On Dec. 31, 2021, an era came to an end with the death of Betty White, three weeks before her 100th birthday. Betty, who played the character of Rose Nylund, was the last of The Golden Girls actresses to die. White was preceded in death by Estelle Getty (Sophia Petrillo) at 84 in 2008, Rue McClanahan (Blanche Devereaux) at 76 in 2009 and Beatrice Arthur (Dorothy Zbornak) at 86 in 2010.
For those who don’t know, The Golden Girls was a show about four old women who lived together in a house, getting into all sorts of adventures, fights, and tough situations. But it was more than just a TV show; it was an icon, a trailblazer and a staple in the gay community. The show tackled important topics, including sexual harassment, slut shaming, fat shaming, antisemitism, age discrimination, drug addiction and mental health and they did it thoughtfully and maturely while still making it funny. They also introduced several gay
characters, but unlike almost everywhere else in the media at the time, the characters were treated with respect and not just used to make cheap jokes. Gay characters on The Golden Girls include Dorothy’s childhood friend, Jean, who falls in love with Rose. While flattered, Rose is straight and not interested. Blanche’s brother Clayton is another gay character, and he teaches his sister to be more accepting, even though it’s hard for her. Although the show could have done a better job representing transgender people in a respectful way, a criticism I’m sure Bea, Betty, Rue, and Estelle would have accepted after the show ended, positive queer representation on TV was a huge deal at the time.
In the 1990 episode “72 Hours,” Rose thinks she might have AIDS from a blood transfusion and is distraught. She tells Blanche that she doesn’t deserve this because she’s a “good person, a goody-two-shoes in fact” and only got “an innocent gallbladder surgery” while Blanche “must have taken hundreds of men home.” Blanche angrily turns to Rose and says, “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not
God punishing you for your sins.” To say this in 1990, during the Reagan-Bush years, when gay-bashing was encouraged and even Democrats wouldn’t support our community, was brave and the right thing to write into the script. It must have been a relief to be treated with respect during a time when being gay was seen as a bad thing, a sin, a joke or disgusting by mainstream society. There’s a reason the gay community latched onto The Golden Girls. In fact, every Saturday night at 9 p.m., in thousands of gay bars across the country, the music would stop, and The Golden Girls would come on.
This support for the gay community wasn’t just on TV. Betty, Bea, Rue and Estelle actively supported queer people in their personal lives as well. Bea founded a homeless shelter for queer youth in Los Angeles, which Rue supported and fundraised for. Betty was an ardent supporter of GLAAD and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. She also came out publicly in support of gay marriage in 2010 — two years before Barack Obama and three years before Hillary Clinton. Estelle was a devoted AIDS activist after the
death of her nephew and refused to make jokes that made fun of gay people. All four women had many gay friends in their personal lives as well, so discrimination and AIDS were personal to them. It’s also worth noting that Betty lost a show in 1954 when she responded to complaints about her platforming Black singer and dancer Art Duncan, by saying, “I’m sorry, live with it,” and giving him even more airtime. Betty and Rue were also animal rights activists.
So, thank you, Betty, Bea, Rue and Estelle for treating us with respect in the mainstream media, for discussing issues that impacted us on TV, for destigmatizing being gay or having AIDS, for being willing to play somewhat bigoted characters on TV in order to show people how to learn and grow, for demonstrating that age is no excuse for bigotry, for walking the walk in your personal lives and devoting time and money to issues like AIDS and homelessness and for understanding that it’s about more than marriage and slurs. Thank you for being our friends. We will miss you all.