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How A Soap Opera Diva Taught Me Survival

Growing up as a black gay male in the state of Wisconsin, I saw Theresa from Passions as a soul sister.

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“Breathe in, breathe out” was more than the opening lyrics to the insanely catchy Passions theme song — it was a calming refrain that could soothe every viewer who saw themselves as an outsider in America.

Theresa Lopez-Fitzgerald, played by Lindsay Hartley, swept through multiple marriages during the series’ nine-year run, a true soap diva in the vein of Susan Lucci’s legendary Erica Kane. But there was more to Theresa’s story than merely being a girl looking for love in all the wrong places. Theresa was Latina, and when she fell for Ethan Crane — the handsome white heir to a family fortune — in the debut episode of the series, she forever made herself a target. Season after season, she was never able to forget the fact that she was born to the maid of the richest family in Harmony, and that her skin was darker than everyone else around her.

When characters taunted Theresa with insults like “Terror-cita,” “Enchilada,” and every other item on the Taco Bell menu, their cruelty may have seemed over-the-top — but their behavior mimics the far too real ways real-life people use “joking racism” to continually put nonwhite people down. Growing up as a black gay male in the state of Wisconsin, I saw Theresa as a soul sister.

We had so many things in common. We were both raised with absent fathers (we entertained fantasies that they were kept away by death or some other noble reason, but the truth turned out to be men who just saw an exit door and an easy opportunity); we both experienced love from afar (Theresa with the wealthy Ethan Crane; me with boys I would not dare give a second glance in the hallways of my all-boys Catholic High School); and we both had to navigate spheres of the wealthy and privileged while constantly feeling like we didn’t belong.

I only had to navigate this world during the school day, thankfully, but Theresa’s life was a literal soap opera, so she was immersed every time she set foot on screen. Being a soap heroine, she had a rival for Ethan’s affections. Gwen Hotchkiss was a beautiful, high-society born woman who pro forma allowed the maid’s daughter to plan her wedding. She had no inkling that Theresa had a crush on her fiancé — but when that crush was discovered, Gwen transformed into a cruel, vicious opponent. After a recasting, the new actress took her from a brunette to an icy, formidable blonde, more suited to represent the ideology of America’s caste system. There's a reason Alfred Hitchcock had a reputation for casting blondes: They represent an ideal conception of Western beauty.

When Theresa was accused of murdering Julian Crane, the wealthiest man in Harmony, the racist and patriarchal machinations of that caste system meant a death sentence for Theresa. Julian could not go quietly into the night with someone of status taking the fall for his murder. Theresa was blamed.

Having grown up in Milwaukee, in a culture that equated queerness with abnormality, the prospect of being injected with a lethal injection cocktail like Theresa bonded her to me forever. Milwaukee, of course, is well-known as the home of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, a man who preyed primarily on gay men of color. Dahmer was able to thrive for so long in Milwaukee due to police indifference. During one particular incident in 1991, two months before his arrest, a victim escaped Dahmer’s apartment. The police, unwilling to intervene in a “domestic dispute,” didn't run a background check on Dahmer and sent his 14-year-old victim Konerak Sinthasomphone back into Dahmer’s apartment, where he was eventually murdered.

Theresa’s imprisonment at the hands of a violent system didn’t seem far-flung to me, having watched the news as a 5-year-old, when I began to realize that a killer of gay black kids and other nonwhite races was allowed to evade capture for so long. It seemed inevitable that everyone on the outskirts of society would eventually become a victim. While it was never a debilitating fear, it led to a lifelong obsession with serial killer factoids and a tacit reminder that even if my life were claimed by a real-life boogeyman, my hometown would find a way to pretend there’s nothing under the bed. My fears were reinforced while watching Passions, when Theresa and her family befell imprisonment, death, and other catastrophes.

A catchphrase like “It Gets Better” was never going to teach me survival. But the way Theresa overcame her catastrophes could. When she was given a lethal injection, she didn’t actually die — her heart merely slowed to an unrecognizable frequency. Even after her enemies crowed over her body at her wake and plunged a letter opener into her heart, she wasn’t killed. The body in that casket wasn’t Theresa’s after all, having long since been replaced with a wax replica.

As insane a plot twist this was (and little did I know Passions would manage to eventually top that with incest and an intersex serial killer storyline, but I digress, and please do not let me digress when it comes to Passions — we’ll be here all day) the tears that welled in my teenage eyes during Theresa’s almost-death scene were very real.

The wax statue was an incredibly soapy touch, but it provided Theresa something tangible with which to evade her oppressors. Theresa Lopez-Fitzgerald Crane Casey Winthrop (if we include all marriages) taught me how to survive, and she taught me that you can always dream of a way to escape.