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The New Education Secretary vs. Vermont’s Lesbians


First it was the Rev. Jerry Falwell describing purple Teletubbie Twinky Winky as a gay role model, because Twinky Winky carries a purse. Then it was Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson, in a Washington dinner talk attended by Republican congressmen, accusing SpongeBob Square Pants of promoting a homosexual lifestyle to your kids. SpongeBob, you see, whose show is the highest rated children’s program on television, holds hands with his starfish friend Patrick. One wants to hear Bugs Bunny announce Ta da da da dathat’s all, folks! But no, folks, no, it gets wackier! The war on allegedly homo-friendly cartoon characters continues as the newly anointed Secretary of Education lashes out at PBS’s “Postcards from Buster.” Targeting six to ten year old kids, it features an eight year old animated bunny named Buster, who travels around the country with his airline pilot dad. It includes animated and live-action segments and shows, in the words of a producer, “the array of American life that children experience.”

What’s the offence of the nonprofit PBS, which is partially funded by the Department of Education? A Buster episode called “Sugartime!” This cartoon, which teaches children about Vermont’s famed maple sugar, has Buster visiting with Karen Pike and Gillian Pieper and their children in the Green Mountain State. Karen and Gillian are not cartoons, but real live lesbians.

The new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is deeply upset about this, and in one of her very first acts in office she’s sent off an indignant missive to PBS chief executive officer Pat Mitchell. “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode,” she declares. “Congress’ and the Department’s purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television.”

This kind of subject matter. Would that Spellings was talking about sugar consumption, which many educated parents think encourages hyperactivity. But no, that’s not the problem. The secretary isn’t anti-sugar, just anti-lesbian. So she’s asked PBS to:

(1) remove the Department of Education seal from the program, lest the department be shamed by the association;

(2) warn member stations of the lesbian content of the cartoon so they can review it before airing it; and

(3) refund DOE money so as to prevent “embroiling” the department “in a controversy that will only hurt” it.

In other words, Ms. Spellings wants PBS to abjectly apologize for revealing to our children that there are happy hospitable lesbians in Vermont (a state that happens to recognize same-sex civil unions), and for encouraging tolerance and objectivity conflicting with the homophobia of “many parents.” She wants to tell the many parents involved in same-sex unions that her department is definitely not their department, and that the subject matter of their lifestyles, which so disgusts the random homophobe, offends the government as well. The Bush administration officially champions the view that same-sex unions threaten heterosexual marriage, which has to be defended against the looming mushroom cloud of sodomic sex. It follows that Buster, should he be shown as a gay-friendly bunny, might also threaten this lynchpin of the social order.

PBS to its eternal discredit announced it would not distribute the episode to its 349 stations. “We recognize this is a sensitive issue,” said vice president of media relations Lea Sloan, “and we wanted to make sure that parents had an opportunity to introduce this subject to their children in their own time.” As though the airing of the show would somehow infringe on parental rights or interfere with their plans to explain lesbianism to their kids next July.

Can it get more stupid than this? Yes, actually. School boards might, in deference to respectably homophobic parents, act to ban the gay-straight alliance organizations that currently exist in many public high schools. Such groups, and the open discussion they promote, have probably contributed to the decline of gay teen suicides over the last decade. The Department of Education could urge health class instructors to avoid any non-judgmental discussion of homosexuality, lest such treatment of the topic insensitively offend the “many parents” who believe, as some of them proclaim, that “God Hates Fags” and their militant homosexual agenda. The attacks on Twinky Winky, SpongeBob and Buster may presage a more systematic homophobic project. They would be comical were they not dead serious, endorsed not only by the fundamentalist fringe but those who steer the state.

It’s worth noting that the Bush administration, while catering to those who find same-sex relations a matter of shame, methodically deploys sexual shame in its torture chambers in Iraq. Men and boys imprisoned for the crime of opposing the invasion of their country are forced to simulate homosexual acts, forbidden by Islam, while sniggering foreign thugs, male and female, catch it all on tape.

Rush Limbaugh may laugh this all off as frathouse tomfoolery, but it’s actually carefully calculated evil. As one academic explained to Seymour Hersh, a book entitled The Arab Mind, by the anthropologist Raphael Patai, is the “bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” The book emphasizes the deep shame attached to the public exposure of homosexual behavior in Arab societies. “How very useful!” thinks the torturer, methodically exploiting this shame as a matter of policy, to humiliate and break the detained, who are told that if they don’t cooperate the photos and videos will be shown to their families and neighbors.

I understand that Boston’s WGBH will air “Sugartime!” in March. I hope it provokes a storm of moral outrage.


Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

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