Remembering TV’s Day of Compassion, 25 Years Later

By
Lynn Herring as Lucy Coe in General Hospital. Photo: ABC

In the spring of 1992, One Life to Live sent two of its newest characters on a collision course. The small fictional town of Llanview could be a tough place to be queer, and as rumors began to circulate about young Billy Douglas (Ryan Phillippe, in his first-ever screen role), Reverend Andrew Carpenter (Wortham Krimmer) was a rare sympathetic ear for the teenager. Some Llanview residents eventually opened their minds and put aside their bigotries, though Billy’s father wouldn’t do the same, and the story line culminated in Reverend Carpenter bringing a portion of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt to Llanview, to which he added a panel for his brother, a gay man who died from AIDS-related complications.

Watching from home, a young actor named Neil Tadken was inspired. HIV had been decimating marginalized populations (particularly queer people of color, trans people, and sex workers) for over a decade, but it was still mostly taboo in scripted television. If One Life to Live could bring the AIDS crisis to the airwaves, why couldn’t more shows? And why not all at once? Tadken began writing letters and making phone calls, and a year later, on June 21, 1993, the Day of Compassion was born: a day where AIDS and HIV-related programming could be found on multiple daytime TV shows across multiple channels. This Pride month marks the 25th anniversary of the project.

“The idea was to make sure that no one could turn the television on that day and not be somehow exposed to a role model of compassion for people with HIV and AIDS,” Tadken told Vulture. There were no instructions or talking points; shows didn’t even have to be necessarily educational. General Hospital had a built-in model for dealing with medical issues, and featured a regular character (Bobbie Spencer) getting close with a young HIV-positive patient. One show, Loving, made no changes at all to their story lines, and merely featured all onscreen characters sporting AIDS awareness ribbons. That red ribbon had been a source of some controversy in the soap world just months earlier, when Days of Our Lives mainstay Deidre Hall refused to wear one at the Daytime Emmys, comparing the pressure to do so to “a ’90s brand of McCarthyism.”

Though Tadken reached out to all of the soaps, a few refused to participate that first year. Specifically, all of the soaps sponsored by Procter & Gamble — a major soap-opera sponsor that had only one year earlier amended their nondiscrimination policies to include queer employees — declined to be involved in any way. This left a hole that Tadken and his fellow organizers, including producer Ari Sloane, filled by reaching out to talk shows like Geraldo, Jerry Springer, and Donahue. Appearing himself on Good Morning America to promote the Day of Compassion, Tadken was asked if the event would occur again the following year. He hadn’t thought about it before, but, “What was I gonna say, ‘No?’” So it became an annual TV tradition.

The following year, General Hospital raised the stakes substantially. The Day of Compassion was marked by a huge in-show ceremony known as the Nurses’ Ball. The residents of the fictional town of Port Charles gathered in a ballroom to perform skits and songs and raise money for AIDS charities, and the episode included a cameo by a segment of the AIDS quilt. Even more shows joined in on the Day of Compassion, including the Procter & Gamble soaps. As the project got bigger, Tadken got more help. Hollywood Supports, a relatively new AIDS advocacy organization, helped underwrite the campaign with the help of executive director Richard Jennings and Lynne Gabriel. After meeting Tadken at a Pride festival in 1994, Lawrence Leritz signed on to be the event’s East Coast producer, and made numerous talk-show appearances to both promote their work and to bring the Day of Compassion to shows that hadn’t yet participated.

For the most part, Leritz remembers these as positive experiences. “Maury Povich was great,” he said, “which I was not expecting at all.” One CNN host asked Leritz on air why someone without AIDS would be involved at all, prompting a walk-off and a stern lesson for the host from the segment producer. Throughout this period, Tadken, Leritz, and their collaborators worked without pay. “I said yes without realizing how much work it would be,” Leritz said, adding, “I had so many friends who had already passed from AIDS. The idea of it so deeply touched my heart […] This was before the cocktail. People were just dying.”

In 1995, this morbidity crept into the soaps as General Hospital ran a story line where popular character Stone Cates (Michael Sutton) succumbed to AIDS-related illness and passed away, but not before his girlfriend Robin (Kimberly McCullough), a character who’d been on the show for a decade, revealed that she’d contracted HIV from him. While television was still a while away from sensitive portrayals of HIV-positive queer people of color (by the way, watch Pose), the General Hospital story line conveyed that anyone could contract the virus, not just those stereotyped by bigoted portrayals. By 1997, at least 200 shows across genres and channels — and even CompuServe and AOL — were participating in the Day of Compassion, up from 14 in the first year.

During this same period, soap operas were beginning to change dramatically. The Advocate even called 1994 “a surprisingly good year for gay and lesbian content and characters on national television.” In late 1993, actor Lee Mathis placed an ad in Variety: “Healthy HIV-positive actor needs $3,500 worth of SAG work by Dec. 31 to maintain his health insurance.” The following year, he was cast on General Hospital playing John Hanley, an HIV-positive character. Guiding Light featured story lines with HIV-positive characters and specifically cast HIV-positive actors for the roles. The General Hospital Nurses’ Ball became a real-life fundraiser where audience members could buy branded T-shirts whose proceeds went to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, as did profits from the sale of a tie-in book, Robin’s Diary. According to one study, calls to an AIDS hotline spiked by 700 percent during the Day of Compassion in 1995. The event had a heavy white and cis focus, but it was also making a real impact.

Around 1998, huge advancements in AIDS treatment — including a groundbreaking anti-retroviral drug cocktail — led the Day of Compassion to slowly fizzle out. “The disease, from the perspective of television producers, simply lost its status as a hot-button issue,” Benjamin Ryan wrote in HIV+ magazine. Leritz describes the Day of Compassion as “like a bridge over troubled waters” — crisis on one side, and hope on the other. For about half a decade, people dealing with HIV and AIDS — and their loved ones — could see their struggle reflected onscreen, and see how that struggle touched the lives of the TV characters they cared about. After Lee Mathis passed away from AIDS-related illness in 1996, the following Nurses’ Ball included a tribute to his character. In 2000, Day of Compassion co-organizer Ari Sloane succumbed as well.

There is evidence that soap operas can successfully spread health information. As University of Illinois professor Paula Treichler writes, “Unlike a film, the TV soap format can flexibly incorporate new medical realities (like changing treatment options) and respond to viewer and media responses. Its ‘almost real’ world can vividly demonstrate the long-term course of a disease like HIV/AIDS.” In other words, watching these characters day after day can teach people to understand what they need to do to survive. After reviving the Nurses’ Ball in 2013, General Hospital characters donate generously to AIDS-related charities, sometimes by name, in hopes that the audience will join in. “Showing by example is always better,” said executive producer Frank Valentini (who, back in the day, worked on One Life to Live during the Billy Douglas story line).

Thanks in part to his work on the Day of Compassion, Neil Tadken was cast in the mid-’90s in a recurring role on General Hospital and its spinoff Port Charles. He used his earnings from the acting work to put himself through seminary. He describes his work on the Day of Compassion as “a pivotal time in my life — it really set the stage for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.” Today, Tadken is an Episcopal priest in Monrovia, California. To anyone inspired by the Day of Compassion, he says, “I wish more people could take some risks and not just assume they have nothing to contribute or they have no power.”

Remembering TV’s Day of Compassion, 25 Years Later