Jeffrey Carlson, actor who played groundbreaking trans soap character, dies aged 48

Jeffrey Carlson played groundbreaking trans character Zoe in All my Children.

Actor Jeffrey Carlson, who played a groundbreaking trans character in US daytime soap All My Children, has died aged 48.

The death of the acclaimed stage and screen star was announced on Sunday (9 July) by various sources including Time Out’s New York theatre critic Adam Feldman, the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) and Carlson’s Hamlet co-star Susan Hart – all of whom offered heartfelt tributes to the actor.

Carlson – whose cause of death is not yet known – enjoyed a rich acting career, becoming a Broadway legend in roles such as Marilyn in Taboo (2003-2004), Billy in Edward Albee’s The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia and Lee Blessing in Thief River while onscreen he appeared in 2005’s Will Smith-led comedy Hitch.

The role that Carlson is best known for, however, is their groundbreaking transgender character Zoe in long-running ABC daytime soap All My Children, which ran from 1970-2011.

Carlson first appeared on the series in August 2006 as British rock star Zarf. Just months later, in November, he helped change the US media landscape by portraying daytime TV’s first recurring trans role after their character came out as trans woman, named Zoe.

Carlson, whose mother reportedly named him after All My Children character Jeff Martin, appeared in 59 episodes of the show as Zoe’s coming out journey was shared with an audience of millions.

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All My Children star Eden Riegel, who played lesbian character and Zoe’s love interest, Bianca, shared her sorrow at the news, tweeting: “Devastated beyond measure to hear of the passing of the beautiful and gifted Jeffrey Carlson.

“I feel fortunate to have called this kind soul a friend and see his brilliant work up close. Gone far too soon — an unimaginable loss. Love you, Jeffrey. Rest friend.”

Praise for Carlson, his talent and groundbreaking work has poured in across social media.

Carlson’s impact on trans representation in the media cannot be understated, with Zoe’s trailblazing storyline seeing her coming out to her parents, meeting with an endocrinologist and joining a transgender support group at a time when trans visibility on mainstream television was almost non-existent.

The introduction of a trans character to a daytime soap predictably caused some controversy at the time, but in an interview with People in 2007, Carlson reflected on why the backlash to his character didn’t affect him, saying he intended to “cause a conversation”.

“Members of the transgender community are talking with the regular posters on the All My Children chat rooms,” he said. “I got a letter from an 11-year-old girl. It said, ‘It’s cool you’re going to become a girl. Then we will have stuff in common.’

“I met several people in the transgender community, and one became someone I can talk to on a regular basis. Talking to her started to enlighten me. She was so open about telling her story.”

Carlson also shared the behind-the-scenes process of bringing to Zoe to life in an interview on The View at the time. He explained how “from the very first day” LGBTQ+ organisation GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) “came and spoke to” the cast and crew to give them “an education” on the trans community.

“I’m learning new stuff every day, and we’re just filming those episodes right now where Zoe decides to tell the world that she’s herself,” he continued on The View.

“It takes her a long time, possibly 25 to 30 years of her life to have the courage.”