In 2001, “All My Children” won the GLAAD Award for the lesbian Bianca story. Jean Passante, one of the show’s writer at that time, recalls thinking, “Next time I’m involved in this, I hope we have some competition. We were the only nominees, and this year there are four. That’s a very positive thing.”
Even though the soap opera is the daytime staple of soccer moms and retired dads, it is here that gays have achieved the ultimate acceptance: They have become just another neighbor with an endless stream of problems.
In what must be the most honest sampling of Middle America, gay characters on soaps have recently encountered virtually no negative audience response. The proof is in the number nommed. This year’s honorees include “All My Children,” “As the World Turns,” “General Hospital” and “Passions.”
“The world of soap opera has changed enormously,” says Brian Frons, daytime prexy at Disney-ABC Television Group. “About 20 years ago, when ‘All My Children’ introduced the idea of two women being interested in each other sexually, ratings fell and the storyline was dropped. The current character, Bianca, was once defined strictly as ‘the lesbian.’ Today, she has transcended her sexuality. She is one of the most important characters on ‘All My Children,’ having had a child of rape, having had the child stolen and having had to fight to regain her child. Women all over America were rooting for Bianca to get her baby back.”
Another “All My Children” character, the transgender Zoe, came out as a woman on New Year’s Eve 2006. “If you bring it along in a naturally compelling way,” says executive producer Julie Hannan Carruthers, “and deal with the human element — both the dark side and the bright side — what you will ultimately get is some type of story that, in the end, comes out to love and acceptance.”
Carruthers says it is too early to tell if auds will accept Zoe, but she is encouraged by Bianca’s popularity.
“It was so successful,” she says of that storyline. “We did not tell a story about a lesbian. We told a story about a young girl coming out and her life around it. That was a big lesson to all of us here. It’s really all about the story. If you can make people care on a human level, it’s not sexual preference. It’s about the human experience.”
On CBS, “As the World Turns” introduced 17-year-old Luke a year ago, and since then the character has admitted and accepted his sexual orientation. “We saw him come through that,” says Passante, now head writer at the venerable soap. “He has become far more out and proud, truthful about who he is. This is a kid who is waiting for the next best thing to happen, and we’re going to follow him every step of the way. People have accepted it as something that happens in the natural course of family life.”
Gay is no longer these characters’ major distinguishing trait. “I think gays are going to become more fully rounded characters in soaps — characters with love lives who just happen to be gay and are involved in other stories,” Passante says.
“Involved” is definitely the word to describe Chad on NBC’s “Passions.” Although married to a woman, he has a growing awareness of his own changing sexuality. “We get to see Chad’s inner struggle to suppress the feelings he has for this man and his own coming to terms with who he really is,” says supervising producer Richard Schilling.
In plain sight
The other big change on soaps is how gay characters, which once were almost chaste on the soaps, have begun to explore their sexuality in plain sight. As Schilling points out, “We do see Chad and his lover, Vincent, being physical with each other. We also see Chad truly in love with the woman in his life, and we follow his thought process as to how and why he is drawn in each direction.”
Schilling calls Chad a “heroic character,” not that every homosexual or bisexual in daytime has to be sympathetic. “We didn’t introduce these characters to be role models per se,” he says, adding that Chad’s lover, Vincent, “is a sleazy tabloid reporter with all kinds of motives.”
Sometimes much-beloved characters on the soaps receive a gay makeover. Take the popular Lucas on ABC’s “General Hospital.” Introduced in the 1990s, he came out of the closet at the end of 2005.
“There was a lot of support for this coming-out story,” says exec producer Jill Phelps. “And it was talked about from all angles — the friends, the mother, the community. The coming-out story of Lucas was told with a start, middle and finish.”
In other words, he was “retired,” in soap parlance. Or, as Phelps puts it, “The writers felt that this particular story had run its course.”
Love may be eternal, but on the soaps, no character — gay or straight — can live forever.