Seeing the ‘Light’

For 72 years, CBS’ “Guiding Light” has been entertaining millions. The soap opera began on radio and moved to TV to become the longest continually running show on television.

Sept. 18 marks the final episode of the TV landmark. The past few months have been spent winding up plotlines, bringing old favorites back to Springfield and saying a series of goodbyes.

For queer viewers, the end of “GL” will be a sad day. Olivia Spencer (Crystal Chappell) and Natalia Rivera Aitoro (Jessica Leccia) have been involved in a complex and remarkably realistic lesbian love story for nearly two years. As the soap draws to a close, they have formalized their bond, becoming one of the first lesbian families on daytime or prime-time TV.

The two are an unlikely couple: Olivia has been Springfield’s resident bad girl, burning her way through many of the men in town. She has an older daughter, Ava, whom she had given up for adoption, and a much younger daughter, Emma, with one of the town’s key figures, Philip Spaulding.

Olivia’s also powerful. She owns and runs the town’s major hotel and her involvement with the Spauldings has put her front-and-center of some of Springfield’s biggest dramas. She’s seductive and beautiful, with a simmering sensuality that has attracted most of the men in town at one time or another.

Natalia is different from Olivia in nearly every way. A deeply religious Latina, she spends much of her time working with the Catholic Church helping the sick and needy. Without her help, Olivia would not have survived the serious heart disease that led to a transplant and several bouts of rejection. Natalia nursed Olivia night and day.

The women have fought long and hard to come to terms with their love for each other. Last autumn, Det. Frank Cooper asked Natalia to marry him. Frank had been helping Natalia with her teenaged son, Rafe, who had gotten into trouble and landed in prison. Natalia agreed to marry Frank after having slept with him once. But then she left him at the altar. Natalia told Olivia she couldn’t marry Frank because she loved her.

Acknowledging their love for each other was easy compared to coming out. Olivia’s friend Doris — the mayor, who is also a closet lesbian — warned her things would be difficult. Conversely, it was watching Olivia and Natalia together that led Doris to finally reveal her lesbianism to her college-bound daughter, Ashley, leading to another compelling lesbian tangent on the show.

Chappell and Leccia have brought the lesbian storyline vividly to life with intense chemistry and nuanced acting. Olivia’s jaded perspective on relationships, as well as her fear of abandonment and heartbreak, have made her reluctant to open her heart to Natalia.

“GL” has flown under the radar with both the Olivia/Natalia and Doris/Ashley storylines. But the depth of the emotions that have been revealed as these two plots have played out has made for landmark TV. Each has addressed women coming out later in life. While Doris told her daughter she always knew she was a lesbian, Olivia and Natalia were both utterly surprised by their feelings for each other and struggled to name them.

Yet this is a reality for many women who marry men and later recognize — often as a friendship with another woman turns romantic — that they are actually lesbians.

As TV says goodbye to “GL,” it also says goodbye to the best lesbian couple on the tube. But with “GL’s” passing, Olivia and Natalia enter the TV history books as one of the medium’s first — and hopefully not last — lesbian families.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.