I GUESS WE ARE NOT GOING TO SEE THE Friends episode called “The One Where Chandler Comes Out.” Since its debut in fall 1994, the hugely popular sitcom has had a running joke about preppy Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry): Women think he is gay and, when he and roommate Joey (Matt LeBlanc) take baby Ben for a walk, assume they are a couple. A female coworker of Chandler’s tries to set him up with a guy; even spacey Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) has described him as having “homosexual hair.” When Chandler grew forlorn after Joey moved, his gloom fueled media speculation about his coming out (Joey has since moved back). For their part, the show’s creators insist that Chandler is not gay, and that’s that.
Fair enough. Coming out is not a lifestyle choice, like turning vegetarian, and much of the recent societal buzz is about stereotypes: Exactly what is homosexual hair? Don’t straight men miss old roommates too? Besides, Friends is way beyond the homophobic leering of a ’70s sitcom such as Three’s Company—witness the elegant lesbian wedding of Carol, the ex-wife of Ross (David Schwimmer). Yet despite what the producers claim, sexuality on Friends is more complicated than to be or not to be. As Ross ruefully explained in the pilot, Carol hadn’t realized she was gay until they were married.
Viewers today rightly resist clichés about sexual identity, but we’re also more willing (if Friends would dare us) to accept the notion that even comic favorites can make discoveries about themselves. Gay characters have come a long way on prime time, but producers seem unwilling to make them lead characters. It is time to grow up. If Chandler got a life to match his hair, I’d still be there for him.