Going where no two boys have gone before
On childrens TV, Canadian drama Degrassi: The Next Generation boldly explores gay themes by having a major teen character come outand fall in love with a classmate
By Michael Rowe
Excerpted from The Advocate, February 3, 2004
Adamo Ruggiero and John Bregar17 and 18, respectivelyare giving their first major interviews about their roles as gay teenage boyfriends on the television series Degrassi: The Next Generation. Bregar, tall and fair with wavy blond hair that recalls William Katt circa 1976, looks every inch the casual star. Ruggiero is equally urban-chic, wearing square silver-framed glasses, his cell phone within reach, his own hair wild and dark as a storm. My parents are definitely cool, notes Ruggiero of his familys response to their son tackling such a socially controversial role so early in his career. They understand it. I come from an Italian family that is pretty traditional and hardheaded.
When a gay teen character is introduced into a mainstream youth-oriented drama with a minimum of fanfare, you can be sure of one thing: Youre not talking about U.S. television. Its Canadas CTV thats airing the third season of the revival of a classic television series that has of late begun to enjoy a generous fan base in the United States. Those south of the border can catch the show on the N, the teen- and tween-centric programming block on the Nickelodeon-owned cable channel Noggin, which brings the show into 22 million households. And obviously, people in the United States are watching: The day before this interview, Degrassi found itself a finalist for the GLAAD Media Awards in the Outstanding Drama Series category, against such high-profile shows as Nip/Tuck, Playmakers, Queer as Folk, and Six Feet Under.
Set in a downtown Toronto high school, the show brings the character of 10th-grader Marco (Ruggiero) out of his closet and into the jungle of secondary-school society. This season hes met Dylan (Bregar), who until recently existed in the series only as the spoken-of-but-never-seen openly gay older brother of Marcos friend Paige.
Sitting side by side, Ruggiero (currently finishing his senior year at a Toronto arts high school) and Bregar (taking time off before college to make the actors boot-camp round of auditions) clearly share a rapport that transcends their roles on the show. They interrupt each other periodically and finish each others sentences as though they had known each other for years instead of mere months of shooting the show in and around Toronto.
The show receives enthusiastic marks from its young stars for being true enough to life that the actors dont feel dishonest playing their characters as written. I think, in general, coming out is less shocking [to todays youth], but you dont want to have the ignorance to say that everything is OK, because people are still homophobic, says Ruggiero.
People grow up now with the idea of coming out and stuff like that, says Bregar. Its not such a surprise when they do. Our generation is growing up seeing it happen. People are opinionated, but seriously, he says, laughing, bigger things happen. Both actors note that Degrassi is set in an urban school, and urban settings have traditionally been more tolerant of diversity than rural ones. Im aware that theres a danger of making the coming-out experience seem too candy-coated on TV, Bregar says seriously. You know, if someone is watching the show in some rural place and they decide to come outwell He pauses. You know how people can be.
Rowes second collection of essays and journalism, Other Mens Sons, will be published by Mosaic Press in 2004. Additional reporting for this story by Wenzel Jones.