A blond transgender bombshell makes daytime-TV history on All My Children.
Thu Jan 18 2007
Photograph: Lou Rocco /American Broadcasting Companies, Inc
Jeffrey Carlson is sitting in the All My Children employees' lounge of Midtown's ABC building, relaxed and makeup-free, his silky blond hair wrapped in a red bandanna. When the subject turns to fan mail, he grows quickly animated.
"My favorite was from an 11-year-old girl from Long Island," he says. "Can I run up and get it?" He's back from his dressing room in a flash with the letter and the girl's crayon depiction of his character. She writes: "I think it's really cool that you're gonna become a girl. Then we'll have stuff in common." Reading that line again, Carlson is aglow. "You have people who might reject the story before even watching it," he says, "and then you see a kid get it, and you're like, Oh, good!"
For those who haven't yet heard the buzz, Carlson, 31, has been shaking up AMC's Pine Valley with his portrayal of daytime's first transgender character. He began the role in August as Zarf, a quirky, pretentious British rock star. But as of the first week in January, he's revealed his true self to be a woman named Zoe—who just so happens to be in love with the show's beloved femme lesbian, Bianca (Eden Riegel).
"Though Zoe does not like labels, she chose to say, 'I'm a lesbian,' because it's something Bianca would understand," explains Carlson, a stage actor who was, oddly enough, named after longtime AMC character Jeff Martin by his soap-fan mom. He's known for Broadway roles including Billy in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and the gender-bending Marilyn in Taboo.
On the show, Bianca scoffs at Zoe's confession, thinking it's a straight-man's ruse to seduce her—which is just the kind of dramatic conflict head writer Megan McTavish was going for. "I thought [Bianca] would be tremendously confused," explained McTavish, on the phone from her home in rural Connecticut. "And it just sort of seemed right to me." To help her understand Zoe's perspective, McTavish turned to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which worked with Carlson, Riegel and the writers to teach basic concepts—that sexual orientation and gender identity are separate, for example, and that "drag queen," "transvestite" and "transgender" aren't synonyms. The lessons seem to have stuck.
"What they cared about was, if Zarf was attracted to a woman when he presented as male, then she should definitely still be attracted to females after transitioning," added McTavish, her GLAAD-coached trans-speak wonderfully intact.
The groundbreaking role is certainly the first of its kind in the soap world. And it doesn't have a whole lot of company on TV in general, save for Max on The L Word and, in other shows' past seasons, just a handful of nonrecurring characters. But it was a recent TV standout—Logo's TransGeneration, a documentary series about transgender college students—that inspired McTavish.
"As a writer, you're always looking for a specific human experience," she says. "And I found these experiences so moving that I started thinking along those lines." Tackling this topic, she adds, "follows the social-issue tradition that [AMC creator] Agnes Nixon pioneered," and recalls when AMC dealt with Vietnam, abortion and AIDS within its plotlines.
But there also needs to be over-the-top drama, which may explain why Zoe has become the lead suspect in Pine Valley's serial-murderer plotline—a twist that treads very close to taboo for LGBT folks, who have historically been portrayed as victims or killers. "The impulse of all of us is to blame those who are different than we are," McTavish explains.
Carlson has taken on Zoe's intense emotions, even when not in character. "Lately she's like, 'You want to fuck with me? Fuck with me,' " he says. " 'Don't think I haven't been dealing with this my whole life' is what she's saying to those who attack her."
And GLAAD is pleased so far. "I'm very proud of what I'm seeing and what I'm hearing," says entertainment media director Damon Romine. "From the beginning, I've felt confident that they are telling this story with integrity." He adds, "Jeffrey has become a real supporter of the transgender community."
Frequenters of online soap-opera fan sites are gushing about Carlson's performances, admitting they've been moved to tears. "I was completely freaked out by Zarf in the beginning," wrote one poster on Soapcentral.com. "But my heart breaks for Zoe."
Romine says he is thrilled, but not surprised. "There will never be acceptance of an issue," he says, "without visibility."
All My Children airs weekdays at 1pm on ABC.