The television show Postcards From Buster and its accompanying free lesson plans are used by social studies and language arts teachers in elementary and middle schools across the country. (1) In this animated half-hour show, Buster Baxter, a rabbit, travels with his father, who is piloting a fictional rock band on its North American concert tour. (2) Each episode finds Buster discovering new cultures and communities. He videotapes documentary "postcards" (featuring real people) that he sends to Arthur and his other (animated) friends back home. Classroom activities based on the show strengthen students' geography and language skills, in addition to building awareness and appreciation of the many cultures in America.
Earlier this year I experienced deja vu. PBS--the Public Broadcasting Service--decided not to distribute an episode in which Buster meets two children whose parents are lesbians. The same day, Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling sent PBS a letter demanding that the network not air it. "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, which was about maple sugaring in Vermont. (3)
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 2reading 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 Corporation for Public Broadcasting: "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 this time. Explaining why the network yanked the recent episode of Buster, 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."
It made me wonder what kind of world Margaret Spellings and the executives at PBS are living in. It seems they think that there is one world where all the families and children live and somewhere over there, across the border, a separate world where all of those gay people live. Parents, they would argue (who must all be straight) should be the ones to decide if and when to let their children have a controlled peek at those inhabitants on the other side of that imaginary line.
At this point in American history, such a position is not only ridiculous, it is insulting and highly irresponsible.
The truth is that today, 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? That, in fact, is where the real potential danger lies. Think about the harm we are causing for all of those children when we say, "Sorry, your family has been censored today."
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. …