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A transgender character in the light of daytime

It was late afternoon on the set of "All My Children," a sprawling soundstage that occupies the third floor of an ABC compound on Manhattan's West Side, and Eden Riegel -- better known to daytime television fans as Bianca Montgomery -- was pacing nervously.

In a few minutes, she would tape the first scene in which Zarf, a flamboyant rock star played by Jeffrey Carlson, was going to reveal his secret to her: He was a she.

This was not your usual credulity-challenging, hidden-identity soap opera plot device. Zarf was coming to terms with the fact that although biologically male, he had long felt he was really a woman.

It's the first time a daytime drama has tackled a transgender coming-out story line, and producers of the 36-year-old soap said they are determined to make it a nuanced, realistic portrayal.

The usually bustling set was hushed as the cast and crew prepared for the pivotal scene, which airs Friday. In the episode, Zarf picks up Bianca to go to a New Year's Eve party -- only to arrive dressed in a black dress and towering heels, introducing himself as Zoe. Bianca is stunned by the new persona, and the characters engage in a long, emotional exchange about gender and identity.

"I'm terrified; my stomach is in knots," Riegel murmured as she readied for the scene, fussing with her character's velvet party dress.

"We have such an opportunity here," she added later. "It's a beautiful story, and I just hope we tell it in a way that people are open to it."

Riegel is no stranger to the intense scrutiny that accompanies daytime's forays into matters of sexuality and gender politics. Many longtime fans were incensed when her character -- daughter of show matriarch Erica Kane -- came out as a lesbian six years ago and shared the first soap opera kiss betweenwomen.

Nowadays, gay characters are more commonplace in daytime, and "All My Children" viewers have embraced Bianca, who returned to the show this fall after a two-year absence.

But transgender people rarely have been depicted on television, much less soap operas, and ABC's announcement that "All My Children" was bringing Zoe to Pine Valley has sparked a heated debate. In postings to online fan message boards, some viewers angrily denounced the material as "creepy" and "repulsive."

Executive producer Julie Hanan Carruthers hopes the audience gives Zoe a chance. "Obviously, I hope there won't be any backlash," Carruthers said. "We're not doing this to turn viewers away. On its purest level, it's a human story about somebody who is different from the masses. It's about love and acceptance."

There's more than viewer loyalty at stake. The story line -- which will follow Zoe's struggle to fully transition to life as a woman and to address issues like whether to pursue sex reassignment surgery -- could answer a broader question with which all soap operas are now wrestling: Is the faded genre still socially relevant?

"I'm sort of hoping we open the door to soaps in general to get back to more of the adventurous days of storytelling," said Brian Frons, president of daytime for the Disney-ABC Television Group.

There was a time when soap operas were ahead of the curve in tackling cultural debates. Under the direction of creator Agnes Nixon, "All My Children" set the pace with story lines about the Vietnam War, race relations, eating disorders and AIDS. In 1973, shortly after the Supreme Court released its ruling in Roe v. Wade, Susan Lucci's character, Erica Kane, stirred national controversy when she had an abortion.

But daytime dramas have been more tentative about delving into homosexuality, largely out of fear of alienating the largely conservative audience that tunes in during the day. Before Bianca's 2000 coming-out on "All My Children," soaps had featured just four gay or lesbian characters in substantive roles, according to a study by C. Lee Harrington, an associate professor of sociology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Prime-time shows were less hesitant, introducing close to 50 recurring gay characters in the 1990s, including the leads of "Ellen" and "Will & Grace." But transgender characters have remained a rarity.

"This is the new frontier," said Sean Griffin, associate professor of cinema and television at Southern Methodist University. "Transgender characters are where gay and lesbian characters were 10 years ago."

But tackling the first transgender coming-out on network television could be risky for a soap opera at a time when daytime dramas are suffering serious audience erosion.

The fall for "All My Children" has been especially steep; the once-top-rated soap has dropped into eighth place this season, averaging around 3 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

"I don't know that this is the right time to launch a story line that could be so controversial," said Dan Kroll, owner of the popular Web site soapcentral.com. "You're giving viewers another reason to say, 'OK, I'm done with the show.' "

However, there are some signs that the transgender plot has piqued new interest in "All My Children." In the first few weeks of the story line, viewership among teens and young women spiked.

"I think we're in an upswing period," Carruthers said. "We're doing some of our strongest material in the time I've been here."

Megan McTavish, the show's head writer, said she was intrigued by the possibilities of telling a new kind of story when one of her writers mentioned that her children were watching "TransGeneration," a Sundance Channel documentary about transgender college students.

"I thought it was a perfect story for our medium because the transition is step by step," McTavish said. "There's the agony of the realization, 'What do I do about it?' -- a lot of emotional minefields."

Carruthers was excited about the idea but wasn't sure how to pull it off until Carlson had a one-day part this summer as Zarf, a rock star who licenses a song to Fusion, a cosmetics company run by some of the women in Pine Valley.

"I couldn't take my eyes off him," said the executive producer, who decided that the longtime theater actor was the right person for the role. Before he signed on, she asked if he would be comfortable with the story.

"I was very moved by it," said Carlson, who said he was heartened that the producers emphasized that they wanted to tell the story with dignity. "If it creates a conversation, I think we've done our job."

For now, reaction has been mixed. The message boards on Web sites like soapcentral.com have been humming with debate, with many saying they are confused that Zarf is both a transgender person and a lesbian. An online poll on the topic has swung between support and condemnation.

Carol Dickson, a 64-year-old retired zoning administrator in Glassboro, N.J., who runs the official "All My Children" fan club, said she's excited about the story line.

"They're not playing it safe, which is what I like," she said. "Anything of this nature, of course it's going to offend some people. But I think daytime viewers have grown up."

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