Gays Of Our Lives
By William Keck
There are homosexual soap writers, producers and actors (don't ask), but few characters. Is this the final taboo?
There have been just about as many aliens and demons on day-time as gay characters. This year, we were introduced to GUIDING LIGHT's clone, DAYS OF OUR LIVES's Swamp Girl and most recently, SUNSET BEACH's mummy. Yet strangely, no gays. A disturbing fact, considering that homosexuals are not creatures of science fiction. They are living, breathing members of society, and several are the creative forces behind your favorite serials. But you'd never know that from studying the strictly straight societies of Salem, Port Charles and Genoa City (well, except for that chummy male couple who recently glided through Chris and Paul's cocktail party on YOUNG AND RESTLESS).
While gays are integrated on prime-time (WILL & GRACE, NYPD BLUE, SPIN CITY, MAD ABOUT YOU), the same cannot be said for soaps, including BEACH, set in hip, gay-friendly
Southern California. But that could be changing down the road, hints Executive producer Aaron Spelling, whose track record proves his commitment to fighting bigotry against gays.
"We try to do as much as we can," declares Spelling, who throughout the years has woven several homosexual characters throughout his rich tapestry of TV families. "We want to say gays are people like all of us, who are decent, who are kind, who get angry. Real people."
But even a man as powerful as Spelling wasn't able to accomplish all that he has without waging a fight or two. Perhaps the biggest was with ABC over making DYNASTY's Steven Carrington homosexual. "We had long talks with the network," he recalls. "They said, 'You're going to upset people.... Does he have to be John Forsythe's [Blake] son?... Why can't you have a subsidiary character?' I said, 'That doesn't make any sense.' They said, 'You'll see the letters you get.' Well, we didn't get any, because we played him as any gay person should be played, as a regular guy who loved his father, but his sexual preference happened to be different."
Very different, argues Scott Seomin, entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), who was perplexed by Steven's seasonal switch-hitting. "It was great to have the representation, except it was really confusing," concedes Seomin. "He was the most hetero gay that I'd ever seen. I applaud Spelling for putting the character in, but it was disappointing how the character played out. First, we ask for inclusion, then, we ask for fair and accurate representation."
Spelling is proud that he's been able to transcend the sexuality issue with his gay characters, namely MELROSE PLACE's Matt Fielding. Still, pressure from networks and advertisers, the producer explains, often impacts what ends up on-screen: "I think gay characters are easy to write for. The problem is how far the network will let you write."
Seomin understands that producers are often inhibited by outside forces. "The networks tell us their gay characters have not tested well in the focus groups," he confides. "Sometimes, it was the actor who wasn't testing well, but for whatever reason, the shows chose not to pick up their contracts." It's a claim Seomin views with skepticism.
"It comes down to the almighty advertising dollars," Seomin theorizes. "They go by the demographics, which are overwhelmingly women viewers. When women see a gorgeous man, they want to know he desires women. I think the producers or writers feel that a gay storyline would alienate viewers because they can't relate to it. Well, how can a suburban housewife relate Erica Kane? There's no identification there. She's a manipulative bitch who's been married a million times - but she's fun. We watch television to escape and learn about other ways people live."
The first admitted gay character on day-time was ALL MY CHILDREN child psychologist Lynn Carson, who shook up Pine Valley in 1983. In the much-hyped storyline, Devon was drawn to her lesbian doc. Lynn helped Devon understand that she was heterosexual, but her feelings were not abnormal. Donna Pescow (Lynn) recalls, "They had so many problems getting clearances for dialogue. They were like, 'Don't touch her,' and, 'Be really careful.' I think they were overly cautious because they
were so afraid that they would lose the opportunity to continue the story."
The barrier was broken, but since then, few shows have added gays. In 1988, AS THE WORLD TURNS's then-head writer, Douglas Marland, brought gay fashion designer Hank Elliot to Oakdale. After breaking the hearts of the town's smitten women and discovering that his off-screen lover had AIDS, Hank took a hike after only a year.
That's also how long ONE LIFE TO LIVE's gay teen, Billy Douglas, lasted in Llanview. The character was introduced in 1992 by Head Writer Michael Malone, who originally hoped to make Joey Buchanan the gay adolescent. The network objected, but the homophobic story arc that ended up being told was by no means tame. After Marty was rejected by Reverend Andrew, she accused him of molesting Billy. Wortham Krimmer (Andrew) recalls the story as one of his most rewarding: "Other characters thought Andrew might be gay, but Andrew had a brother who was gay and died of AIDS, so his position was, 'Whether I'm gay or not is nobody's business but my own.'"
AMC again attempted to shed light on homosexuality in 1995 when teacher Michael Delaney came out to his class. An extension of the story found gay teen Kevin Sheffield struggling with his homophobic family as well as Kelsey's sexual advances. True to form, both characters have since faded from view.
Kevin's portrayer, Ben Jorgensen, actually suspects his character may be dead: "After they blew up Holidays, they showed the people who were dead or injured and who was alive, and you didn't see me. I think they did that on purpose. I just sort of disappeared."
Unlike many actors who are notified in advance, Jorgensen was surprised to learn that Kevin was slated to be gay. "I'd heard [AMC] wanted to do this storyline for years, but the network kept rejecting them." While Jorgensen was proud to be part of a story "that had integrity," he was troubled by the direction his character took after coming out of the closet. "Before, I was Kevin Sheffield, a character with many dimensions, and then I became Kevin, the gay boy. Everything
was centered around my sexuality."
Pescow believes that the interference of worried studio execs is to blame for the abbreviated runs of gays. "The best stories and intentions go through what I call 'the blender,' and get homogenized and watered down to appeal to the most middle-of-the-road mentality," she relates. GENERAL HOSPITAL and PORT CHARLES Executive Producer Wendy Riche agrees: "There are a lot of subjects and character portrayals that are avoided because of fear of not appealing to an audience - or not being 'middle-of-the-road' enough for an audience. It takes a courageous and talented writer not just to want to do it, but to do it in a way that is accessible to everyone."
Seomin knows firsthand the empathy homosexual stories can provide to gay teens. "When I was growing up, homosexuals didn't exist on television - day-time or prime-time," he recalls. "Kids need to see functioning, respected, employed and well-liked characters who are simply living their lives out of the closet."
Spelling, for one, asserts that his war against homophobia has only just begun. "What I'd really like to do - maybe we can do it in one of our television movies - is see two gay men raising a child," suggests Spelling, who ponders the possibility of a homosexual joining BEACH. "I'll introduce a gay character if they'll let him be treated like a member of the group. In BEVERLY HILLS, 90210, we had a baseball player who was gay and took a lot of hell, and our kids stood up for him. That's what we want to continue doing. My wife, son and daughter would never talk to me again if I stopped."