Welcome back to “From the LWTV Archives,” a column dedicated to studying and highlighting moments from queer TV history. This week, I dove into the world of soap operas to find the first queer woman on a daytime American soap.
First, I have to admit that I have never gotten into soap operas. I spent way more of my childhood consuming The Oprah Winfrey Show and teen dramas for my daily dose of entertainment. But, diving into the soap opera forums this week to uncover the mystery of the true first queer woman on a soap opera made me giddy with nostalgia. You can always find some juicy gossip in the pages of a TV show forum!
Today’s post is going to focus on a classic: The Young and the Restless (Y&R). The Young and the Restless started in 1973 with half hour episodes that aired once every weekday. The show, created by husband and wife duo William J. Bell and Lee Phillip Bell, focuses on drama between families in the fictionalized town of Genoa City, Wisconsin. It is still airing today, with a whopping 12,500 episodes under its belt.
One of the longest running cast members in the show’s history, Jeanne Cooper, portrayed the character of Katherine Chancellor. Katherine is the reason we are here today. In the 1970’s, Katherine seemed to have a brief flirtation with queerness.
I say “seemed to” because old episodes of Y&R are basically impossible to track down and everything is based on rumors at this point. I have agonized over trying to find every detail of this 1977 storyline where Katherine was “queer”, but all I have come away with are many contradicting rumors.
Here is what we know: In 1977, the character of Katherine was recently widowed and living alone at her house. She was lonely and looking for companionship. Enter: Joann Curtis. Joann was married to Jack Curtis, but he was cheating on her with a woman named Peggy. On top of that, Joann was extremely self-conscious about her weight and obviously wasn’t feeling great about the fact that her husband was dating another woman. Joann decides to take some time away and stay with, who else but, Katherine Chancellor. During this stay together, the two women become closer and closer.
… Andddd that seems to be the only thing everyone can agree on. Keep in mind that, since the episodes are not available to watch, this is all reliant on the memory of soap opera fans. And there are 12,500 total episodes of this show to remember.
Let’s get into some of the theories as to how this storyline went down.
Theory #1: Katherine and Joann kissed.
This theory has really gained traction, leading many websites to hail this storyline as a long forgotten “lesbian relationship”. But, I find this hard to believe. First of all, the character of Katherine has an almost 40-year history of solely dating men. I don’t think “lesbian” is the appropriate label for her. Second, everyone knows that All My Children‘s Bianca and Lena hold the title for the first lesbian kiss on a soap, airing in 2003. (I am not a soap person and even I know that!) I’m not saying it’s impossible that Katherine and Joann kissed, but it is hard for me to believe since it wasn’t a bigger deal.
Theory #2: Katherine and Joann were totally into each other, but they never kissed.
This theory is more plausible, because soap fans all seem to be in agreement that there was something going on between these two. I’ve read descriptions of longing glances, soft touches, and even full blown conversations about being a lesbian.
One Twitter user says that Joann directly asks Katherine if she is a lesbian and viewers had to wait the entire weekend to hear Katherine’s answer… which was apparently “yes”! The book titled It’s Time For My Story: Soap Opera Sources, Structure, and Response says that Katherine made drunken passes at multiple women and also planned a getaway trip with Joann. Multiple sources actually confirms this trip and everyone agrees that it was stopped by Katherine’s foster son, Buck, because he felt their relationship was “unnatural.”
Theory #3: There was something between Katherine and Joann but Katherine is the only one to admit to it.
Throughout all my research, this seems like the most likely storyline. I have read many accounts of Katherine admitting to her feelings in various ways: touching Joann, leaning in to kiss her, inviting her on vacation. But it is rare that any account details Joann feeling anything back. In fact, a lot of accounts believe that Joann was upset by Katherine’s “advances.”
No matter what theory you believe, what bothers me most is that there is a true answer, but it is locked away in an archive somewhere with the rest of the 1970s episodes! Let us in, CBS!
Another reason why I think it is unlikely that Katherine and Joann actually kissed is because of the time period. This would have been the first queer women to kiss in television history. In fact, Christopher Schmering’s book, Soap Opera Encyclopedia, claims that Y&R got so much hate mail (and declining ratings) over this developing storyline that the creators decided to immediately drop it. It seems like audiences just weren’t ready. There’s talk that Bill Bell said himself that there was never a thing between Katherine and Joann and they were just, you know, roommates. 🙂
In the end, it seems like audiences picked up on the queerness and I hope it made some people feel seen. Maybe this particular storyline didn’t make a major wave, but it served as test to see if audiences were ready. Eventually, Y&R gave us Mariah and Tessa in 2017, the first official couple for queer women on the show.
[As always, this column is based on data provided in LWTV. If you have more information on a show/character that has not been included in our database, please let us know!]