Exclusive: Daytime Television's Newest Queer Character
By Christine Champagne
How will soapland's fabled Pine Valley handle the addition of a transgender woman to its community? We'll soon find out when ABC's All My Children launches an ambitious storyline that explores the coming-out process of a woman trapped in a man's body.
According to the soap's executive producer. Julie Hanan Carruthers, All My Children head writer Megan McTavish had long wanted to tell a transgender story but was waiting for the right character as well as the right performer to come along. Carruthers and McTavish realized that they had both when Juilliard grad Jeffrey Carlson made what was originally slated to be a one-day appearance on the show back in August. Carlson appeared as Zarf, an eccentric rock star who speaks with a British accent despite having been born and raised in Indiana. 'Megan and I just looked at each other and went, 'Oh my God! Now it's time to tell this story!' ' Carruthers recalls.
Two months later, they summoned Carlson to the studio and unveiled their plans. Carlson says he was surprised and thrilled. 'They told me where they wanted to go with Zarf, and I was very moved by it,' the 31-year-old actor says. No stranger to playing characters out of the mainstream, Carlson's stage roles include Gash, a female impersonator with a penchant for Judy Garland in the play Last Easter, and Boy George's best friend, Marilyn, in the Broadway production of Taboo. Also on Broadway, Carlson played a gay teenager in legendary playwright Edward Albee's The Goat, or, Who Is Sylvia?
When asked how he defines his own sexual orientation, Carlson responds, 'Stepping into a role that generates conversation regarding the character's storyline clearly raises questions about the actor's personal life. I'm first and foremost an actor, and I prefer to keep my personal life personal, keeping the focus on the character's journey.'
While All My Children's foray into the world of a transgender person certainly falls into the realm of groundbreaking television, the show is not the first daytime serial to present a trans character. In 1996, the now-defunct ABC soap The City introduced Azure, a supermodel who lost her career and her fianc' when it was revealed that she was once a he. To put it mildly, it was a rather sensationalized portrayal of a transgender person. All My Children, which consulted with GLAAD in its research, aims to tell the more emotionally rounded story of a woman striving to not only be herself but to tell the world who she really is.
That said, Zarf, who inhabits a male body, is certainly a colorful character, her wardrobe ranging from Edwardian finery to more classic rock star garb'think tight jeans and lots of jewelry. 'Her sense of style is unique and wonderful. I love my costumes!' Carlson enthuses.
Carlson's alter ego isn't actually wearing much of a costume when she shows up in Pine Valley on November 23. According to Carruthers, the ladies of Fusion, Pine Valley's big cosmetics company, arrive at the office that day to find all their furniture gone and Zarf sitting in the middle of the room on a yoga mat meditating'in the nude.
'So things kind of get shook up pretty quickly,' Carruthers says with a laugh. 'By the end of the little run of scenes from that day, Zarf's gotten all the girls to take off their clothes and become one with their souls.'
But it's Bianca (Eden Riegel), the lesbian daughter of iconic soap diva Erica Kane (Susan Lucci), whom Zarf makes a true connection with. 'At the end of that episode, Zarf is realizing that these girls are very materialistic and don't get the heart and soul of a human being. All they care about is their makeup,' Carruthers says. 'As Zarf starts to leave, she comes face-to-face with Bianca. At that moment, Zarf stops in her tracks and says, 'Oh my God! I've met my soulmate!' From there the ball starts rolling, and it's the friendship that develops between Zarf and Bianca, the sense of confidence, trust, and security that Zarf feels with Bianca, that allows Zarf to actually for the first time let out the woman that she's been hiding for so long.'
Look for Zarf to finally confide her secret to Bianca around the new year.
All My Children has gone out on a limb before to break ground in the depictions of gay and lesbian characters. In 1982, the show introduced viewers to Dr. Lynn Carlson (Donna Pescow), the first lesbian character on a soap. In 1995, teacher Michael Delaney (Chris Bruno) was the first established recurring gay character featured on a soap, and in 2003, Eden and Lena (Olga Sosnovska) shared the first lesbian kiss seen on daytime.
But are soap fans ready for a transgender storyline? 'Recent movies like [Showtime's] Normal and [the indie flick] Transamerica have started a conversation, and I think All My Children will allow the conversation to become bigger,' Carlson muses.
As to just how far All My Children will go with the story, Carruthers says the show 'may not even go to the surgery place. With any of these social issue stories, the real life complexities that they present stand on their own. So instead of rushing into the surgery and the post-op and the nip and tuck version, we are planning on going very slowly.'
'One of the interesting things I found is [a transition] is not deemed successful or unsuccessful depending on whether or not you have the surgery,' Carruthers continues. 'That was very interesting to all of us, and we want to show that transgender people have options. Everybody doesn't have to have surgery. It doesn't make you who you are.'