Last week I experienced deja vu. PBS -- the Public Broadcasting Service -- decided not to distribute an episode of its cartoon "Postcards From Buster" in which Buster the animated bunny meets two children whose parents are lesbians. The same day the secretary of education sent PBS a letter demanding that the network not air this show. "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode," she wrote.
She also asked PBS to return federal funds used to make the episode.
(Buster The Bunny/sarah Crosley -- AP)
I flashed back to 1999, when a documentary I directed, "It's Elementary -- Talking About Gay Issues in School," was offered for broadcast through American Public Television. The film shows how and why schools are finding age-appropriate ways to address gay and lesbian issues in education -- confronting rampant anti-gay name-calling, helping students to discuss gay-related topics as part of lessons on current events and reading books that have characters with gay parents.
When "It's Elementary" was scheduled to air on public television, PBS received more letters of protest than for any other program in its history.
And what was PBS's response? Said Robert Conrad, then president of the network: "This sounds to me like a program that helps parents do a better job of parenting, and that is the kind of thing that public broadcasting has a right to do."
"It's Elementary" went on to air on more than 300 public television stations around the country, inspiring thousands of school communities to be more active in confronting prejudice and intolerance.
No such courage last week.
Explaining why the network yanked the show, Lea Sloan, vice president of media relations at PBS, said, "We wanted to make sure that parents had an opportunity to introduce this subject to their children in their own time."
What world are Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and the executives at PBS living in? It seems they think that there is one world where all the families and children live and another, separate one where all those gay people live.
Apparently it's up to (straight) parents to decide when to open the borders and let their children have a controlled peek at the other side.
At this point in American history, that position is not only ridiculous, it's insulting and highly irresponsible. Millions of children have a parent, uncle, aunt, cousin, sibling or grandparent who is gay. Thousands of dedicated teachers, school administrators and coaches are gays or lesbians. What kind of message are we sending to our youth when we say that their loved ones and trusted mentors aren't safe for children to meet on TV?
Even if we keep Buster the bunny from visiting children whose parents are gay, we can't put the rabbit back in the hat. Gay people and gay issues are part of everyone's world now, including that of our children. Our only choice is whether we step up and give kids the skills and opportunities to treat everyone respectfully, or whether we try to perpetuate a false silence around the real lives of millions of Americans, a silence that is damaging to all young people.
There seems to be a fear that if we allow depictions of families on public TV that don't seem "typical" then somehow we are encouraging children to go out and create those kinds of families instead of the "real" or "legitimate" kind. In fact, when we give young people the opportunity to see that there are all types of family structures, we are helping to lay the foundation for them to understand and respect differences of all kinds, a skill that has never been more needed.
Do we really want our public broadcasting network's funding to be contingent on how the education secretary thinks families should be portrayed on TV? PBS says its mission is to use "the power of noncommercial television . . . to enrich the lives of all Americans through quality programs and education services that inform, inspire and delight." All Americans includes all kids, regardless of which combination of adults comes together to love and nurture them.
The writer is a filmmaker and winner of a 1991 Academy Award for best documentary short subject. She is director of the Respect for All Project (www.respectforall.org), which works to advance understanding of diversity among young people.