At first the scene sounds scarcely melodramatic enough for a soap opera: A bright, pleasant teenager seeks advice from his minister. He’s the new kid in town; his parents don’t understand him; he feels trapped and lonely. But on the June 26 episode of ABC’s One Life to Live, 16-year-old Billy Douglas will tell the Reverend Andrew Carpenter one more thing: He’s gay. And with that, One Life to Live will boldly go where no soap has gone before — into a major plot line about homosexuality and intolerance that will involve a dozen of the residents of fictional Llanview, Pa., the show’s locale.
Although adult gay characters made low-key, skittish appearances on All My Children in 1983 and As the World Turns in 1988, daytime has never put a gay plot line-let alone a gay teenager — on its front burner. Even though Billy will not be sexually involved with anyone on One Life ”it’s a difficult subject,” says executive producer Linda Gottlieb. ”But (head writer) Michael Malone has developed a story about fear that’s woven into the fabric of the town.” In July, Llanview’s emotions will flare when the minister’s kindness to Billy sparks a whispering campaign that leads to ostra-cism, gay bashing, and vandalism. As the story line continues through Labor Day, ”we will not flinch from the ugliness of it,” says Gottlieb. ”It will bring out the very worst in some people, their cruelest impulses. It’s quite a challenge.’
’ The challenge may be greatest for Ryan Phillippe, a 17-year-old from Delaware who won the role of Billy over doz-ens of actors. ”When I auditioned, I had no idea Billy was gay,” Phillippe says. ”They told me, and I said ‘Oh! Okay!’ but a shock went through my system. I thought, ‘What is my family going to think? What about my friends?’ But I realized that for Billy, the torment is a hundred times that.”
Before filming started, Gottlieb brought in psychiatrist Richard Isay, a specialist in issues faced by gay teens. ”I had a lot of questions,” says Phillippe. ”But when he told us that three times as many gay teenagers kill themselves as do straight teens, I realized that maybe this role is where I’m supposed to be. Maybe some kids will see that there are ways to deal with this positively. And,” he adds, laughing, ”I get the chance to do some really cool acting. I mean, the most dramatic scene I did before this was a Nintendo commercial.” Phillippe says that Billy’s coming-out scene was ”the first time ever that I didn’t have to force tears. My voice went all quivery and they just flowed out of me.”
”The emotional scenes are very difficult,” says Wortham Krimmer, who plays the Reverend Carpenter. ”But I feel a big responsibility to make it work. We read about homophobia every day in the newspapers, but it’s informational, not emotional. These scenes really hit you hard.”
The homophobia plot line marks Gottlieb’s latest attempt to give One Life — which shunned ”issue” story lines for much of the 1980s — a harder edge. ”She’s obviously interested in tackling current subjects, and that’s terrific,” says Erika Slezak, who has starred in the series since 1971. ”It’s tricky, but treated with intelligence, it can work.”
Nonetheless, Gottlieb admits that One Life can go only so far. ”In a sense we’re copping out,” she says. ”We’re not dealing with this kid in a gay relationship. We discussed it at length, but you do what you can do, and we can tell a strong story. Some people will be alienated; we’ll get vicious mail. But I hope that by seeing a young gay boy, getting to like him, and sympathize with his pain, audiences will understand the hurt that awful jokes, dumb remarks, and exclusionary behavior can cause. We have an hour every day — what better place to explore this than daytime?”