By Patrick Erwin
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.
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.