RIP Penny

Penny Marshall was a lesbian icon, even if she wasn’t gay

· Updated on October 29, 2023

On December 17th, 2018, writer, director, actor, and lesbian icon Penny Marshall died at the age of 75. While anyone who has ever enjoyed her work is now suffering a great loss, queer women, in particular, will be missing a longtime ally.

Penny Marshall is most famous for her 1992 all-star comedy A League of Her Own. You know the one. Real-life tale all-women’s baseball league of the 1950s? There’s no crying in baseball? Yeah, that one.

The film put a large ensemble cast of largely women at the center. Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty, and Tom Hanks joined then freshly-openly gay actresses Rosie O’Donnell, Megan Cavanagh, and Anne Ramsay in the beloved feminist story. In attendance at the premiere: Melissa Etheridge, as well as a drag queen named Queerdonna.

The unforgettable legacy of Penny Marshall

Penny Marshall with Lori Petty
Penny Marshall with Lori Petty

Marshall’s other work as a director includes several episodes of Laverne & Shirley, of which she was one of the stars; Jumpin’ Jack Flash, starring Whoopi Goldberg; Big, her first film with Hanks; Renaissance Man; The Preacher’s Wife, with Whitney Houston; Riding in Cars with Boys; and select episodes of The United States of Tara and According to Jim. She also helmed a forthcoming documentary about Dennis Rodman titled Rodman.

Working as an actor for most of her life, she stole scenes with her specific knack for high-comedy in historic series like Happy Days, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Odd Couple, and Mork & Mindy. She would often pop up with guest appearances on friends’ shows or for special appearances on the likes of Frasier, The Simpsons, and Entourage, where she played a hilarious and heightened version of herself.  Sometimes, she stopped by SNL, and later, Fred Armisen would lovingly spoof Marshall.

Was Penny Marshall lesbian?

Although she was married to men twice and had one daughter, Tracy, late-in-life lesbian rumors swirled about Marshall. Most of which she seemed to take as a compliment. Often, she was said to have been involved with the late Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame, a close friend. In 2002, Fisher told Out she had a National Enquirer piece about the rumored relationship hanging on her fridge. Fisher added: “We’re not lesbians, we’re loonies!”

A role as Lorraine Bracco’s partner on the short-lived show Mulaney could have been a wink to those who were hopeful, or simply a nod to her LGBTQ+ fans, to whom she always showed support. 

A League of Their Own didn’t have any explicit lesbianism. (The reboot, however, absolutely does.) Still, the relationships between the women were enough to pass the Bechdel Test and then some. Penny put queer actresses in roles based on real queer athlete. An action that reached an underserved audience looking for any hint of representation on screen. Her take expertly showed the intricacies and emotions of the central characters.

It also helped that to get parts in the film, the actors had to be able to play baseball. Something Marshall and O’Donnell spoke about on O’Donnell’s OWN talk show in 2012:

Penny’s pop culture prowess

Penny Marshall with The League of Their Own Cast

A few decades prior Laverne and Shirley were often read as lesbians by queer women looking for visibility on TV. Their close friendship could pass for a Boston marriage at times, especially when the roommates aired their grievances about men. Then, there was the kiss they shared before they assumed they’d be going down in a plane crash.

Even the theme song could be seen as a thinly veiled ode to lesbianism: “We’re gonna make our dream come true. And we’ll do it our way, yes our way. Make all our dreams come true. And do it our way, yes our way. Make all our dreams come true. For me and you. Girl.” 

Throughout her legacy, Marshall created pieces of beloved pop culture that were somehow able to speak to several eras of Americans. In her 2012 memoir, My Mother Was Nuts, she recalls performing with her mom in the Village.

“My mother ushered us through a club full of women, whispering to us, ‘Keep close. Keep close,'” she said, later writing: “But I don’t think my mother cared who was in the audience as long as we got to perform.”

Marshall’s friendships throughout the years

O’Donnell and Marshall maintained a close friendship after filming A League of Their Own. After Penny’s death, the former celebrated her friend with a sweet tweet that included a 1996 Kmart commercial they starred in during the height of O’Donnell’s talk show fame. “Simply heartbroken. #RIPPenny,” the comic wrote. The ad was one of a few that year, another of which had the two looking for a tennis bracelet.

Marshall may not have been queer, but some of her best work will always be hailed by the queer community — especially women — who saw her as a much-needed ally inside the Hollywood machine. She will be dearly missed, but never forgotten. 

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