex-wife Carol’s partner. At the time, I found the scenario sort of grating: it’s irritating to watch straight guys angst over whether the supply of women who are sexually available to them will dwindle.

But the more I thought about it, the more I think the episode is a smart illustration of the ways in which closeting and lack of familiarity with gay people are bad for heterosexuals as well as for gay people themselves. Because Ross’s main experience with coming out has been with someone who didn’t figure out she was gay until after they were married, it’s not totally illogical that he’s anxious about it happening again. And I think it’s fair to acknowledge that damage done to straight partners in those situations, even if the impact is worse for people who are denying their true selves and the full range of experience that comes with it. This is not purely the stuff of fiction, or the ’50s, as evidenced by the column last week in the New York Times about an academic couple who stayed together for appearances and, as they told themselves, for their children. And the fact that Ross doesn’t appear to know very much about gay people — including the fact that having a very close lesbian friend doesn’t mean you’re going to spontaneously flip your sexual orientation — heightens his anxiety. It’s not a perfect episode, but it’s a nice little fable about the need for familiarity to dispel fear.