By Oscar Lopez
MEXICO CITY, June 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Mexican soap opera that debuts on Sunday is set to make television history as the country's first telenovela to feature a gay couple as the leading characters.
"Juntos, El Corazon Nunca se Equivoca" (Together, the Heart is Never Wrong) from Mexican network Televisa centers on two teenagers who move to Mexico City to attend a university.
The couple - Aristoteles (Emilio Osorio) and Cuahutemoc or 'Temo' (Joaquin Bondoni) - first appeared on the Mexican soap "Mi Marido Tiene Mas Familia" (My Husband Has More Family), which ran from 2017 until February this year.
Among the most watched shows in Mexico, its final episode attracting nearly four million viewers, according to Televisa.
Telenovelas are hugely popular in Mexico and can influence national dialogue on social issues across Latin America.
The first gay kiss in socially conservative Brazil on the soap "Amor a Vida" in 2014 was seen as a historic moment in gay rights.
They are exported around the world, and "Mi Marido Tiene Mas Familia" was broadcast in the United States on its largest Spanish-language station, Univision.
Word of a spinoff show featuring Aristoteles and Temo, or 'Aristemo' as they are known, sent fans into a frenzy on social media.
"It was a dream come true," said Sofia Estefania Palacios Osorio, 21, on Twitter.
"There is so much machismo, discrimination and taboos around LGBT couples," she wrote. "It's going to help more people see that it's something normal, that love is love."
Mexican telenovelas have featured gay characters but they are relegated to secondary roles, while lesbian relationships have only been represented in the past few years.
LGBT+ characters have featured increasingly on soap operas around the world, from the first openly lesbian character on "All My Children" in 1983 to the first transgender character on a British soap, "Coronation Street," in 1998.
"Mi Marido Tiene Mas Familia" was honored by the U.S.-based LGBT+ media advocacy group GLAAD last month, and the two actors and producer Juan Osorio were honored also at the Mexico City LGBT+ film festival in May.
"It shows that there are a lot of people, and a lot of young people of different ages who are interested in being able to connect with this kind of story," said Santiago Pineda, one of the writers of both the original show and its spinoff.
LGBT+ supporters say the show has brought greater acceptance of gay romance, and the spinoff is a key moment for gay visibility.
"For people of my generation, a lot of us had to have a delayed adolescence, because at that age, it was unimaginable to show affection or even think of having a romantic relationship," said Alex Orue, head of It Gets Better Mexico, an LGBT+ youth support group.
Pineda said he and writing partner Pablo Ferrer never saw sexual diversity represented on television when they were young.
"We wanted it to be a friendlier approach so that everyone could see that Aristoteles and Temo, beyond their sexual orientation, were both people with dreams, goals, fears and aspirations," Pineda told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Despite progress on LGBT+ rights, Mexico remains a conservative, Catholic country where gay people often may face violence and discrimination.
According to a 2012 study from local rights group ADIL, half of LGBT+ people bullied at school had experienced depression, while a quarter had contemplated suicide.
"Having this kind of representation, at a mainstream level, at this scale, in Mexico ... is very positive," Orue said.
According to Ferrer, the show has even helped some viewers speak up.
"Fans tell stories that they've been able to come out of the closet with their family, that Aristemo helped them come out," he said.
But it has stoked controversy as well.
Carlos Leal, a politician with the ruling Morena party in the state of Nuevo Leon, said on Twitter in January: "It's clear that television channels are trying to 'normalize' homosexuality from youth with a pro-LGBT agenda."
That and other comments eventually led to his expulsion from the party.
Some within the LGBT+ community say the portrayal of gay love is sanitized and unrealistic.
Gabriel Gutierrez Garcia, an editor at LGBT+ news site Escandala, criticized its "singular message of beauty."
"We have to talk about ... about 'ugly' gays, poor gays, who don't fall into the pretty boy model," he said.
The show's writers said their approach was deliberate to appeal to a wide audience.
"I think that in this era, we need positive stories, luminous stories," Ferrer said.
(Reporting by Oscar Lopez, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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