BY LYNN SMITH, Los Angeles Times Service
It all started at Christmas, when Luke and Noah, (pictured) the young gay couple on As the World Turns, were about to kiss. Though fans had seen them kiss before, this time the camera panned up to the mistletoe.
Over the next two months, while heterosexual couples were kissing, ''Nuke'' (as fans call the couple) was restricted to holding hands, playing with one another's neck scarves and sharing meaningful looks.
Ensuing complaints of discrimination to CBS and the show's producer and sponsor, Procter & Gamble, had no effect. And the last straw apparently arrived on Valentine's Day, when every other couple but Nuke shared a kiss. They hugged instead.
Online fans began a nationwide media blitz last week to bring attention to the show, which has been twice nominated for an award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
''Presenting a gay couple on television only to relegate them to insulting hugs and slaps on the back is the 21st century version of putting African-Americans on the back of the bus,'' wrote one disgruntled fan named Tony.
GLAAD media spokesman Damon Romine agreed: ``While tremendous strides have been made on soaps, it's clear that we're not at a place where gay and transgender people are treated the same on daytime as they are on prime-time or cable.''
At the same time, the American Family Association urged its members to contact Procter & Gamble to ask that it stop sponsoring ''overtly pro-homosexual television programs.'' The group's research showed Procter & Gamble to be the top sponsor of gay content on network television.
Jeannie Tharrington, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble Productions, denied that the show's writers were discriminating.
She said their story has been unfolding deliberately in a slow manner to keep interest alive.
''That's the thing with soap operas,'' she said. ``They're always trying to keep people wanting more.''