Gays weren't even on the radar in Ilene Chaiken's Jewish community in Philadelphia back in the 1960s.
The creator of Showtime's lesbian drama, "The L Word," grew up in a home of "good liberal Jews" and belonged to a Reform temple.
"But I think the closest one ever came to acknowledging that homosexuality existed was that 'queer' was an insult," said Chaiken, 46. The poised, cerebral executive producer spoke to The Journal in her publicist's Beverly Hills office. "For years, I was conditioned to think of myself as heterosexual and to measure myself in terms of how I fared in the heterosexual world."
After moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, the 22-year-old Chaiken obtained a job as an agent trainee and a steady boyfriend, with whom she shared an apartment. But despite the external stability, she felt out of sorts.
"I sensed it had something to do with my sexuality, but I didn't confess that even to myself," she said.
The change came when she began hanging out at a West Hollywood cafe owned by several lesbians; eventually she struck up a friendship with one of the women, with whom she had her first same-sex affair.
While the relationship didn't last long, she said, "it let me know that this was a possibility, and once I became aware of it as a possibility, suddenly life seemed a bit more right. The process was scary, but it was much more just a revelation and a relief."
Chaiken channeled that experience and others into "The L Word," which centers on a circle of hip lesbians in West Hollywood. The first television series to revolve around lesbian characters, it joins gay-themed TV shows such as HBO's "Six Feet Under," NBC's "Will & Grace," Showtime's "Queer as Folk" and Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
Although "The L Word" has been well-received by TV critics, some observers worry that the series and others like it will enhance the allure of "bisexual chic" among teenage girls.
"Children, in particular, are vulnerable to messages they receive from the popular culture," said Robert Peters, president of the interfaith watchdog group, Morality in Media.
Chaiken, who dismisses such thinking as "archaic," insists the show "is not going to make something happen that is not already happening in the zeitgeist." In fact, she conceived the show while writing an article for Los Angeles magazine four years ago on the gay and lesbian baby boom, a trend she had personally experienced when her partner, Miggi, gave birth to their twin daughters in 1995.
"I suddenly realized that I was very much writing about my life and my community, and that there were so many more [lesbian] stories that hadn't been told," she said. "I figured the best way to tell them was to do an ensemble TV show."
She brought elements of her own life to several of the characters, including the fictional Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirschner), a passionate, bookish Jewish writer, who is new to Los Angeles and living with a boyfriend, albeit sexually confused.
While Jenny soon questions her heterosexual relationship, the more hesitant Chaiken continued dating men for a year after her first lesbian experience. It took her even longer to come out to her parents, which happened when she was 24 and living with Miggi, an architect, whom she described as her roommate. But a few days after her mother came to visit around 1984, Chaiken knew she had to come clean.
"Things got very tense and awkward, because it's unpleasant to live a lie," she recalled.
Over the course of 12 years, the Chaikens began including Miggi in family seders and calling her their daughter-in-law.
Each "L Word" character also tells her coming-out story, which Chaiken calls a seminal experience in every gay person's life.
Charges that the steamy sex in the series is a ploy to draw male viewers irk Chaiken.
"The whole notion that we did this just to titillate men is just so off the mark," she said. "The sexuality portrayed in the show ... speaks directly to gay women starved for representations of themselves on TV."
Although Chaiken's primary concern is telling meaningful, universal stories, she also hopes the show reaches lesbians who feel as lost as she did during her early years in Los Angeles. "I hope it helps them come to terms with themselves and to feel less alone," she said.
"The L Word" airs Sundays, 10 p.m., on Showtime.