Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Gaytime TV?

Great, so I come out as a soap fan and later that very same day I read a news article on a new study that declares that older women who watch soap operas are 7% more likely to show cognitive impairment!

More fuel to the fire of that myth that being a soap fan is a sign of a lack of intelligence. Soaps are no more or less likely to attract viewers of low intelligence than any other genre of television entertainment.

Many soap fans, myself included, are also avid readers. Many of us also pay attention to the world around us, know what's going on politically and culturally.

I'm sure there are just as many clueless soap fans as there are clueless sitcom or cop show fans. Just as there are decent, well written sitcoms and crappy sitcoms, there are also intelligently written soaps and soaps that only serve to insult the intelligence of soap fans.

I wonder how many of those studied were fans of Passions and Days of Our Lives, for instance? Because between you and me, the way those shows are written under James E. Reilly, the cognitively impaired stand about as much chance as the rest of us at following that mess.

At any rate, my task today is not to lament the latest public insult to soap fans, but rather to discuss what seems to be becoming the latest trend on daytime: gay characters.

Gay characters have become more common on prime time TV and in the movies in the past couple of decades, but if you're a fan of the daytime soaps, you know that it's taking them much longer to weave gay characters and storylines into their shows.

Now, I'm not an expert on every storyline every soap has ever done, so forgive me if I miss something (and feel free to write in and let me know if I have), but here is the history as I know it of gay characters on soaps:

Up until the 80's, there wasn't much gay related activities on Soaps. Back in the 70's, there were a few minor blips on the radar, both on Days of Our Lives. Neither was exactly a stellar moment in soap history. First, a minor female character made an advance on Julie Williams, the lead character on the show at that time, and Julie reacted with disgust, fleeing the scene. The character who made the advance on Julie was promptly dropped and no further mention was made of the incident. Later, Julie's young cousin Mike Horton briefly questioned his own sexuality, until sex with a woman made him put all doubts from his mind once and for all. The character has come and gone over the years, but has been resolutely heterosexual ever since.

The 80's brought daytime's first real gay character, and the pioneering soap was All My Children, which introduced Dr. Lynn Carson, a lesbian, in 1982. Lynn remained with the show for only a year, and never had a love interest.

It wasn't until the end of the decade that daytime's first gay male character appeared, over on As The World Turns. There, fashion designer Hank Elliot came out to friends and had an off camera boyfriend with AIDS. Hank also lasted only a year.

The 90's really weren't much better. One Life to Live featured a gay teen character, Billy Douglas, for about a year, starting in 1992. Like Hank and Lynn before him, Billy wasn't connected to any of the soap's core families and was easily written out once the storyline had run it's course. All My Children featured a gay teacher, Michael Delany, for a couple of years mid-decade, but there again the character was easily dropped after the initial "He's gay!" storyline ran its course.

It's worth noting, by the way, that the short lived late 90's soap The City featured daytime's first and so far only (post op) transexual character, Azure C. The character had a romance with a male character that was just heating up when they were dropped from the show and left town together.

In other words, the soaps seemed to think it daring to introduce glbt characters, make a big deal about their being gay, and then quietly drop them.

All that began to change, however, in 2000. That year, daytime got its first gay character that was connected to a core family, and not so easily dispensable. The great Agnes Nixon was lured out of retirement and back to All My Children, the show she'd created, and it was under her pen that Bianca Montgomery, daughter of the show's lead character Erica Kane, came out of the closet as a lesbian.

For the next five years, Bianca remained a main character on the show, and though the handling of her love life was mixed, especially after Nixon stepped down as headwriter, she was one half of daytime's first lesbian kiss.

Something else it seems to have done was set off a new trend on daytime. Gay characters are no longer just strangers passing through. They're now the sons and daughters of the shows established couples. At the current moment, though Bianca is no longer on All My Children, three other soaps have had young characters from core families come out of the closet.

While another soap, One Life to Live, went the more traditional route, even they used a connection to the soap's established families that would have been unheard of before Bianca Montgomery came out. OLTL featured a closeted gay politician who married one of the show's heroines to maintain his public image, while carrying on an affair with a gay college student in secret. Unfortunately, the character resorted to murder to keep his sexuality a secret.

But what I really want to focus on are the three current gay characters, all of whom have come out recently. On General Hospital, Lucas Jones is the son of long-time characters Tony and Bobbie, and the nephew of the famed Luke and Laura. On As the World Turns, Luke Snyder is the son of supercouple Holden and Lily. And over on Passions, Simone Russell is the younger daughter of TC and Eve, and daytime's first African American lesbian.

All three of these storylines obviously owe a debt of gratitude to Agnes Nixon and All My Children's Bianca. Nixon proved once again to have the courage to break new ground on soaps, and others are following in her wake, at least as far as writing gays and lesbians as part of soap families, rather than as outsiders goes.

Now, I have to warn you that I do not regularly watch General Hospital or Passions. I've made my opinions clear on the latter soap, and General Hospital is a soap that has become completely wrapped up in violent mob storylines, all centered around one Mafioso character. It's basically the Sonny Corinthos show and any and all other stories are secondary to that.

I do, however, watch As The World Turns. So, if you notice some bias (and you will!), you have been forewarned.

Let's start with Simone. She'd previously been written as a straight character, having minor romances with one or two guys over the years. Then, along came out lesbian Rae. For Simone, it was true love and she came out to her family, only to learn that the show's super villain, Alistair Crane, had hired Rae to 'turn' Simone gay. That's James E. Reilly's talent at work, folks.

But, more recently Rae has resurfaced with real feelings for Simone and the show actually featured some decent dialogue between the two about gay marriage and love, followed by some serious making out.

Passions is basically a cartoon, but I don't think I've ever heard of any other soap discussing gay marriage, so I do have to take my hat off to them there. What will happen with Simone in the future remains to be seen.

Over at General Hospital, Lucas Jones came out to his friends and family with little fuss or fanfare and practically no build up and was promptly accepted. He was also promptly gay bashed by a guy who pretended to be interested in him. Typical of General Hospital's violent nature to immediately take the gay storyline to a violent place. Lucas has talked of dating, but nothing has materialized yet.

If I sound down on this storyline, I have to say it's because it pales in comparison to the beautiful job they're doing over at As the World Turns.

Luke Snyder is a typical soap teen. By that I mean, he's only in high school and he's already been suspected of murder (he didn't do it), been kidnapped by Mexican organ harvesters (long story!) and had a kidney transplant. And that's just in the last year.

All of that aside, Luke is really just a typical teen. He likes to hang out with his best friend, Kevin. In fact, he likes it a lot.

The Luke-is-gay storyline started a couple of months back, when Holden caught his son giving Kevin a back rub. It was all perfectly innocent- Kevin had hurt himself playing basketball, and Luke was just lending a hand.

But Holden, and we viewers, could tell it was more than that, simply by the look on Luke's face. This boy was IN LOVE.

To As the World Turns' credit, this storyline has unfolded slowly. No immediate coming out and acceptance, no gay bashing. Luke is a teen struggling with his feelings, and Holden quickly became a dad who was struggling with questions and fears.

Holden's suspicions were deepened when he happened upon Luke's blog, in which the teen wrote that his family would hate him if they ever found out the truth about him. As Holden pressed his son to be honest with him, telling him there was nothing about Luke that could ever make his parents hate him, Luke came close to coming out, but always held back at the last moment.

At the same time, Holden took his concerns to his cousin, Jack, and confessed that he'd love Luke no matter what, but that he doesn't want his son to have to face the hatred and prejudice that gays have to face.

The writers and the actors- particularly Van Hansis as Luke and Jon Hensley as Holden- have done an amazing job with scenes like this, quiet, emotional scenes in which these characters struggle with fears and facing up to the truth, but never leave us doubting that there is love involved. Holden loves his son, no matter what. He doesn't want him to be gay (and what straight father does want that for a child, no matter how accepting they may come to be?), but he could never hate him for it. Luke doesn't see this yet, of course. He's a teenager who doesn't want to be different and is terrified that his family will reject him if they know the truth.

This is daytime drama at it's best. It's dealing with a serious, real life issue- coming out, for Luke; dealing with the realization that your child is gay, for Holden- in a way that both makes for good entertainment and drama and hopefully opens people's minds.

Of course, it's a soap. There are a few flies in the ointment. Holden doesn't want Kevin- who may or may not be straight, we have no real idea yet- around Luke. Holden sees Kevin as a bad influence, and he may not be wrong. Kevin is always trying to get kidney-transplanted Luke to drink with him. But there's also the underlying, irrational feeling Holden has that Kevin is responsible for Luke being gay, and Holden has more or less scared Kevin away from Luke.

And then, there's Jade. Luke's long lost cousin, who turns out to be nothing but a con artist and not really his cousin at all. At first, Jade was excellent for Luke. She quickly picked up on Luke's feelings for Kevin and was supportive. Luke came out to Jade in beautifully written scenes in which he spoke of the first moment he realized that he was in love with Kevin. I have to say that I've never seen anything like it on daytime before.

Jade was not only a supportive listener for Luke, she also pushed him to reveal his feelings to Kevin, to take a chance and see if he felt the same way.

But, in the past few days, things have not gone so smoothly. Soaps can often start out telling an excellent story and then get bogged down and lose their momentum. I hope that's not what's happening here, but I think it may be.

Jade has been exposed as a fraud, and she's now convinced (ie blackmailed) Luke into pretending that they're in love. Luke's mother Lily, who was on to Jade but still clueless about her son's sexuality, was set up to discover the two in bed together.

And that about brings up to speed on Luke's storyline so far. Luke is clearly struggling with what he's done, and I'm hoping that lying to his parents about being straight and in love with Jade will make Luke realize that he doesn't want to live a lie.

I'm also hoping that As The World Turns lives up to the potential it has shown so far with this storyline, that they keep Luke around as a character after the coming out storyline has wrapped up, that they even dare to give him a romance and a love life of his own, with Kevin or with someone else.

I think back to when I was a teen struggling with the realization that I was gay, and I wish that I had something like any of these storylines to watch. I would have felt much less alone and scared if I had been able to see the way that Luke looks at Kevin when he thinks no one is watching, or heard Luke's description of the moment he realized he was in love with his best friend.

Daytime has broken down many barriers over the years, and storylines like these seem to indicate that they could still do so, barring interference from network execs.

I have to point out, though, that Van Hansis, the actor playing Luke on ATWT, is currently on recurring status. For those who don't follow soaps, that means the actor is working without a contract. Typically, when new characters debut on a soap, the actors are given three year contracts. For instance, even the actress playing Jade, Luke's non-cousin, arrived on the show under contract.

So, why is this central character involved in a major storyline played by an actor on recurring status? Is it so the show can drop the character and storyline quickly if need be? Is that a network mandated decision? Jean Passanante, the headwriter of As The World Turns, is on record as saying that Luke will not be shipped off after he comes out, that he'll remain a fully integrated part of the cast. Great. So give Van Hansis a contract already!

Like any true soap fan, I'm invested in the character Luke and I don't want to see him fall victim to the traditional 'He's Gay! Now, he's gone!' soap storyline. It's about time that soaps showed that there is more to being gay than just coming out. It's time for soaps to give us long term gay characters who have real love lives and storylines. After all, a sizable portion of the viewing audience is made up of gays and lesbians. And no doubt there are many gay and lesbian teens out there watching Luke and Lucas and Simone and for the first time feeling like there is a representation of who they are on their TV screens. What message does it send if those characters then fade away after their coming out process is over?

Daytime has yet to feature a kiss between two male characters. Will As the World Turns be responsible for that milestone? Will General Hospital beat them to it? Or will both shows chicken out? Tune in tomorrow, folks.

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