From Hank to Luke and Noah: A Personal Journey

By Patrick Erwinheart

Most soap operas are a unique combination of realism and complete fantasy. But every once in a while, there are characters or storylines that transcend the fictional wall, and spill over into real life — one’s own real life — in a very powerful way.

I’ve been a longtime soap fan, a habit formed on snow days and sick days as a child. I knew then I was different in some ways than other kids, and when I became an adolescent, I realized one of the important differences was that I was gay.

I had some seriously tumultuous years in high school dealing with taunting and teasing from students (and later, from some of the faculty members as well). Watching my “friends” every day on Guiding Light and As The World Turns  became a bit of a lifejacket for me.

Anyone could have looked at these shows and identified with many of the stories and characters. Maybe you longed for parents like Bob and Kim Hughes, or the capacity to be as feisty as Reva Shayne, or as smart as Mac Cory. But no matter how much I loved the characters and the couplings, there was always a little tiny piece missing. I didn’t see people who were quite like me — who felt like me, or loved like me.  When I looked at the screen; I felt like I was peering through the windows of a house, watching a party that I hadn’t been invited to.

So it was a revelation to me when I was watching ATWT one afternoon in my dorm room at college, and there at last was a glimpse of that missing piece. Shy, charming newcomer Hank seemed to be giving off sparks with vulnerable Iva. When they were alone, Hank told Iva what many viewers had suspected: that he was involved with someone else. And something many viewers hadn’t anticipated: that he was involved with another man.

I think I wore out the batteries in the VCR remote rewinding and replaying that scene over and over. In the days before the Internet, before Will and Grace, it was a revelation. If someone could come out of the closet in Oakdale, then it could happen anywhere — even in the subdivision I grew up in. Not long after, I came out to my family. It may not have been directly linked to what I saw on ATWT, but seeing a powerful, positive portrayal of a man just like me was a contributing factor.

luke and noah

In love: Van Hansis as Luke and Jake Silbermann as Noah

Nineteen years later, when portrayals of gay characters and gay life aren’t so rare, we have the romance of Luke and Noah on ATWT.   Is it old hat by now?  Hardly. Neither is it business as usual in television’s treatment of everyday life.  Not yet.

The story has garnered a lot of critical acclaim, but it also has its detractors. Is the media being oversaturated with gay storylines? Isn’t this a story that’s been told before? Is this still an important story, or even an interesting one?  The answers are no … yes but so what? … and absolutely, it is still very important.

I’m the same age as Holden and Lily now, but I still find the romance of these two young men captivating. Part of it is how awkward both of them are, not only around themselves but around each other. In a TV landscape where teen characters speak as if Noel Coward or David Mamet fed them words, Luke and Noah look, talk, and act like confused, awkward  teenagers who are in love.

I know that some longtime ATWT fans have been very vocal about how unhappy they are with this story, and it’s been rumored that Procter & Gamble is getting cold feet. Fans of Luke and Noah worry, and probably rightly so, when they see scenes like a recent one in which the camera panned off-screen when the characters were about to kiss.

To me, that makes it incredibly important to tell a story like this. Not to advance a social agenda, or take a particular stand on an issue. But to tell the truth. What I have always loved about serialized drama — when it’s done well! — is its unique capability to capture us as we are, and to let people peel back the layers of a character like an onion, and see all their facets and faults. Once you know someone, it’s much easier to understand them — and far harder to hate them.

And in little towns and big cities across North America, I suspect that there are young men watching Luke and Noah, and breathing a sigh of relief and recognition that a little piece of their life is playing out every weekday afternoon.

Comments

  1. Blake says:

    Great article Patrick! I agree that it’s sad that the P&G soaps avoided gay storylines, especially gay characters (on contract!) and couples all these years. I am sure ATWT gets a lot of hate mail regarding this storyline. There are a lot of older viewers that are regular viewers and they aren’t as open and accepting as younger viewers. Younger viewers are seeing gay characters more and more, from The Real World, Will and Grace, Sex in the City, etc.

    I hope that ATWT does not give in to the pressure and keeps Luke and Noah together and continues to give them story. Hopefully they’ll be able to let them go further in their relationship, and no more camera panning!

  2. Brian says:

    Great article, Patrick. I’ve been a fan of soaps since I was, literally, in diapers (specifically thanks to my mom’s obsession with Holden and Lily, Josh and Reva). The storyline between Luke and Noah has been a breath of fresh air, especially when compared with all of the other ridiculous plotlines that have been on most other soaps during 2007. Actually, a lot of the adults that I know are fully open with the “Nuke” storyline and all of us hope that both ATWT and P&G will stand strong by this storyline. Hopefully with less and less censorship. It is 2008, for crying out loud.

  3. john says:

    Your article hit so close to home for me. I am a forty-five-year-old gay man living in Brooklyn,which is as close to Oakdale as you can get. I want to start a fan club,website blog for gay men who love soaps.

    I started watching when I was twelve. The taunting in school that I suffered through led to my addiction of soaps. I tape every show everyday with SoapNet and CBS locally. People say to me, “How do you watch all the shows?” I fast forward every day through all the people I do not like. I get up at 4 am every day for my job that involves very hard physical work for nineteen years.

    Gay men who are forty and over have a coonection through these soaps. Luke and Noah is something we would have killed for in high school. Guys my age had Judith Light as our role model of strength, courage and vitality on OLTL from 1977-1982. I cut so many classes in high school just to see her incredible performances. She showed us that we could survive anything. I find it so ironic that she quit the show when AIDS was first starting in New York. Thank God I never got it, but our lives as gay men beginning in 1982 at twenty was a very scary time, but thank God for my soaps. This generation of gay men has no idea of discrimination or fear. They are very lucky.

  4. James says:

    The Luke and Noah storyline is the best thing going on ATWT. And the ratings seem to indicate that too since ATWT is holding its own ratings-wise while so many others are slipping further and further.

    When I saw the latest ratings with ATWT at a 2.3, while AMC, OLTL, GL and Days all had a 1.9, I found myself wondering if they’d be following suit with gay storylines. You know what a copycat medium daytime is.

    And that 2.3 also had me wondering if theres a gay contengent that’s keepng the ratings up because of the storyline.

    The best thing about Luke and Noah is the awkward moments, the hesitations and uncertainty. That”s so true to life. And so rarely seen on soaps. Makes Luke and Noah seem far more real.

    Patrick says: James, I think you’re on the right track in terms of the ratings. ATWT has been really strong ratings-wise and I also think Luke and Noah are at least part of the reason. Their initial kiss drew something like a quarter of a million hits on YouTube. And most of those eyeballs were in the prized 18-to-34 demographic!

    I think outside of any discussion of Luke and Noah’s sexuality, it’s still a fresh story. Most soap cliches are so old they have whiskers. I hope that the shows don’t necessarily copy this story per se, but instead realize that keeping things fresh (and surprising us every once in a while) is a good thing!

    .

  5. bakedghoti says:

    As a queer fan of soap operas, I am not a fan of Luke/Noah. There are too many problematic areas:

    1. Inconsistent plotting. Luke’s paralysis was cliched. The storyline seemed to be thrown at them since the acting of both VH and JS was/is very limited to say the least.

    2. Noah’s coming out was treated as an afterthought. Also, JS is an atrocious actor. He’s a Drake Hogestyn in the making. DH’s signature move was the arched eyebrow, JS’s signature move is the constipated face.

    3. Luke was butting into conversations between Noah and Col. Mayer that were too sensitive. He appeared very unsympathetic.

    4. Noah using Maddie as a beard. Yes he was sexually confused. But he still used Maddie while making out with Luke. He took advantage of Maddie and was very unsympathetic. Luke was the same by making out with his “friend’s” boyfriend. Both Luke and Noah were depicted as selfish users.

    5. No racial diversity in the storyline.

    6. The huge media blitz that’s being heaped on the actors and the storyline merely because it’s a gay male love story. Certain websites and people have been pushing for this storyline to succeed merely to ensure that there will be more gay storylines in Daytime while ignoring major flaws in the acting and storyline itself. The bias and favoritism towards the actors/storylines is too blatant. VH might as well write his Emmy speech since he’s a virtual lock due to all the media attention.

    The only way to rectify Luke/Noah is to recast Noah. Hire an actor of color as the recasted Noah so that the storyline has racial diversity. And find an actor of color that can actually act. JS is awful.

    Patrick says: Bakedghoti, thanks for your comments. We all have actors we like and dislike, so I can appreciate that you have some strong opinions about Van Hansis and Jake Silbermann.

    Storywise, I agree that the paralysis was cliched. I thought the Noah/Luke/Maddie triangle, however, was very true-to-life and well done. I have a bisexual friend who is Noah’s age and in college, and his experiences were very similar. Young men and women at that age range are exploring each other (regardless of gender) and sometimes it’s messy. That, to me, is much more believable than Gwen and Will being so baby crazy.

    This story might seem timid to an LGBT person who is used to seeing more dynamic portrayals of us in the media. I share some of that frustration. All I can say is, daytime is getting better with each attempt at telling this story. I had some of the same concerns you’ve voiced with the Bianca story on AMC. For me, Luke having an acknowledged relationship is an important step.

    Racial diversity in daytime has become nearly non-existent, so I agree with you there. That, in and of itself, could be its own column. I think with the ratings freefall shows had a big panic and became very safe (and very boring). Some shows (like GH) seem to be so anti-female it’s as if feminism never happened. It’s a shame, because I think people always respond to what’s REAL.

  6. Oakdalian says:

    Bakedghoti is totally on the money. Silbermann’s body was the only important factor in his hiring, apparently. Racial diversity is a long shot, even for shows with a rep for being open and honest about sex, and that’s not exclusive to daytime. Queer As Folk and Sex and the City were lily white except for the rare story arc that wasn’t meant to last. I wouldn’t count on Bonnie kissing Holden anytime soon, and Dallas will probably never find love until a black actress is cast.

    Luke and Noah have definitely gotten premature praise simply for having the only gay plot on soaps right now. Having it called the best one on ATWT must be an unintentional joke. Until the day they first kissed, it seemed to be an attraction in Luke’s mind. At this point they need to move on and just be together if that’s truly going to happen. They need to get over their timid communication too. When these two are ALONE they seem completely afraid of each other. If a couple can’t even kiss when they have total privacy, why should I believe in their relationship?

  7. Skylar says:

    A couple of points:

    John said, “This generation of gay men has no idea of discrimination or fear.” While this is not the forum to discuss issues of social discrimination, as somebody who works with LGBT first-years at a southern American university, I can tell you that they face more discrimination than people realise or is reported. Most of it, however, is suffered in silence. Perhaps things are better in larger American cities, and I know they’re better back in England (where I call home), but in the American heartland things are still sadly backwards.

    That is why characters like Luke and Noah (and Bianca, Maggie, and Zoe on AMC) are so vitally important to this medium. Soaps, like no other genre, can reach into the hearts and minds of people that might not otherwise be reached. I agree with Patrick that any problems the Nuke storyline may have are overshadowed by the importance of this story being told in opening a door to making our medium more realistic and honest.

    That being said, I take issue with bakedghoti’s critique. While I agree that no River Phoenix does Jake Silbermann make, he’s still a gifted young actor who is just cutting his teeth professionally. His performances have gotten stronger as time has gone on, and I expect him to continue to do nothing but improve. As for Van Hansis … this man is a truly gifted actor and words cannot express my admiration for his talent.

    Soap cliches happen, and whilst Luke’s paralysis is one of those cliches, it’s part of what makes our genre so… soapy. Beards are a fact of gay life, and that’s part of the whole “honesty” thing that soaps need to reclaim. And as for the lack of racial diversity, Patrick is completely right in that the entire medium is lacking in diversity of any kind, but you can’t fault the Luke and Noah story for that. And just because this gay storyline is an interracial gay storyline … we’re just getting too critical there.

    The fact that this story is so important was never more apparent to me than now. A couple days ago, on an AMC fan MySpace site (some of you may know it), the moderator as well as a couple posters were advocating bringing Bianca back and pairing her with a man — suggestions ranged from Zarf, who didn’t have hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery because he realised Bianca would love him for him (as if Zoe’s transgenderism had anything to do with Bianca), to bringing her back and pairing her with JR. The moderator suggested that because Eden Riegel has chemistry with Jacob Young the show should pair them and damn the gay community and not pander to “a specific fanbase.” Never mind established scientific and psychological thought that you can’t simply “switch off” being gay. My God… it’s 2008 and this is still an issue?

    That’s why stories like these are important. And when bigoted fans who feel like any semblance of a “gay” storyline is “pandering to a specific fanbase” start getting up in arms, it’s when LGBT fans and our allies should also galvanise ourselves for a fight. And it’s why telling these stories is so important.

    (One final note: I remember ABC having a similar backlash on the heels of Bianca coming out. She went on to become one of the most beloved characters in the show’s history, albeit never having a significant romantic relationship onscreen. Let’s hope that the former becomes true for Nuke whilst the latter does not happen and P&G doesn’t shy away from telling this story openly and honestly. If it does, it may well signal the death knell for American soap operas, as the gay audience may be the last, best hope for the continued life of soaps.)

  8. Jay says:

    I give credit to ATWT that they have made it this far with Luke and Noah’s story.

    I think the first LGBT story that I can remember (from my reading of old SOAP OPERA DIGESTS) was Devin’s lesbian story on AMC in the late 70s. Since then LGBT stories have been few and far between with ABC Daytime leading the charge. ATWT’s Hank in the late 80s led to Ryan Phillipe’s Billy Douglas on OLTL in 1992, then we had AMC’s Ben Jourgenson as Kevin”, Christ Bruno as Michael circa 1996 followed by Lucy Coe’s friend John Hanley on GH, then we had the AMC lesbians of Bianca, Lena, and Maggie. Next up was Eric Walsh on OLTL (I don’t know the actor’s name), then came Ben Hogestyn as GH’s Lucas with a smattering of lesbians, gays, down low characters on PASSIONS. Now we have Luke and Noah. Can anyone think of anymore?

    So in about 30 years since we saw the first gay character on daytime we have roughly 15 LGBT characters on soaps. Hmmmm. How many rapists have been on soaps in that time (many having been redeemed into leading men), serial killers, baby snatchers, mobsters, murderers, etc? Weird that Americans have more problems with a love story between two people of the same sex (hence the limited characters over the years), but they don’t have problems with criminal acts. They keep tuning in for those stories.

    Other than the AMC lesbians I believe all the other characters were ditched way too quickly. They were all used to get press and then buzz from the audience, but the powers that be ended the stories so early. In a world where a third of teen suicides are LGBT youth I wonder how many people would be alive today if they could have seen Billy Douglas living in Llanview for years or Michael Delaney still teaching in Pine Valley. Sad.

    Keep up the good work ATWT. I hope to tune into ATWT in 10 years from now and see Luke yelling at Noah for being out of shape and not apreciating him anymore. Of course this would happen after Luke and Noah have battled evil twins and amnesia since they already had the soap staple of paralysis.

  9. Carl says:

    “VH might as well write his Emmy speech since he’s a virtual lock due to all the media attention.”

    How many people were saying that last year, only to see Van Hansis lose?

    “Certain websites and people have been pushing for this storyline to succeed merely to ensure that there will be more gay storylines in Daytime while ignoring major flaws in the acting and storyline itself.”

    Is that a bad thing? It’s up to the individual viewer to talk about the flaws of the storyline. There are almost no gay stories on daytime. Is it somehow the duty of “certain websites and people” to put the story down when there are already many, many people out there who are probably giving ATWT awful comments about a gay storyline?

    “Having it called the best one on ATWT must be an unintentional joke.”

    Have you seen the other stories on ATWT? They are all disasters. Just like most of ATWT’s recent casting decisions. Jake Silbermann is Olivier compared to the new Chris.

    One thing that, as a gay man, I often notice with the gay community is that we often criticize and look for flaws in anything that represents us. If gay characters never make mistakes, then they are slammed as being “unrealistic”. If they do make mistake, then they are slammed as “selfish users”. Luke kissed Noah once before telling Maddie the truth, so he’s a “selfish user.” Never mind that this is typical of a soap storyline. Luke and Noah should have been perfect angels.

    This is part of the reason why gay stories are hard to find on TV. The people who hate gays complain vocally. The people who support gays are sometimes too busy finding flaws or taking the characters for granted to really care.

    And that is one reason why this story has gone from groundbreaking to more and more rarely shown, more and more asexual.

  10. HunterForrester says:

    Great article; wow! Good work, and ditto. With me it was OLTL’s Billy Douglas.. but I loved the Hank story, too. Sweet Doug Marland was a soap master, wasn’t he, but even that story was cut too short. But regarding your point, I don’t think any fans are unhappy with Nuke — they are complaining about their lack of screen time and the passive-aggressive writing. This story was so good in the beginning, but they dropped the ball, yes, and it’s obvious it’s on purpose. They top all the fan polls, and are helping the show get mainstream attention, yet ATWT all of a sudden, and mysteriously they got cold feet. As if they didn’t realize they had to consummate a love story at the end of the day! ATWT is great now, but it’s still lacking finesse and balance. And the ratings are up since Noah burst on the scene, I don’t get it. Someone high up must be having second thoughts because there is no reason for being cowardly regarding this story. I wonder if they are scared about the inevitable sex scene that has to happen. I never care about watching sex scenes, I much prefer seeing the love, unless, of course it’s Katie and Brad. Then bring it on! But I will say this: if ATWT is scared about treating Nuke equally all of a sudden by scaring viewers away, why does it rely on offensive storylines like murder, crystal meth, baby ‘nappings, sex tapes, and self-respecting women turning into hookers?

  11. Fabobug says:

    Hi Patrick,
    I’m late to this discussion, but had to weigh in. I remember in 1995, Alan Carter said in Entertainment Weekly, “There are more people on daytime that are possessed by the Devil than gay.” I am happy to see this has changed.

    I am a 36-year-old living in Manhattan (just over the bridge from John above). And like John, I found solace and hope in soaps while enduring the daily hardships of being a gay teen. The trials and tribulations of Kimberly Brady (the amazing Patsy Pease) in the 80′s helped me realized one can triumph over prejudice and social stigma.

    Admittedly, I am not a huge fan of ATWT, but I am thrilled that it has thrived in the ratings with such a “controversial” storyline. Do the teens out there get as much inspiration and hope from Noah and Luke as others of us did from Kimberly Brady or Karen Wolek or Marlena Evans or Eden Capwell? Darned if I know, but I’m sure glad there’s a choice.

  12. Giada says:

    First of all, thanks for sharing your personal story. It ‘s about time soaps had gay characters in a romantic relationship. I do not watch ATWT, but that kind of storylines make me wanna start following it, and with what you said about the way characters relate to each other all the more.

  13. lynn says:

    Also late to this discussion. I do think that P&G and CBS may be getting cold feet; some of the stuff posted after the kiss was positively ugly, in particular on the CBS board, where much to their credit, they let everybody vent their spleen, no matter how vitriolic. On the other hand, this story very much evokes soap couples of old and Agnes Nixon’s sage advice: “make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait,” although TPTB will need to sh** or get off the pot soon.

    Regarding the “missing piece,” mine was also filled in fully on ATWT. I began watching soaps in the mid-50s, and as a child growing up in a Italian-American working class family, I didn’t see any reflection of class and ethnicity in soaps until OLTL premiered in 1968. But it wasn’t until the late 80s, when Doug Marland brought Jessica Griffin’s extended family onto the Oakdale canvas, that I saw a story right out of my own life. Jessica always wanted something more than the South Bronx had to offer; she became the first in her family to go to college. When her family appeared, all the long-simmering resentments her ambitions had created in her parents, her father in particular, and brother came to a boil: “Just because you went to college don’t make you better than us” and “Why isn’t what we have good enough for you” were frequent refrains in the Griffin household, as they had been in my own. I once told Doug that watching the exchanges between Jessica and her father made me feel as though he (Doug) had been eavesdropping on the my arguments with my father growing up. It’s never been much of a secret that Doug Marland was gay, but I always wondered how much of his growing up was also reflected in the Griffin family.

    Patrick says: Lynn, it’s great to hear from you! Your comments about ATWT say a lot about the magic of Doug Marland’s work. It’s perhaps hard to explain to people who have never been lucky enough to see it….but he was so good at capturing those human moments as if he HAD been eavesdropping, and making them so true-to-life without ever being cliched. (You’re very lucky to have met him — as someone who would have loved to be a soap writer, I wish I’d have had just an hour to ask him about how he wrote and how his creative process worked!)

    I know that it’s often suggested that the Synders are a lot like Doug’s family, and that Seth Synder was a stand-in for Doug. He wrote about those relationships so eloquently. I think Seth loved his family and yet wanted to do more than be on the farm, and I know I’ve had that struggle when I left home.

    I also think that those elements — the Ps and Qs of what make a character a fully formed person — is what’s missing from many soaps now. The narrative action is still there, but when we don’t understand who that person is, or what dreams and ideas they have, we’re just not as invested in the outcome.

    Thanks again for your comments!

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