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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

Debating Gay Issues in School and on the Air

April 02, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG

First Jerry Falwell meets "Teletubbies." Now this.

"When you send your children off to school or allow them to watch educational television, the last thing you expect them to learn is deviant sexual behavior," proclaims a mailing from Christian evangelist D. James Kennedy, another prominent leader of America's Religious Right.

Falwell's recent Tinky Winky snit was so unconditionally absurd that few beyond his immediate circle of narrow-minded zealots took it seriously, and he earned every pasting he got from late-night comics for insisting that the spongy little Teletubby was a closet homosexual aiming subliminal pro-gay messages at preschoolers.

Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss as casually Kennedy's well-organized antigay harangue, with its backup from Donald E. Wildmon and his American Family Assn.

Kennedy is a silky Presbyterian minister whose sprawling, Fort Lauderdale-based evangelical empire includes a broadcasting branch that features "The Coral Ridge Hour," his weekly TV show that airs on approximately 500 stations and two national cable networks. He also produces a radio show and separate radio commentary.

His target these days is "It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School," Debra Chasnoff's widely hailed 77-minute documentary showing young kids discussing homosexuality in classrooms with teachers, and sometimes with each other. Endorsed by educators galore as a teaching tool, it's being offered to PBS stations for airing after June 4, something Kennedy intends to block.

Chasnoff isn't fooling him.

"Is there something dark masquerading behind this veil of goodwill?" asks a narrator ominously in Kennedy's video that attacks "It's Elementary" by twisting and quoting portions out of context while seeing it as part of a secret "gay agenda." And in a recent mass-mailing to PBS stations, Kennedy mislabels Chasnoff's smart, rewarding, enormously valuable film "a propaganda program . . . that will encourage children to embrace homosexuality."

In addition, the program resorts to "anti-Christian bigotry" on behalf of advocating homosexuality, charges Janet Folger, national director of the Center for Reclaiming America, another branch of Kennedy's ministry.

"This is the Joe Camel of the homosexual movement," said Folger on Thursday from Fort Lauderdale. "Only, unlike Joe Camel that targets teens, this video targets children as young as 5 or 6 years old. And unlike cigarettes, there are no warning labels."

The charges against the program are utterly asinine.

But especially dangerous coming now, when PBS is already drifting far to the right, as its coming batch of conservative-minded "National Desk" documentaries affirms. And when the Corp. for Public Broadcasting has just asked Congress to increase its federal subsidy by $100 million over four years.

It's a time when no one in the public TV family is spoiling for a messy rumble over a gay issue. With that in mind, it's noteworthy that "It's Elementary" will not air on the PBS network, but is being offered instead to individual PBS stations by another distributor, with San Francisco's KQED-TV serving as the program's "presenter."

A KCET spokeswoman said that station planned to air "It's Elementary," but hadn't decided on an air date. A KOCE-TV spokeswoman said the Orange County public station had made no decision about the program.

Although it's too early to get a national reading, PBS stations are known for clinging to the cutting edge of timidity. Those especially fearful of teeing off congressional conservatives, as well as donors and underwriters in the private sector, may not be inclined to embrace a program accused by Kennedy in his mailing of "recruiting . . . children for the homosexual lifestyle."

Or a program that is "pro-homosexual," as Wildmon charged in a recent newsletter to his supporters that included a pitch for donations to finance his own new video, which he plans to distribute widely, explaining how Chasnoff's film is "targeting our children." And it is.

Targeting them for education.

Education Is Needed to Counter Rhetoric

A swell idea given the antigay violence in the U.S. dramatized by last year's grisly torture and murder of 21-year-old college student Matthew Shepard. It's a condition of extreme bigotry crying out for more and better schooling of kids to rebut the ignorant, inflammatory rhetoric of Falwell and others who, while professing Christian love, nourish hatred of those whose sexual orientation they loathe and publicly brand as sinful.

Homosexuals are all but invisible in school curricula, said Chasnoff (winner of a documentary short subject Oscar in 1991) this week from her San Francisco headquarters. "So kids grow up not knowing anything about gay people except what they see in the media and pick up on the school playgrounds."

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