1. Coco (“The Engagement”)
Oh, Coco, we hardly knew ye. In the Golden Girls pilot, Coco served as the women’s chef — no explanation as to how they could afford that — and a dispenser of snaps. Thankfully, he was written out of the series: While Coco is campy fun, he was also an outdated stereotype even then. And The Golden Girls likely would not have the reputation for the progressive series it was if Coco had stayed put. Not to mention the fact that on a show with Bea Arthur, a sassy gay character is redundant.
As writer Marc Cherry puts it, “The fascinating thing is, you would just write what was a really great joke, and you put it in Bea Arthur’s mouth, and it comes out gay.”
3. Jean (“Isn’t It Romantic?”)
When Dorothy’s friend Jean, a lesbian, came to visit, Dorothy worried her roommates wouldn’t understand. They eventually got it — especially when Jean developed a crush on Rose. The episode remains rather touching and surprisingly frank. Rose explains to Jean that although she’s not interested in women, she’s flattered by the attention from her female admirer. “Isn’t It Romantic?” picked up an Emmy Award for Best Direction.
From that episode, Sophia expresses her approval of the gays. “If one of my kids was gay, I wouldn’t love him one bit less,” she offers. Then there’s Blanche’s classic “lesbian”/”Lebanese” confusion.
5. Gil Kessler (“Strange Bedfellows”)
The girls support political candidate Gil Kesser, but things get tricky when he alleges that he had an affair with Blanche. Despite her protestations, Dorothy and Rose turn on her. At the end of the episode, Gil reveals that he lied about sleeping with Blanche to cover up the fact that he’s a trans man. While this isn’t exactly an example of positive representation, it’s not really joke fodder either. The focus is more on everyone’s preconceived notions of Blanche.
6. Laszlo (“The Artist”)
As in “Strange Bedfellows,” the reveal of Laszlo’s LGBT identity occurred at the very end, and was designed as a sort of punch line. Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose, who spend most of the episode vying for the artist’s attention, finally learned that he — like so many brilliant artists — will never be interested in any of them. It’s not revolutionary, but it is matter-of-fact. And Laszlo even gets a boyfriend, who pops up at the end when the girls at last put two and two together.
7. Clayton Hollingsworth (“Scared Straight,” “Sister of the Bride”)
In terms of gay characters on The Golden Girls, Clayton had the most significant impact. He first showed up in “Scared Straight,” in which Blanche was forced to come to terms with (and eventually move past) her homophobia. In “Sister of the Bride,” he got married, long before same-sex marriage was on the national radar. Blanche’s initial rejection and later acceptance of her brother reflected the reality of coming out to one’s family, especially in the ’80s.
Here’s Blanche uncomfortable with the idea of Clayton dating men.
9. Blanche and Dorothy (“Goodbye, Mr. Gordon”)
OK, this one’s just silly: Blanche and Dorothy agree to appear on a talk show about women who live together, without realizing what “women who live together” really means. But in order to save Rose’s job, they go along with the charade and pretend to be in a lesbian relationship. It’s all for laughs, but it does point to The Golden Girls’ queer subtext: The relationships these women have with each other are always stronger than the relationships they have with men.
10. Bonus: Blanche’s “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease” speech.
The Golden Girls did occasionally delve into serious subject matter, and AIDS came up more than once in the series. While the show did not include gay men with AIDS — both instances focused on HIV-infected blood from transfusions — Blanche’s speech in “72 Hours” is a clear response to the discrimination faced by those suffering from AIDS, which at the time, was largely the gay community. “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose,” she says. “It is not God punishing people for their sins.”
11. And, of course, Sophia’s lovely take on marriage equality.
Remember, this was 1991.