Article — From the February 2010 issue
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Article — From the February 2010 issue
YouTube first showed me Luke and Noah. Two summers ago, while sitting in the English countryside, enjoying scenes from German, French, and British soap operas that featured gay characters, I came across a forty-nine-second video from American TV, posted by one LukeVanFan, “Luke and Noah’s Story—ATWT—Part 41—The Kiss.” In the brief clip, a blond youth begins to tie the tie of a dark-haired youth who stares at him. Close-up: “What’s wrong?” Beat. “Nothing.” The dark-haired youth then leans down, and they kiss. The blond looks up in brave delight. They close their lovely eyes and kiss again, deeply. Scene. “The Kiss” had registered over a million hits.
This romantic collision had been controversial in the United States, where some right-wing groups and church bodies objected to the characters’ being “teenagers” and also to a network’s airing in the American afternoon a kiss between young men. I gathered that an international campaign was underway, or had been, to save this storyline of gay love between incoming university freshmen in the fictional town of Oakdale, Illinois. One link urged supporters of Luke and Noah to write to CBS and to Procter & Gamble, the owners of As The World Turns, and listed telephone numbers for the network’s call-in polls. CNN had picked up the story, but by the time I dialed the number, a recording said the poll had closed.
Fortunately, the campaign seemed to have succeeded: As The World Turns announced that it was standing by its Luke and Noah storyline. I was able to catch up on all the plot I’d missed because LukeVanFan excerpted the Luke and Noah scenes from each As The World Turns episode and put them on YouTube. So. Noah had a girlfriend when he kissed Luke, but Luke helped Noah to face the truth about himself, after which Noah’s father, a retired U.S. Army colonel who only pretended to accept his son’s being gay, shot Luke while on a fishing trip with the two boys. Luke was left paralyzed, but patient Noah had his sad new boyfriend out of that wheelchair and dancing by New Year’s.
Luke and Noah have been through a lot since their first Christmas together three years ago at the Snyder family farm, where Luke’s cookie-baking paternal grandmother declared Luke’s bedroom off-limits to Noah, not because they were gay but because she wouldn’t let her straight children at Luke’s age share beds under her roof with their boyfriends or girlfriends either. The Boys got through their first Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day without sex, and laughed in one scene that the four-meat sandwich Noah was eating was a sublimation. But then an Iraqi girl found Noah and claimed that his father had been her mother’s protector during the war. To keep her from being deported, Noah married her. The authorities had to be persuaded the marriage was real. Noah moved away from the farm, and Luke watched the Iraqi girl grow ever more dependent on his boyfriend with the cool voice.
The sham-marriage story line—“Cock Block,” one fan called it—went on until the Writers’ Guild strike ended in the winter of 2008. Disgruntled fans of The Boys saw the network’s stalling as a waste of the young actors’ talent. Hansis had been nominated for a Daytime Emmy as Outstanding Young Actor in a Drama Series, and as the soap world’s latest supercouple, Luke and Noah, or rather Hansis and Silbermann, were presenters at the 2008 awards. The determination among fans when Hansis didn’t win led me to suspect that the campaign to save the soap opera’s gay story line had been refined into a lobby to give The Boys more air time and better plot situations, and, above all, to let their characters have sex with each other at long last.
LukeVanFan kept count of how seldom Luke and Noah kissed, and plenty of fans got fed up with the double standard that let a heterosexual teenage couple, played by actors younger than Hansis and Silbermann, go at it. Then, the summer before last, after Noah’s father escaped from jail and kidnapped Noah’s Iraqi wife; after Luke followed Noah to New York City, where he had gone to rescue her; after Noah’s father leapt into the Hudson River and drowned rather than be taken back into custody—Noah broke up with Luke in high soap-opera style. The Boys rocked, proving that they weren’t just waxed torsos and matinee faces. I watched the break-up scenes over and over. I couldn’t help myself.
Because of Luke and Noah, I’d lost it. I had to excuse myself to houseguests as I reeled to my computer to see if there was anything new from Oakdale. My partner, my reserved Englishman, made no comment when he saw that I’d chosen as my screen saver an image of Luke tying Noah’s tie. Our houseguests smiled when I informed them that everything was going to be okay, since Entertainment Tonight had revealed that Cyndi Lauper would reunite the chaste lovers on a visit to Oakdale in a special appearance around July Fourth. Sure enough, the wild girl sang them into a passionate embrace, but Noah, his marriage annulled, told Luke that he still couldn’t have sex with him, because he’d enlisted in the Army and was leaving for basic training early the next day.
Jean Passanante, the head writer of As The World Turns, came in for a great deal of criticism from fans, but she and her team had to be doing something right if we were freaking out. And what if Ms. Passanante got offended? Didn’t she or Chris Goutman, the show’s executive producer, have the power to cut down The Boys with a rare tropical disease or a hit-and-run? (Hansis was under contract, but Silbermann wasn’t.) Although I had joined the group, I worried that the chatters on the LukeandNoahFans.com message board were too young for me to commiserate with. A middle-aged queer, I could not break cover, and, as a middle-aged black man, I was embarrassed that these white boys from this melodrama mattered to me anyway.
I could not comfortably explain my staying up late in England to see if LukeVanFan had posted a new excerpt after he’d got home from work over there in Michigan. European soap operas have franker love scenes between their gay characters; cable television in the United States has made familiar a kind of quality family drama that includes the sympathetic gay sibling. We’ve been through clean and self-satisfied Will & Grace, ecstatic and unprecedented Queer As Folk, and when it comes to gay heroes, Omar from The Wire has no peer. How could the production values of daytime television compare with those of prime time? What was As The World Turns doing for gay people that hadn’t been done before?
Frustration had me hooked, no doubt, but Oakdale had also become for me a battleground over how to tell a gay story in the cultural mainstream. “There are many ways to tell a story, realism is just the most dull,” says the sexy gay black soap-opera writer in Richard Glatzer’s sophisticated 1994 film comedy, Grief. Defenders of soap opera sometimes point to the genre’s social usefulness, what it can teach an audience about breast cancer, bulimia, or drug abuse. But what seemed to be going on was a struggle between unseen forces over the direction Luke and Noah’s story should take. Noah couldn’t go through with his enlistment and ended up back on the Snyder farm. Luke told him it was lame to blame his grandmother’s rules for their not having sex.
There seemed little chance of anything more explicit in the daytime slot. The Boys had got back together at Christmas, but on New Year’s Eve, Noah believed he had reason to walk out on Luke’s trembling smile yet again. Then, lo, one day not long after President Obama’s inauguration, Noah kissed Luke in order to shut him up when they were snarling at each other in the town square. They hurried away to hook up offscreen, much to the derision of fans who had hoped to see the fireworks.
To have scripts about them getting gay bashed or being discriminated against provided opportunities to preach tolerance, but what young fans wanted was for Luke and Noah to be treated like other couples on the show. I remember arguments over the image of black people in popular culture: whether to be seen as a social problem isolates from the mainstream the very minority well-meaning people say they want to include. Luke and Noah, however, are emissaries of a generation for which Difference is no longer such a big deal. It is a generation that doesn’t have a problem with the implied equality in not making a fuss over a member of a minority group, in accepting that person alongside everyone else without a big demonstration.
All along, Luke has been shown as surrounded by his loving family, in contrast to the orphaned Noah. Luke’s horse-breeding father doles out relationship advice to his gay son in the kitchen or while they’re chopping wood, no matter what is going on in his own stormy marriage. Luke’s pill-popping, heiress mother flipped when Luke came out three years ago, but she now adores Noah. Luke and Noah aren’t portrayed as rebels. What is subversive about them is their normalcy. When I was young, gay images were either camp, coded, high-brow, or late-night. Although there were middle-class coming-out novels in the 1970s following the rise of the Gay Liberation movement, there wasn’t anything like the free-of-guilt-or-shame Luke and Noah story line anywhere in mainstream culture. Dynasty’s short-lived gay son was, like AIDS, years away.
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