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American Television, Drama  
 
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Much of the criticism surrounding Matt's character resulted from the deliberate downplaying of his homosexuality. Kylo-Patrick R. Hart has commented that, particularly in the show's first two seasons, so much of Matt's social life took place off camera that the series failed to effectively explore realities associated with gay male life. Matt was tapped, instead, to provide emotional support to his fellow apartment denizens.

By the third season, the show's writers and producers began exploring Matt's gay lifestyle on a regular basis, although these explorations were couched in the same soap opera-style melodrama seen in Dynasty. Matt found himself involved in a variety of dysfunctional relationships including ones with a closeted naval officer who later discloses that he is HIV-positive, a gay policeman turned obsessed stalker, and a physically abusive therapist.

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Matt was also fired from his job on two separate occasions because of his sexual orientation and developed an uncontrollable drug habit before moving to San Francisco in the show's sixth season, thus effectively ending his tenure on Melrose Place.

 

The Rise of Prime-Time Lesbianism

At about the same time that Matt's role on Melrose Place was waning, a new star and a new show was finding adherents. In September 1995, Xena: Warrior Princess debuted on the USA cable network. Fashioned after mythical Amazon warriors, Xena (Lucy Lawless) and her cohort Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor) were an immediate hit with both straight and queer audiences who wanted something different in a television show than the usual prime time network offerings.

Clad in leather and chain mail, sporting an almost fearless insouciance, Xena exuded difference, and became a model for strong women who would not be cowed by (usually male) opponents. Even though Xena was not per se a lesbian, her ambiguous relationship with the softer, more feminine Gabrielle, certainly hinted at a barely sublimated lesbianism that the show's writers played up at every opportunity.

Indeed, the sympathetic lesbianism seen in Xena: Warrior Princess illustrates the sharp contrast in portrayals of lesbians and gay men that has existed, and continues to persist, in television drama. Dynasty's Steven Carrington and Melrose Place's Matt Fielding exhibited the stereotypical promiscuity and dysfunctionality characteristic of media portrayals of gay male relationships, while the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle was marked with loyalty, devotion, and commitment.

These traits, in fact, have media antecedents stretching back to 1989, with the pathbreaking feminist medical drama, ABC's Heartbeat. This show, which lasted only for one season, featured Gail Strickland as nurse practitioner, Marilyn McGrath, the first recurring, openly lesbian character in prime time. Speaking to People magazine interviewer Susan Toepfer, Heartbeat writer Sara Davidson has remarked that audiences should see McGrath as a terrific person first, then find out that she had a private life that, at its core, was no different from anyone else's.

Heartbeat introduced a relationship plot for McGrath's character almost immediately, a romantic interest played by Gina Hecht, but the series' short-lived network run effectively ended the recurring lesbian presence on a prime time dramatic show until the advent of Xena. However, corresponding with the rise of Xena came the 1995 NBC TV movie, Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, which directly addressed the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy regarding open declarations of homosexuality.

Serving in Silence told the story of Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer (Glenn Close), a 28-year Army veteran who, after applying to the Army War College, "admitted" in response to a direct question posed by an investigating officer that she was a lesbian. Because of this declaration, the Army began proceedings for her immediate discharge, and Cammermeyer instituted legal proceedings in response. The movie, which was produced by Barbra Streisand, garnered respectable audience ratings but drew fire on the eve of its premiere because of a discreet kiss between Close and her on-screen lover, Judy Davis.

 

Kissing to Be Clever

The furor over the discreet kiss shared by Close and Davis was hardly unexpected, given the backlash from previous televised expressions of homosexual affection. In February 1991, two female attorneys on the NBC series L. A. Law, C. J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) and Abby Perkins (Michele Greene), engaged in what has become famous as the first lesbian kiss on network television.

Larry Gross has explained that, in the last few episodes of the 1991 season, the recipient of the famous kiss, Abby Perkins, seemed eager to push things even further, only to have the bisexual C.J. hold back and declare that Abby was not really ready. Thus viewers realized they would have to wait until the next season to find out if network television was ready to permit two women to express sexual desire for each other. But the answer never came. Michele Greene left the show over the summer and C.J., after being given a one-episode lesbian lover, embarked on an affair with a straight man.

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