By Shana Naomi Krochmal
It’s 1992, around 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
Billy Douglas’s dad is accusing the local minister of perverting his son, but Billy won’t have it. “I have these feelings, yes -- but nobody put them in my head. They’ve always been there.” His father is outraged. His mother cries. Billy’s face crumples in close-up as the music swells.
Long before Kurt Hummel or even Wilson Cruz on My So-Called Life, Ryan Phillippe (above, right) and One Life to Live made history when Billy became the first gay teenager on television. “Kids who’d never seen themselves represented on TV or in movies would write to say what a huge support they found it to be,” Phillippe told The Advocate. The storyline got a GLAAD award and launched Phillippe as an actor.
When All My Children informed Eden Riegel in 2000 that her character, Bianca -- Susan Lucci’s on-screen daughter -- would come out as a lesbian, it was marketed for maximum Soap Opera Digest cover appeal. Public policy polls show a steady uptick of support for gay civil rights among the same female demographic as regular soap watchers during this period, and it’s hard not to see some correlation with the steady stream of sympathetic mommy melodrama piped into living rooms.
But it was Luke (Van Hansis) and Noah (Jake Silbermann) on As the World Turns who really brought gay daytime into the spotlight in 2007. Bloggers (including this one) faithfully recapped every millimeter the two moved closer to getting together. Even if they weren’t turning on the TV, millions watched the YouTube videos that ardent “Nuke” fans posted online.
With that supercouple status came a new kind of pro-gay soap fan, clamoring for more kissing, for second base, for that trademark on-screen soft-focus sexy afterglow. The pressure was bigger than a threatened boycott of series producers Procter & Gamble by the American Family Association, and before long, Nuke had settled into the same fate as their straight co-stars: long-lost parents threatening arranged marriages, car accidents, and love triangles with hot neurosurgeons. But not even those shenanigans could stop the soap’s slide in ratings, and As the World Turns was canceled in 2010.
Almost two decades after One Life to Live gave us Billy Douglas, the show tried to create its own gay supercouple with “Kish” -- Kyle Lewis (Brett Claywell) and Oliver Fish (Scott Evans, Captain America’s baby brother). Unlike almost all of their straight (or closeted) predecessors, Kish was half actually gay; Evans was an out actor playing straight roles.
Where once a network might have feared that one queer character could doom a long-running legacy, these lovebirds were booted for underperforming. “The Kish story did not have the appeal we hoped it would,” one ABC exec admitted. General Hospital is now the network’s lone soap.
Over at The Bold and the Beautiful, Joanna Johnson has been playing both Caroline Spencer and her identical twin Karen for 25 years. But it was only in 2012 that Karen began questioning her sexuality -- and Johnson, 50, came out publicly.
The days of lying around watching Grandma’s “stories” when you’re home sick are all but over. There are only four serials surviving amidst a sea of talk shows and judgy courtrooms, the fewest since the 1950s. If only soap operas were as skilled at coming back from the dead as their beloved stars.