New “EastEnders”’ Character (Finally) Brings Diversity to Soaps

When you look at the history of gay or bisexual people of color on soap operas, it’s a pretty monochromatic picture. With the exception of Nick Chavez, a part Cherokee, part Mexican-American gay character on ABC’s One Life to Live, the closeted bisexual Chad Harris on the now canceled Passions, and Ravi Roy, a bisexual southeast Asian character on Britain’s Channel 4 drama Hollyoaks, most previous gay or bisexual male soap characters have been white.

Nick Chavez, Chad Harris, Ravi Roy

But as regular readers of AfterElton.com’s Gays of Our Lives column well know, EastEnders, a long-running soap on Britain’s BBC One (and one of the U.K.’s highest-rated programs), recently added some much needed color to the picture. It’s something that anyone interested in gay male visibility — soap opera fan or not — will find interesting. 

On April 21, 2009, the show introduced the character of Syed Masood, the son of two established British-Pakistani characters.

Marc Elliot, the actor who plays Syed, is half-Anglo Indian and half-Scottish.

Marc Elliot

Because the character is Muslim, and because the show has dramatized Syed’s struggle between his faith and his sexuality, the storyline has been enormously controversial with the U.K.’s large Muslim population. A well-publicized May 2009 Gallup poll of 500 British Muslims found that 0% thought homosexuality was morally acceptable; incredibly, the survey couldn’t find a single pro-gay respondent.

But the storyline has proved to be a huge hit among other British viewers, with Syed’s well-publicized coming out kiss in June drawing a massive 7.9 million viewers (the show in second place drew a mere 2.6 million viewers).

"It is high time that the invisible minority became a visible minority," Yusuf Wehebi, a gay Muslim, told the BBC. "It is entirely possible to be Muslim and gay and there’s many of us in Britain today. It is great that the BBC have had the courage to raise such an important social issue in our society today."

When first introduced, Syed had a girlfriend. But in June, he began an affair with Christian (played by out Cats actor John Patridge).
Since then, Syed has tried to reconcile his being gay and Muslim.

“It’s just you and me,” Christian told Syed in October. But Syed responded, “It’s never just you and me though, is it? God will always know.”

At one point, Syed visited an imam, who told him, flat-out, that homosexuality is unacceptable.

Still, the show has occasionally tried to take a lighter approach to the controversial storyline.
“I guess I’m going to have to get used to another woman in your life,” Syed’s mother, who’s been busy trying to set him up with girls, told him recently.

“Never,” Syed responded ironically.

"We’ve always tried to make EastEnders reflect modern life in multicultural Britain, and we’ve always told social issue stories relevant to our diverse audience,” executive producer Diederick Santer told the U.K. newspaper The Sun. "To all intents and purposes, Syed’s a ’good’ Muslim man — he doesn’t drink, smoke, or engage in sex before marriage. But he struggles with his sexuality when he finds himself drawn to Christian, and he believes this goes against his faith."

Gay Muslim or Middle Eastern characters anywhere on television are rare on both sides of the pond, but they’ve turned up recently in such American shows as The War at Home, Sleeper Cell, and Nurse Jackie.