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The Worst Cases of Lesbian Censorship in Pop Culture History

With Doctor Who‘s recent editing-out of Madame Vastra and Jenny’s “oxygen-sharing” for air in Asia, we sigh in collective frustration over having seen this happen so many times before. The continued censoring of queer characters, themes and stories is telling of the society we live in, one where we’d like to think “It Gets Better” is a true statement but still find ourselves made secret and scarce when it comes to visibility in mainstream entertainment and media.

The good news is that we’ve gotten so much better at learning about these instances and being able to call them out, educating ourselves and others as to why we deserve to be seen and heard just as much as our straight counterparts in this big wide world. Art imitates live and vice versa, and if queer women are not a part of the images and ideas we all consume, than how can we expect to be taken seriously as human beings? When we’re invisible, we’re seen as insignificant, a minority that can be cured by the likes of hate crimes and corrective rapes, or snuffed out completely.

Here are some instances in which lesbians have been censored in the past, and how they have affected our visibility today, for better or for worse.

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness gets taken to court
Radclyffe Hall [Misc.] 

One of the first ever lesbian themed novels to be published, queer author Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 book about “sexual inversion” went to trial not once, but twice. In the UK, it was deemed obscene, despite not having any actual graphic sexual description, but the U.S. Customs Court was unable to keep it from being released after a “careful read” indicated there was not “one word, phrase, sentence or paragraph which could be truthfully pointed out as offensive to modesty.” Because it was so hotly contested in Europe, it was made into a hot item and the book has been in print ever since and translated into 14 other languages.

Pussy Galore isn’t gay for Goldfinger
Spelling It Out

Ian Fleming‘s 1958 James Bond novel featured a 30-something trapeze artist turned robber named Pussy Galore. An out lesbian with a band of merry women, Pussy said she was gay because she was sexually abused by her uncle at age 12. The 1964 film version cast Honor Blackman in the role, but changed her look (from black haired and pale to a blonde tan beauty) and also made her straight, as she sleeps with Bond in a controversial sex scene that is also criticized as coming off like a rape. In the documentary Bond Girls are Forever, Honor said she tried to play the character more closely to the book.

Fried Green Tomatoes is de-gayed for the big screen

Out author Fannie Flagg‘s 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe featured a prominent lesbian couple, Idgie and Ruth. Although the word “lesbian” never comes up, it’s quite clear they are in a loving relationship that is accepted by the Alabama town folk that surround them. But when the movie version was released in 1991, the only romance between the characters was found in subtext, or those who were looking for it in the first place.

Shuge and Cealy’s relationship gets changed in Spielberg’s The Color Purple

Bisexual writer Alice Walker‘s 1982 novel The Color Purple was so groundbreaking it won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. Shug and Celie’s romantic and sexual relationship are central to the plot, so when Steven Spielberg came in to direct the 1985 adaptation, it was disappointing that he played it down substantially. The director later said, “There were certain things in the [lesbian] relationship between Shug Avery and Celie that were very finely detailed in Alice’s book, that I didn’t feel we could get a [PG-13] rating. And I was shy about it. In that sense, perhaps I was the wrong director to acquit some of the more sexually honest encounters between Shug and Celie, because I did soften those. I basically took something that was extremely erotic and very intentional, and I reduced it to a simple kiss. I got a lot of criticism for that.” As he should.

Now & Then‘s Roberta is made straight

Pretty Little Liars creator Marlene King was behind this 1995 teen drama, and she put a lot of herself into her characters, including tomboy Roberta (played by Christina Ricci). In fact, Roberta was supposed to be a lesbian character, but the studio disapproved. “Unfortunately at the time the studio were originally in scripts supportive of the character of Roberta being gay,” Marlene told us in 2012. “And when we tested, they decided to cut that part of the story out. It was unfortunate because we all sort of knew that character was developed as a gay character in that ensemble.” But now that Now & Then is getting made into a TV series for ABC Family, Marlene says Roberta will definitely get her gay back. “When I first talked about the show with Warner Bros., immediately, I said, ‘In script, this was a gay character and I want her to be a gay character on the TV show.’ And they said ‘Absolutely.’”

Sailor Moon loses its lesbians

The original Sailor Moon series had an open love affair between Uranus and Neptune, but when the anime series came stateside, the two were edited as “close cousins.” There were several queerish characters, in fact, and thankfully edits couldn’t cover up all of that subtext. The good news: The unedited original is now available for everyone to watch, including the final season that never aired in the U.S.

But I’m a Cheerleader faces sex discrimination from the MPAA

The carefully choreographed under-the-sheets scene in Jamie Babbit‘s 1999 But I’m a Cheerleader has very little actual sex, and that’s because the out director had to keep it that way for anything less than an NC-17 rating. In This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Jamie laments that the MPAA was specifically discriminating against it being a lesbian scenario. “There’s no nudity in the sex scene, they’re fully clothed—it’s ridiculous.” Yet American Pie, which was filled with straight male sexuality and pie masturbation, received an R.

Fox cuts Thirteen’s sex scene down to seconds

Olivia Wilde played a bisexual doctor on Fox’s House, which had us tuning in weekly to see what she’d be doing in and out of her lab coat. An early promo for the 2008 episode “Lucky Thirteen,” showed a hot and heavy scene with Thirteen and another woman. But when the show aired, it was severely cut down to just a few seconds. Queer writer Sara Hess (who now writes for Orange is the New Blacktold us last year, “You always end up shooting more than you can use and then cutting to make it fit. As for the rest of it: any Fox objections to that teaser weren’t about the gay content, but the general explicitness of the scene (which is fair: it was a network show in primetime) and in particular a moment when Thirteen dropped to her knees in front of Spencer. They were actually pretty cool about the rest of it. We were bummed (“we” meaning my co-writer Liz Friedman, director Greg Yaitanes, and me) when we found out later that they had an existing rule against portraying—or indicating—oral sex (straight or gay), because if we’d known that we could have just choreographed the sequence a different way.”

Without Men is heavily edited for Spain


The 2011 film starring Eva Longoria is significantly different if you watch it in America vs. Spain. Spanish distributor Tayrona Entertainment“re-edited and re-versioned” the film “in order to balance the film for a mainstream audience.” This, of course, meant taking out scenes of Eva kissing another woman and instances of lesbianism when the men of the film are sent to war, leaving all the women to their own devices.

SyFy cuts down on Lost Girl‘s same-sex scenes050412lost2

Doccubus fans were outraged when the original Canadian version of Lost Girl was altered for SyFy. Our own Dorothy Snarker compared the episodes and pointed out the differences in hand placement, gestures and words spoken, but the producers claimed it was all to cut down for the network’s time allotment and nothing to do with homophobia. It’s hard to say if the any de-gaying was truly going on, but surely the noticeable response from viewers let them know it really shouldn’t happen again.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post gets removed from teen reading list


The state of Delaware’s librarians so loved Emily Danforth‘s YA novel that they put it on their annual honors reading list for teens. Unfortunately the school board at Cape Henlopen disapproved so much they voted to remove it as a suggested title, claiming it was for the swearing and not the sexuality. But when fans of the book (including us!) fought them on their censorship and homophobia, they did something completely illogical: Rid of the entire book list altogether. That’ll teach your students! (Actually, no, it won’t.)

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The Best and Worst of Cosmo’s Lesbian Sex Tips

Much ado has been made about Cosmo’s new listicle of 28 lesbian sex positions to try NOW. Skimming through the legendary lady mags foray into making pictures of illustrated girls doing gay looking sex actions above the perky yet explicit descriptions we’ve come to expect from Cosmo, I was neither offended nor titillated.

I feel no need to wax poetic on how Cosmo STILL DOESN’T UNDERSTAND ME or start scissoring madly while festooned in floral garlands because the big bad lady mag told me so. Frankly I’m amused and entertained by the sincere, if hetero-peppy, shot at reppin’ my kind.

In that spirit of good natured mockery, I clarified and decorated the 15 best and worst of Cosmo’s lesbian sex tips.

Mandy Duan (left), 26, and Cat Liao, 25 Homosexuality is still viewed as a sickness in Chinese society. Duan, a graphic designer, and her girlfriend, Liao, a shop clerk, both left their hometowns for Beijing, where there are growing underground support networks. They met at a lesbian gathering and have been dating for a year. It’s still common for gays to marry straight spouses to hide their sexuality. At 19, Liao’s parents discovered she was gay and forced her to marry a man. Now divorced, she had to give up custody of her daughter to her ex-husband. There are a few positive signs of gay acceptance, however, such as the recent lifting of a state ban on lesbians giving blood.
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