What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Originally posted on USC’s now-defunct TRANS/MISSIONS: Media, Culture, Religion, Society blog.
December 17, 2009

by Judith Weisenfeld

On December 5, 2009, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles elected out lesbian Rev. Mary Glasspool assistant bishop, pending consent by the national church.  Press attention has, understandably, focused on how Glasspool’s election is likely to exacerbate tensions within the worldwide Anglican Communion, in which liberals and conservatives have clashed repeatedly over the ordination of gay bishops.

Media analysis of the fortunes of the Episcopal Church presents Glasspool’s story as a microcosm of broader religious issues, but those interested in the popular religious sources for gay and lesbian identity construction might do well to look beyond the stories of institutions and leaders. The night before Glasspool’s election, soap opera fans turned to the Internet to watch the first webisode of Venice the Series, a sequel of sorts to the CBS soap Guiding Light, and an event that may reveal more than official church decisions about how American lesbians negotiate sexual identity and religious commitment.

When Guiding Light concluded its 57-year television run on September 17, 2009, fans of the show’s romantic relationship between characters Olivia Spencer (Crystal Chappell) and Natalia Rivera (Jessica Leccia) were given a happy ending, with “Otalia” triumphing over the absurd plot complications typical in television soaps.

The unlikely and yet seemingly inevitable romance between the two single mothers had even given the show’s declining ratings a boost. Nevertheless, the producers’ caution about depicting same-sex affection left fans with hand-holding as the only romantic interaction between the two.

One of the striking elements of the Otalia storyline was Natalia’s ardent Roman Catholicism and the presence of Father Ray as counselor to Natalia (and obstacle to the budding romance). Olivia’s disdain for organized religion, even as she came to respect Natalia’s faith, created additional challenges.  In fan videos, fiction, message boards, and blogs, fans joined the characters in discussing and debating religion and sexuality. Father Ray never got beyond declarations of sin, and his character was conspicuously absent in the final episodes of the series, facilitating the happy, but unsatisfying, resolution to the couple’s story. Chappell herself was frustrated with the producers’ timidity and, encouraged by the outpouring of fan support, decided to move the romance to the web.

Venice the Series, created by Crystal Chappell and Kim Turrisi, features Chappell and Leccia as new characters in a new setting, but gives Otalia fans a chance to see what might have happened had Guiding Light been more courageous in its portrayal of a lesbian relationship.  Although it was probably tempting to leave religion out of this alternative universe, the teaser video for the web series’ first season gives a sense that discussions of religion and sexuality will be present, most likely through the conservative father of the main character.

The second webisode airs on December 18; journalists and academics who keep an eye on how media shape religious culture (and vice versa) should be attentive to how Venice and other non-mainstream media products motivate viewers to contribute to pressing theological conversations. For some fans, what transpires on Venice may shape their understandings of religion and sexuality more directly and immediately than a church election, whatever its publicly declared significance.