Will Bert and Ernie Be Next?

How do you deal with the politics of homophobia? Do you ignore it in the hope that it will go away? Do you stand up to it, thus giving it legitimacy? Or do you treat it with the laughter it really does deserve?

"Family values" right-wing pressure groups are currently obsessed with the supposed "homosexual agenda" of children's cartoon characters like Buster Bunny and SpongeBob Squarepants. Will Bert and Ernie be next? After all, Sesame's Street's favorite same-sex Muppet duo share a bedroom and bicker like any other long-married couple.

SpongeBob, an animated sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea and sometimes hold hands with a starfish named Patrick, stands accused of promoting a homosexual agenda by Dr. James Dobson, director of "Focus on the Family," a self described Christian organization dedicated to preserving "traditional values and the institution of the family."

Spongebob is one of one hundred children's characters, including Big Bird, Barney, and Winnie the Pooh, featured in a video titled "We Are Family" (based on the 1970s disco hit of that name) to be released in March by the We Are Family Foundation. Separate from the video, the foundation promotes a "tolerance pledge," encouraging kids to accept all people regardless of their race, religion, ethnic background and sexual identity. Sexual identity is what inspired Dobson to see a homosexual conspiracy. In a statement to the magazine Christianity Today, his organization explains that "Dr. Dobson is concerned that these popular animated personalities are being exploited by an organization that's determined to promote the acceptance of homosexuality among our nation's youth." The idea of tolerance is OK, Dr. Dobson seems to imply, as long as it does not include people whose way of life he does not like.

Buster Bunny stars in a PBS cartoon show, "Postcards from Buster," and also got into trouble for promoting the "homosexual agenda." Buster travels around the country meeting children of different backgrounds. A recent episode featured a child with two mothers (who also happened to be Vermont farmers). In one of her first acts as the newly appointed Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings demanded that PBS pull the episode. "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode," she wrote PBS, which pulled the program. Education is important, Spellings seems to suggest, but parents need to protect their children from information that challenges their own personal beliefs. Do Buster's young fans care about sexual identity? It's the parents with the obsession. The kids were likely more interested in watching the moms make maple syrup.

All this would be funny were it not so scary for being real. Why are some heterosexual adults so obsessed with homosexuality? For some politicians it's mere cynicism, exploiting voter obsessions in order to gain political power. For others it's a subjective reading of the Bible or their own personal definition of family values. A familiar argument is that homosexuality is a mental illness that leads to sad and broken lives. Right-wingers feel free to verbally assault homosexuals and even want to write them out of the Constitution. Then they call homosexuals "social misfits" for being hurt and angry.

It's the Constitution, not the Bible that sets the rules for governance in the United States. And the Constitution guarantees all Americans "equal protection of the laws," a fair reading of which would include the legal protection of same-sex marriage.

And family values? Maya Keyes, the daughter of former Republican presidential and senatorial candidate Alan Keyes, came out as a lesbian this past week. According to Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist who interviewed her, her father, an important figure among right-wing advocates of family values, threw her out of his house and cut off her college tuition.

Mostly it's fear that energizers the homophobic minority. These folks are afraid that proselytizing homosexuals will seduce their children into the gay and lesbian "lifestyle." But pedophilia is as prevalent among heterosexuals as it is among homosexuals, if not more so. Predatory males are the problem, not homosexuality.

Kinsey and other students of human sexuality have said that individuals exist along a spectrum of sexual identities. Because of the Darwinian principle of natural selection (i.e., survival of the species) heterosexuality dominates. (With modern reproductive technology, however, the ability to procreate is no longer evolutionarily decisive). Those who fall within the middle of the spectrum are either bisexual or confused and scared. The latter are, perhaps, the ones who can be "persuaded" to change their sexual identity -- from homo to heterosexuality. But there are also men and women who struggle to deny their homosexuality, marry and raise children, and then come to the realization that heterosexuality doesn't work for them. Issues of sexual identity are deeply personal and often painful. They should not be turned into political footballs or public manifestations of other people's obsessions.

Homophobes claim that homosexuality undermines marriage, which they call the bedrock of civilization. Senator Rich Santorum (R-PA), advocating for the constitutional amendment, warned Congress that "the future of our country hangs in the balance because the future of marriage hangs in the balance."

Vermont doesn't have gay marriage but in the past four years it has hosted the celebrations of about 7000 homosexual civil unions. Has any opposite-sex marriage been jeopardized by these civil unions? Has the institution of marriage been in any way compromised? Immaturity, the pressures inherent in two-job families, and physical, psychological, and substance abuse are among the many causes of family breakdown. I challenge opponents of civil unions or same-sex marriage to produce any evidence that homosexuality threatens the family unit.

So how does one respond to this unnatural obsession with other people's sexual identities? When I titled this column, I was trying to be funny, thinking that it was possible to laugh homophobia into the closet. But as I researched the activities of homophobes and their organizations, I really started to worry. Are Bert and Ernie next?

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