New York — 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. Months of research had gone into the development of the character, including meetings with transgender staff from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
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 between women.
The viewers react
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 have rarely 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. "Sometimes I think the genre falls back a little bit too much on baby switching and paternity stories. We're doing this as a show of courage as much as entertainment, hoping it encourages people across the genre to be bolder."
There was a time when soap operas were ahead of the curve in tackling thorny 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 vs. 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.
"Daytime soaps are predicated on heterosexual love and romance, so even to play with the fluidity of sexual orientation was a big deal," Harrington said.
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. Until now, Showtime's "The L Word" was the only television program to follow a character's transition from one gender to another.