How soap operas pioneered the depiction of LGBTQ characters
In honor of Pride Month, EW looks back at some of daytime TV's groundbreaking story lines.
When it comes time to celebrate how far TV has come with its depiction of LGBTQ characters, people always think of the coming out episode on Ellen and shows like Will & Grace and Pose - not Ryan Phillippe portraying the first openly gay teen on One Life to Live, or the first lesbian marriage that took place on All My Children. For a genre that's been around since the Truman Administration, soaps don't always get the credit they deserve for helping to pioneer gay story lines.
"Anything that's been around for a very long time is weighed down with preconceived notions and stereotypes," General Hospital executive producer Frank Valentini tells EW. "People think everybody comes back from the dead on soaps, or how there's always an evil twin. People make fun of us."
Some also assume that daytime audiences aren't nearly as woke as their primetime counterparts, so soaps would never dare to depict same-sex couples. Think again! Here, we look back at some of daytime's groundbreaking LGBTQ characters - and the battles that were sometimes waged in order to tell authentic and relevant stories.
Dr. Lynn Carson (All My Children)
In 1983, ABC sitcom star Donna Pescow (Angie) was cast by All My Children to play a lesbian psychiatrist named Lynn Carson. Her job was to offer mental health support to divorcee Devon McFadden (Tricia Pursley), but Devon didn't want to talk about her failed marriage. She was more interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with Dr. Carson. It was an unprecedented plot point for characters in and outside of Pine Valley: Up until the moment Devon first laid eyes on Lynn, no daytime drama had ever featured a gay story line.
"It was pretty big," Pescow tells EW. "The thing I remember most were the fan letters. They were so extraordinary and would make me cry. People finally felt like there was a representation that fit."
The relationship was never consummated because Lynn didn't share Devon's affection - not that ABC would have gone for that, anyway.
"They were fearful," remembers Pescow, who adds that her brief arc generated a lot of attention - both positive and negative. "There were people who didn't like I was playing the part, but I think they would have been angry at anybody playing the part. It was the early days of this being presented in any way."
Billy Douglas (One Life to Live)
When ABC approved of a plan by One Life to Live to introduce the first openly gay teenage boy in 1992, it definitely came with restrictions. Head writer Michael Malone wanted it to be Joey, the son of the beloved Viki and Clint Buchanan. But ABC was worried about agitating fans, so they insisted that Malone hire Ryan Phillippe to play Joey's pal Billy Douglas, instead. (Phillippe only spent a year on the show).
"They didn't want the child of the main family to be gay," remembers writer Jean Passanante, who wrote for OLTL from 1993 to 2012. "It's kind of horrible to think about now, but I really think their attitude was like, 'Well, we don't want to waste Joey.'"
At the same time, ABC preferred that OLTL surround Billy with mostly tolerant people - something the writers didn't want to do.
"Michael Malone said, 'No, we will not do that,'" recalls Passanante. "We would not make any of the racist characters nice people, so why would we make any homophobic people nice?"
Bianca and Reese (All My Children)
Before presenting the first same-sex marriage in daytime history, the writers wanted to make sure Eden Riegel, who played Erica Kane's daughter Bianca, wasn't going anywhere.
"Bianca belonged on the show," remembers Passanante, who wrote for AMC from 2000-01. "We didn't want to tell a Billy Douglas story and have her go away."
The writers worked with GLAAD, who encouraged the staff to "expunge" the scripts of the phrase "gay lifestyle" and to refrain from using the word homosexual, recalls Passanante. "It brought attention to the word sex."
Fans embraced the nuptials. "I don't remember any real apprehension or antagonism towards it. People loved Erica [Susan Lucci]," continues Passanante. "She was such a narcissistic character. Ultimately, it was Bianca's message that 'this is about me and not about you. This is who I am. Either love me or don't, I can't change.' Erica accepted that."
Will and Sonny (Days of Our Lives)
NBC was fully on board with the decision by writers Days of Our Lives writers Gary Tomlin and Christopher Whitesell to stage the first-ever gay male wedding in daytime between Will (Guy Wilson) and Sonny (Freddie Smith) in 2014.
"The writers and producers felt it was time," executive producer Ken Corday tells EW. "[Will and Sonny] have been together for a while and it was the natural progression of their love story. We didn't feel like there was anything we could or couldn't do, we treated them like any other couple on the canvas and continued to grow their romance as such."
The couple is still together on the soap, but the actors only recur.
Leo Stark (Days of Our Lives)
When Greg Rikaart joined the NBC sudser in 2018 to play a gay villain, some fans didn't take too kindly to him playing an unlikable LGBTQ character.
"For a long time, gay characters would have to be more palatable for the audience," recalls Rikaart. "Make them sort of run of the mill and center of the road kind of thing. My character was a full-on bitch diva, so I got blowback from fans who were like, 'As a gay man, you should be ashamed to play such an arch depiction of a bad guy.' And I was like, 'Well, I think it's more progressive to say 'This is our gay character and he doesn't just have to say and do nice things.'"
Rikaart left DOOL in 2020 and is back on The Young and the Restless as Kevin Fisher.
Mariah and Tessa (The Young and the Restless)
The Young and the Restless certainly had some memorable LGBTQ moments in the past (remember when Katherine Chancellor had that sexually charged moment with her roommate Joanne after Phillip's death?). But in 2017, the soap took an important leap by bringing together Mariah (Camryn Grimes) and Tessa (Cait Fairbanks).
"I heard it from one of my costars back when we were all in the makeup room together," recalls Grimes. "She said, 'Did you guys hear they're going to make someone gay?' And immediately, in my head, I went, 'It's going to be me.'"
What Grimes (and viewers) appreciated the most was how organically the relationship developed. There was no coming out story; instead, it followed two women who happened to fall in love.
"That's always been the most beautiful thing about this story," says Grimes. "It was something new for them and it was definitely new for the audience, but it was like any other love story where it takes you by surprise. It existed without labels. I really appreciated that at a time where labels could be so restrictive for some people. It just felt like a really genuine, authentic story about two individuals falling for each other, no matter the circumstances."
Adds Fairbanks, "Our head writer at the time had a daughter who is bisexual. He wanted to make it something where LGBTQ youth could watch and be like, 'Oh. Yeah.'"
Dubbed Teriah by shippers, the Y&R duo is the only full-time, same-sex couple in daytime right now, though DOOL recently launched a sexually fluid story line involving Chanel (Paulina's daughter) and Allie (Sami's daughter).
Terry Randolph and Maya Avant (General Hospital and The Bold and the Beautiful)
A new milestone was reached in 2015 when Maya Avant, Karla Mosley's full-time character on The Bold and the Beautiful, revealed that she was a transgender woman - a first for daytime TV. (Jeffrey Carlson played transgender character Zoe Luper from 2006-07 on All My Children, but it was only a recurring role).
Maya went on to become the first transgender bride in all of TV before her character was written off in 2019. A year earlier, Cassandra James became the first transgender actress in daytime to portray the transgender character of Dr. Terry Randolph on General Hospital. In fact, the writers have big plans for Terry (who fans will see again on June 24).
"She'll be fighting for an important position at the hospital," explains GH's executive producer Frank Valentini. "I think it's important to portray members of the LGBTQ community in a way where they're just like everybody else. They want jobs, they want to get promoted. They want to fall in love. They have problems, they get sick, they have victories and defeats just like everybody else."