The Bush administration is holding hands with Christian fundamentalists and attacking the mere mention of sexual orientation wherever possible, from children's entertainment to national health conferences.
In an incident that gained national media attention, James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, spoke to members of Congress at an inaugural banquet in January, about his opposition to a video that was distributed to elementary schools around the country. The video was created for use during "National We Are Family Day" in March and featured numerous popular cartoon characters including Barney, Miss Piggy, and Oscar the Grouch. Dobson opposed the video because a "pledge of tolerance" posted on one of the sponsor's website listed "sexual identity" as a category that deserved sensitivity.1
The media storm that surrounded this story, however, seemed to focus primarily on whether Spongebob Squarepants, a large yellow sea-sponge with arms and legs, was, in fact, gay. Spongebob's sexual orientation was questioned in part because he frequently holds hands with a male friend, a large pink starfish. Some suggested that homosexual characters were inappropriate for children. The show's creator Stephen Hillenburg told the Wall Street Journal that Spongebob was not gay but that the show promotes tolerance of all characters, "everybody is different and the show embraces that…I always think of them as being somewhat asexual." 2
These attacks on cartoon characters are sadly nothing new. Several years ago, Jerry Falwell alleged that the purple teletubby Tinky Winky had "homosexual tendencies" and pointed to the fact that the character always carried a purse as proof. More recently, the Traditional Values Coalition attacked the presence of a transgender character in Shrek 2 and the American Family Association criticized an episode of the Simpsons that featured a gay marriage as "just another show of Hollywood's blatant pro-homosexual bias."3
The Bush Administration recently joined this assault on children's entertainment when the new Education Secretary, Margaret Spelling, attacked an episode of the PBS program Postcards from Buster. In the episode titled "Sugartime," Buster learns about maple sugar when he visits a lesbian couple and their young kids in Vermont. This television show is designed to showcase different types of American families and has a mandate to promote tolerance. Spelling disapproved of the episode, however, and wrote a letter to the President of PBS saying, "many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode."4 She also requested that PBS return the federal funds used to make that episode. As a result of Spelling's criticism, PBS pulled the episode from network distribution. In addition, the Department of Education which provides substantial funding for the television program said it will now take a more hands-on approach when working with the show. (For more information see, January 2005 Policy Update at www.siecus.org/policy/PUpdates/index.html ).
The federal government's reluctance to address the topic of sexual orientation went beyond the world of entertainment last month. Researchers at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center in Newton, MA were directed by their federal funders, HHS' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), to change the title of a workshop that they were scheduled to present at the end of February. The presenters had originally called their workshop "Suicide Prevention Among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Individuals," but were asked by SAMSHA officials to omit the four descriptive words. They were told that it would be "acceptable" to use the term "sexual orientation" instead. Ultimately, the workshop was called by the less-inclusive title, "Suicide Prevention in Vulnerable Populations."
Ron Bloodworth, one of the workshop leaders wrote in an email to colleagues that was later quoted in the Washington Post, "we find this behavior on the part of our government intolerable." He called upon the government to "end this shameful marginalization of any already marginalized at-risk population."5 Similar action was taken by the National Institute of Health (NIH) when, a few years ago, it became public that the NIH might begin to apply "unusual scrutiny" to grants that used key words such as "men who have sex with men," "gay," and "homosexual."6 This change in policy was partly spurred by criticisms from conservative organizations such as Traditional Values Coalition.
"While stories of gay cartoon characters might sound amusing, it is clear that these attacks are in fact very serious," said William Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS. "The far right and the Bush Administration are working in tandem to promote heterosexual marriage as the panacea to cure everything from poverty to AIDS. Their Orwellian tactics, however, explicitly promote discrimination against people on the basis their sexual orientation," Smith continued. "Even more frightening is that in many instances these tactics are working, much to the detriment of our nation's well-being."
- Richard Goldstein, "Cartoon Wars," The Nation, 21 February 2005.
- "Shrek Character is target of traditional values religious group," CJAD, 21 February 2005, accessed 22 February 2004, www.cjad.com.
- Mary Rettig, "Researcher: 'Outing' of Simpsons Character Consistent with Hollywood Bias," Agape Press, 22 February 2005, accessed 22 February 2005, http://headlines.agapepress.org/archive/2/222005b.asp.
- Suzanne Goldenberg, "Buster the bunny pops on his backpack, visits lesbian family and starts row," The Guardian (UK), 28 January 2005, accessed 22 February 2005, http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,1400470,00.html
- Rick Weiss, "Request to Edit Title of Talk on Gays, Suicide Stirs Ire," Washington Post, 16 February 2005, A17.
- Erica Goode, "Certain Words Can Trip Up AIDS Grants, Scientists Say," The New York Times, 18 April 2003, A10, accessed 21 March 2005, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F30613F63C5E0C7B8DDDAD0894DB404482.