soap talk

Is ‘General Hospital’ underserving LGBTQ pre-tweens with its latest ‘gay’ story?

Jason David, Rebecca Herbst, and Roger Howarth on General Hospital (Photo: ABC)

LGBTQ characters on daytime soap operas have evolved and multiplied in the decades since Ryan Phillippe played a gay teen struggling with his sexual orientation on One Life to Live in the early ’90s. Phillippe’s character, Billy Douglas, was the first openly gay teen on an American soap and a launching pad for Phillippe’s Hollywood career.

Since then, each of the four remaining soaps have told LGBTQ stories, with varying degrees of success. Days of Our Lives has won multiple GLAAD Media Awards in the process, and a number of actors, including Days’ Chandler Massey, General Hospital’s Lexi Ainsworth, and The Young and the Restless’s Camryn Grimes have won daytime Emmys playing LGBTQ characters.

Now General Hospital has ventured onto groundbreaking terrain with its latest one. Beloved nurse and mother-of-three Elizabeth Webber and her reformed-serial killer husband Franco Baldwin suspect that her eight-year-old son Aiden Spencer — grandson of GH’s premiere ’80s supercouple Luke and Laura Spencer — might be gay.

I applauded the show’s writing team for even considering going there. TV and movies rarely delve into the complexities of what it’s like to grow up gay, especially during those confusing years before sex and sexual attraction are really factors. What started as a bullying story on GH had the potential to turn into so much more.

Unfortunately, the execution has ranged from so-so to shaky. Aiden pretty much disappeared, and the story has become more about how his family members are coping with their suspicion that the little boy might be gay.

How could they be sure, you ask? Well, Aiden isn’t like other boys. He loves his princess pencils, enjoys baking, and fails to score an invitation to his best friend’s party (naturally, it’s a female classmate). He has to be gay, right?

Well, actually, dead wrong. This is where GH has made its most egregious misstep: Why does male + princesses + baking have to equal gay? The show is buying into the sort of creaky stereotypes that have hurt gay men for years. Aiden’s mostly offscreen classmates are falling for them, too. They apparently have taken to calling him “Gayden.”

But based on what? Aside from his penchant for princess pencils and baking, Aiden comes across as a traditionally male pre-tween. If he were on Grindr, he could conceivably describe himself as “straight-acting” before stashing away his pencils and baking pans.

So what if he’s quiet and introverted. Many quiet and introverted boys grow up to be straight. So do boys who bake. The world’s greatest chefs, many of whom happen to be straight, had to start somewhere. It’s OK for the parents of an eight-year-old boy to speculate about whether he might grow up to be gay, but why would his possible sexual orientation be presented as a family emergency before he even reaches puberty?

Speaking of Aiden’s family, GH’s latest LGBTQ story seems to exist mainly to create angst for them. How will his mother and stepfather deal with their shocking realization, which, is really only in the suspicion stage? How will his big brother Cameron cope with it?

These are all valid questions, but where is Aiden? Why is an LGBTQ storyline mostly about straight characters.

If General Hospital wanted to tell a bullying story with a real twist, I wish they would have been bold enough to go further than princess pencils and baking. Rather than trying to saddle an eight-year-old with a sexual orientation, they could have told a story about a kid struggling with his gender identity and included makeup, dresses, heels, and discussions about gender fluidity and what it means to be a boy and a girl, beyond the stereotypical interests.

Or if they were determined to go the “gay” route, why not have Aiden develop a crush on a male classmate? Sometimes little boys play “doctor” with each other, too.

When the seeds of the story were planted last year, daring seemed to be the direction in which it was going, but then Aiden became possibly gay. Not only would a transgender tween story have been a timely tale, but it would have felt more relevant and appropriate for an eight-year-old character than whether he or she might grow up to be attracted to other boys or girls.

What saves the story is the sweet performance of child actor Jason David as Aiden (when he’s onscreen) and how accepting Aiden’s mother and stepfather are of him. Sure, his cousin Charlotte bullied him mercilessly, and his big brother Cameron is more concerned about how Aiden’s “gay” behavior makes Cameron look, but at least we know that if Aiden were to identify as gay when he grows up, he wouldn’t lose his parents’ love.

Still, I wonder, how they would react if it turned out that Aiden might be feeling like a little girl trapped in a little boy’s body. How would pearl-clutching viewers respond? Both The Bold and the Beautiful and All My Children have told transgender stories in the past, but no daytime soap has told one through a character who is still a full decade away from adulthood.

In making this a story about sexual orientation, General Hospital is trying to spin a tale about acceptance. As the story is being told so far, though, the show is mostly feeding the “f*ggot” stereotyping that make real life so hellish whether or not you’re growing up gay.