Buster bunny meets two mommies: Who counts as ‘family’?

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Eleven-year-old Emma must wonder what’s so shameful about her family. All she did was tell an animated rabbit named Buster about “my mom and Gillian, who I love a lot.”

Emma’s exchange with Buster is less than 30 seconds of a 30-minute “Postcards From Buster” episode about making syrup and cheese in Vermont. But even fleeting images of families with two mommies (another two-mom family also makes a brief appearance) was enough to trigger a warning letter from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

After only two days on the job, Spellings took time to express “strong and very serious concerns” about Buster in Vermont. “Many parents,” Spellings wrote, “would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode.”

With her quick and highly public reaction, Spellings sent two chilling messages: First, she is secretary of education for some, but not all, Americans. Second, she’s ready to use the power of the government purse to influence content in public-broadcasting programs – a stance that violates the spirit, and possibly the letter, of the First Amendment.

PBS claims it had already decided not to distribute the episode to its stations two hours before the letter arrived (a small number aired it anyway). But whatever the chronology, “Buster” and other children’s programs that receive federal grants are now on notice: Avoid including any family with two moms or dads, or risk losing your funding.

Just to make sure the message is heard loud and clear, last week the Department of Education disinvited Carol Greenwald, executive producer of “Buster,” from speaking at a conference on children’s TV. Since DOE is a major funder, this doesn’t bode well for the survival of the series.

The ripple effect may go beyond PBS. Broadcasting & Cable reports that DOE is now exploring ways to change the guidelines so that grants in the “Ready-To-Learn” program (which funds “Buster”) can go to commercial as well as noncommercial children’s programmers.

Spellings, of course, can’t directly prevent PBS from airing this or any show. But her letter contains an implicit warning of Education Department retaliation if children’s programs receiving federal funds dare to include images of families with same-sex parents.

If Spellings’s letter doesn’t violate freedom of expression, it comes close. As First Amendment attorney Bob Corn-Revere points out, when veiled threats by public officials have led to censorship and stifling of free speech, courts have often found their comments unconstitutional.

Not surprisingly, keeping families with same-sex parents off the air is a form of censorship that some conservative Christian groups applaud. They’re pleased to see a public official draw the line on what they fear is creeping acceptance of homosexuality in mainstream American culture.

On the other side, the “Buster” creators frame the issue as one of diversity and tolerance. After all, the bunny has interviewed all kinds of families – from Muslims in Chicago to Pentecostals in North Carolina. Some kids live with a mom and dad, others with a single parent, and still others with grandparents. Why, they argue, exclude kids with same-sex parents – especially in Vermont, where civil unions are legal?

Both sides know what’s at the heart of this conflict: Visibility matters. If diversity is defined to include sexual orientation, then gay and lesbian people – and the families they create – begin to count as a normal, accepted part of American society.

History shows what happens when the invisible are made visible. Not long ago, interracial couples were invisible – and in some states illegal. As attitudes changed, mixed-race couples gradually began to appear in the media (remember “The Jeffersons”?).

Fear of acceptance through visibility is what fuels the fight over Buster’s trip to Vermont and almost every other culture-war battle over homosexuality – especially when young children are involved.

Last month, this fear made headlines when James Dobson famously attacked SpongeBob Squarepants for appearing in a video that urges elementary kids to be tolerant of differences, including the difference of “sexual identity.”

Around the same time, a school board in Davenport, Iowa, voted to keep teachers from assigning The Misfits, a book about tolerance and acceptance that includes a gay character. Last week a Fairfax County, Va., school board member wrote to the high school principals in his district, urging them to bring speakers into the schools to counter the “Will and Grace version of homosexuality,” the myth that homosexuality is “normal or natural.”

Whatever side you take in these battles, it’s time to acknowledge that gay-headed families are here to stay. At a time when a lesbian couple can appear at campaign rallies as part of the Second Family, pretending to kids that same-sex couples don’t exist doesn’t make sense.

Here’s the reality: Thousands of gay men and lesbians in committed relationships are raising thousands of children every day. According to the American Psychological Association, studies show that kids with same-sex parents do no better or worse than kids with heterosexual parents.

Spellings is no doubt correct in saying some parents don’t want to expose their kids to the reality of gay and lesbian families. Other parents might oppose including single-parent families, or Muslim or Pentecostal families.

But the secretary of education isn’t the appointed arbiter of which families get in and which are left out. Nor should she interpret the legitimate role of her office in monitoring quality and meeting educational goals in PBS programming as a license to dictate content for ideological or political motives.

What’s most tragic about this sorry episode is the message it sends to Emma – and to thousands of other children with two mommies or two daddies. For them, Buster bunny’s visit to two-mom families in Vermont has nothing to do with “homosexuality” or “lifestyles.”

As Emma told Buster, it’s really all about family.