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http://www.afterelton.com/archive/elton/TV/2006/6/atwt.html

As the World Turns Keeps Gay Teen Front and Center

by Danny Riendeau, June 20, 2006

Late last year on As the World Turns, the character of Luke Snyder (Van Hansis) came out as a gay teenager. Gay viewers, used to mostly seeing gay characters in minor plotlines or portrayed as little more than walking billboards for some “issue” (think AIDS or intolerance) wondered if Luke's storyline might be something different.

It turns that was indeed the case, as Luke's storyline has been integral to the show during the past six weeks.

Since Luke's parents learned he was gay, viewers have watched the family struggle to cope with the news. His mother Lily (Martha Byrnes) has had a more difficult time than Luke's father, Holden (Jon Hensley). While Lily still clearly loved her son, she was confused and fearful for his future. She also wondered what she had done wrong--a common sentiment among parents. Holden had suspected the truth for some time, giving him time to adjust to the news and he has been his son's advocate ever since.

Luke himself has struggled with his mother's less than positive reaction as well as his own conflicts over who else to come out to and what his life will be like now. Overall, however, the show's treatment of his sexuality has been positive, realistic, and quite powerful.

As each character has learned the truth about Luke, their reactions have been almost universally positive without being heavy-handed or treacly. Nor has the show shied away from Luke's sexuality. After learning Luke was gay, his cousin asked if he were seeing anyone, and Luke himself used the word “love” in describing his feelings for another boy.

This being a soap opera, complications must ensue. Enter Damian (Paolo Seganti), Luke's biological father. Upon learning his son is gay, Damian feigns acceptance, but is lying. He sets about manipulating events so Luke will attend a “deprogramming” camp to turn him straight. He even tricks Lily into going along with it, leading to tragic results.

This plot may not sound especially promising as the whole idea of “deprogramming camp” reeks of heavy-handed right-wing rhetoric. But the show's fair-minded treatment of the issue is refreshing. Those in charge of ATWT clearly disapprove of such places, making it perfectly clear who the “villains” are in this story.

Mr. Kreeger (the character who works for the deprogramming camp) is accompanied by eerie music as he uncomfortably tries to coerce Luke into going, even using guilt and high pressure tactics (“We don't have much time, the van is waiting outside!”) to get Luke to come along. There is a palpable sense of dread and discomfort in these scenes, especially as Luke hides upstairs and calls his dad for help.

Likewise, Damian is met with the same “dark” treatment; while on the phone with Mr. Kreeger he angrily exclaims, “I want my son straight by the end of the summer!” He also tries to strong-arm Lily into thinking that Luke is “confused” or “going through a phase”, using her fears for her son to manipulate her.

Lily believes this at first, but after she realizes the true nature of the camp, she immediately confronts Damian: “This isn't about self-esteem, it's about brainwashing kids!” and then comes to accept Luke more fully: “My boy is not broken, whether he's gay or not, he's still my son and I love him!”

Later, Damian uses the dirtiest trick in the book when he plays the family card: “… a wedding, grandchildren, isn't that what you want for him? Just wait until he does something he can't take back.” To which Lily defiantly replies, “Like what, fall in love with a boy?”

This sort of strong, positive statement has been typical of the show throughout Luke's storyline. One scene in particular highlights this, despite the fact that it entails nothing more than a conversation between two family members. When Holden tells his cousin Jack that Luke is gay, Jack merely responds with a very level “ok.” and then inquires, “Luke knows you accept him, right?”

Again, this is a straight man talking openly to another straight man about his gay son, and both are fully accepting. While the scene plays out a bit more delicately than if they were discussing, say, football, the fact is that both men acknowledge that being gay is a perfectly okay thing to be.

If viewers harbored any doubt the producers of As the World Turns would shy away from the more controversial storylines presented by Luke's coming out, the “deprogramming” plotline shows that is not the case. Indeed, few things are more controversial right now in American society than the issue of gay teenagers. Studies show young people are coming out at younger and younger ages and demanding greater acceptance in their schools.

But some elements of the religious right have vigorously resisted this growing tolerance. Ex-gay groups tout their ability to cure “gay” teenagers. Late last summer much of the internet was riveted by the case of “Zach”, a gay teenager forced to attend the exact same sort of camp to which Luke was nearly sent.

In high schools across the country, gay straight alliances have faced bans in some schools and attempts have been made to ban them in entire states. Books about gay teenagers have also faced controversy in public schools. Just last year a Washington State high school banned Geography Club by Brent Hartinger, and then reinstated it. Hartinger's book is hardly the only example of this.

The fact that ATWT is willing to take on this subject matter in such a pro-gay fashion truly does mark a turning point in the portrayal of gays on television. There is no concession here to the idea that gays and lesbians are damaged or controversial in and of themselves. Indeed, the writers could hardly make it anymore clear that the people who need to change are the ones with homophobic views.

And viewers appear to agree.

One of the most encouraging aspects of this storyline is the reaction from ATWT fans. The comments regarding Luke, his sexuality, his family, and the entire storyline have been overwhelmingly supportive and pro-gay. Remember, these are daytime soap opera fans and members of the general TV watching public, not a demographic especially known for cheering on gay characters. But cheer they have.

Fans largely accept Luke as a likeable and noble character. Likewise, viewers commend Holden for being so accepting of his son. The ex-gay camp counselor is ridiculed, having been dubbed “Creepy Kreeger” and many fans have rejected the notion that any such camp has the right to exist.

Damian is decried as insensitive and ignorant. Of course, some of the language thrown around is as melodramatic as the show itself, but the message has been almost uniformly positive. The fact that such a mainstream audience has been so receptive to this character and his story is an incredibly positive sign of change.

Luke is not the only gay teen to have appeared on daytime television. General Hospital currently features Ben Hogestyn as Lucas, a gay teen, and All My Children recently featured Eden Riegel as Bianca, a teenaged lesbian in a rather prominent storyline that spanned five years. Like Luke, the portrayal of both of these characters was positive, with sympathetic characters beseeching others to be tolerant and accepting of them.

However, both Lucas and Bianca are somewhat more typical gay soap characters in that both are victims of violence: Lucas is gay-bashed and this attack is what prompts him to come out to his family. Bianca is raped by her lover's jealous ex-boyfriend, and even becomes pregnant with his child.

Also in keeping with the trend of gay characters having lesser roles, both have all but disappeared from their respective series; Bianca left town with Maggie (her friend-turned girlfriend) and makes only occasional appearances on the show nowadays. Lucas has more or less become a background character, acting more often than not as the “gay best friend”, without a romantic life or storyline of his own.

Although at times handled a bit heavy handed, Luke's story marks a milestone in gay soap opera fare, in terms of its centrality to the show and the acceptance demonstrated by both the show's fans and creators. And that is a storyline gay fans hope to cheer for years to come.
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