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Creative control

Culture | Gay group's media strategy has paid big dividends, even with daytime soap operas

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

Another advance in the gay marriage movement was reached in February, this time not on the steps of a courthouse but in the world of steamy television melodrama known as soap operas. On Feb. 16, the long-running daytime program All My Children depicted the genre's most recognizable character, Erica Kane (played for 39 years by actress Susan Lucci), looking on in joy as her daughter wed another woman.

The ceremony was staged in full soap-opera lavishness, with two young brides, outfitted in flowing white designer gowns, pledging their commitment to one another in front of a collared clergyman. The event wrapped up with a convention borrowed from the traditional wedding: a bridal kiss.

While same-sex weddings on television are hardly new (a lesbian ceremony featured heavily in a Friends episode from 1996, for example), the real-life drama surrounding legal challenges to California's recently passed constitutional amendment against homosexual marriages has made the milestone all the more significant. By tying the episode to Proposition 8, those associated with All My Children have reaffirmed the perception that the entertainment industry is of a single mind on the issue.

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Said Tamara Braun, the actress who plays one of the lesbian characters, "If you are brave enough to want to get married, especially with the divorce rate as high as it is, then you should have that right no matter what sex you are or who you love . . . equal rights for all people." Lucci concurred, telling Entertainment Tonight that she is proud of the ground that All My Children has broken in featuring homosexual relationships, adding, "It is a full, romantic, rich relationship between Bianca and Reese [the lesbian characters], with all the complications that come from any passionate relationship."

Others working on the soap made it even clearer that the purpose of the storyline was not simply to entertain viewers at home but to alter the audience's point of view and effect social change. Eden Riegel, who plays the other lesbian bride, commented, "I think the beauty of the show is that we were able to reach people and get people sort of used to the idea." And executive producer Julie Hanan Carruthers expressed the hope that viewers at home would learn something by watching: "I think the challenge is to do it in a way that is not political but from character . . . that in itself teaches a huge lesson."

For their part, gay lobby groups have applauded ABC's willingness to bring homosexual marriage to daytime, saying their concern is only for "realism." "It's reality," said Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a group whose press statements indicate a long, cordial relationship with ABC in general, and All My Children in particular. "So when we see a lesbian couple getting married on daytime drama, it simply reflects what's happening in the real world."

Yet only a month before Giuliano acknowledged that GLAAD's interest in gay storylines is more than simply making sure reality is reflected. At their 20th annual Media Awards, he stated that media's portrayal of homosexual relationships makes "all the difference" to public perception, and he credited ABC for doing much to sway the thinking of TV-watching Americans.

Giuliano's comments go a long way toward explaining why GLAAD has expended so much time and money over the years petitioning networks to feature more homosexual characters in a positive light. In the two decades since GLAAD started lobbying the entertainment industry, it has, by its own calculation achieved a level of influence unprecedented by any other group.

Along with standard network and cable, the group's Media Programs Department has broadened its scope into sports, news, and family programming, ratcheting up achievements like convincing the Associated Press to drop the word homosexual from their stylebook in favor of the term gay and successfully soliciting invitations to alter scripts on all four major networks.

An article in a 2005 issue of the Advocate heralded the "unpublicized consultations between producers and GLAAD representatives, who read scripts and offer guidance on GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] portrayals." It also indicated that the group is ahead of the curve in capturing the influential media of the future. After landing a meeting with the president of Univision to discuss the representation of homosexuality in the network's programming, the Spanish-language powerhouse agreed to media training with a GLAAD team that would "go from affiliate to affiliate."

Much of this hands-on approach with producers and writers stems from 2002 when, after years of sticking mostly to issuing cheers or jeers in reaction to television, the group collaborated with an outside consulting firm to develop a "five-year strategic plan" that would expand its opportunities to shape television content. The plan included tactics like reaching out to writers and producers to build cooperative relationships and targeting "media markets that attract youth."

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