'Family values' and the censorship of Buster the bunny

Unfortunately, newly-appointed Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and the rest of the Bush Administration seem to have missed the memo. They’ve been talking about my family (my mother and her partner have been together for over a decade) for years now, saying my family is not as good as their families are. But in the past few weeks, their attacks have become crueler, more destructive and more targeted at families with two moms instead of one.

Many of you may be familiar with the cartoon character Arthur the Aardvark, who has a friend named Buster the Bunny. On PBS, Buster now has his own show, “Postcards from Buster,” in which he travels all over the United States to visit real children and their families and, in live-action segments, he shows what their lives are like. On his blog, http://pbskids.org/buster, I read about some of the places Buster has been to and the people he’s met, and I was pleased to see that he’s interacted with a Muslim family, a Chinese-American family, a Puerto Rican family, a Mormon family and even an Evangelical Christian family! PBS has certainly been taking its federal mandate to highlight diversity seriously.

The Federal Government, on the other hand, has not been taking its own mandate so seriously. On January 25, Secretary Spellings wrote an open letter to PBS denouncing an upcoming episode of “Postcards” from Buster entitled “Sugartime!,” in which Buster visits Vermont to learn about treats you can make with sap from maple trees. If you guessed it wasn’t the maple syrup that got Spellings’ blood sugar up, you’re absolutely right. In the episode in question, the family Buster visits is headed by two lesbian moms instead of the “traditional” one mom and one dad. (We all know that more than half of all marriages end in divorce, but that’s neither here nor there.) In her letter, Spellings decreed that the episode was unfit for children to watch, that parents shouldn’t have to let their kids be exposed to the “lifestyles” depicted in the episode, and that PBS must not only pull the episode from the air, but also return the federal funding that was used to make it. PBS complied, although it insisted it had reached the decision on its own, before Ms. Spellings’ letter. PBS also refused to distribute the episode to its 349 affiliates. According to The New York Times, 39 of those affiliates have since petitioned and gotten the right to broadcast the episode anyway, stations in places you’d expect-mostly urban, liberal areas.

Fanatical homophobia is truly out of the closet now. Because of Spellings’ rude and inappropriate letter, children of gay families will be ridiculed more than ever before; Spellings just can’t seem to stop talking smack about their families. What is a teacher supposed to say to the school bully on the playground who picks on the kid with two moms when the Secretary of Education is doing the same thing on CNN? How can groups and governments that claim to be “pro-family” so blatantly say that a family with two loving, committed parents is bad for children? And, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich pointed out in his column last Sunday, if kids shouldn’t be shown footage of lesbian partners, the Republican Party should not have allowed television stations to broadcast campaign events at which Mary Cheney and her partner were present. After all, some parents wouldn’t want their children exposed to that kind of lifestyle.

However, even if you agree with Ms. Spellings’ deluded assessment of this particular issue, there’s a larger problem at stake here. PBS is a publicly-owned broadcasting station funded by public tax dollars and private donations. Do we really want members of the federal government telling our nation’s public television station what it can and cannot broadcast, what it can and cannot use its federal funding to create? Isn’t such an act clearly disregarding the spirit of-oh, I don’t know-the First Amendment? Thank goodness most stations don’t have to live in fear of losing their federal funding, or we could kiss “Will and Grace,” “Six Feet Under,” “Queer as Folk,” “The L Word,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and dozens of other shows good-bye.

For an administration that claims to be in favor of personal rights and freedoms, it sure doesn’t seem to trust parents to be responsible for what they allow their children to watch on TV. When President Bush was asked about the Buster controversy in an interview on CSPAN, he replied, “They put an ‘off’ button on the TV for a reason. Turn it off.” But the real point is this: More than not trusting individuals to monitor their children’s TV-watching, this government doesn’t trust individuals to make their own choices on how to raise their families. Instead, my government trash-talks my family every day. My government ensures that my sister will be made fun of on the playground every day. My government chips away at my family’s rights, and, collectively, all of our rights, little by little, every day. And until we stand up and say “no,” it is only going to get worse.

Stayman-London can be reached [email protected]