Selections from the newspaper about
public TV and radio in the United States
"I believe," Santora writes, "our job is to do just exactly what the producers of Buster set out to do — show viewers the world, not just a narrow segment bounded by prejudice."

Gay folks are parents and kids, too
What about my family?

Originally published in Current, Feb. 14, 2005
Commentary by Ron Santora

Once again I find myself asking a question I asked my PBS colleagues 13 years ago. This time, what really frustrates me is PBS’s recent withdrawal of the “Sugartime!” episode of Postcards from Buster because it pictured two families, each with two moms.

At a closed-door, open-mike session of the PBS Annual Meeting in San Francisco in 1992, a panel was getting into an unexpectedly profound discussion of P.O.V.’s documentary Tongues Untied and issues it raised about traditional values surrounding families.

"What about my family?” I asked.

In the continuing discussion, public broadcasters shed some light on what I and others believe is our role.

“We live in a civilization that is locking people out,” said Stephen Kulczycki from KCET, Los Angeles. “Our responsibility is . . . not to keep people out, but to give access to more people so they can feel part of the future of this country.”

And PBS President Bruce Christensen observed, “There is some heat, but that heat goes with part of the job.” He would know, since he took heat more than most.

The heat is on again. Last month, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings claimed in a letter to PBS: “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode. . . . Congress’ and the Department’s purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television.” And she asked that PBS consider refunding the money it spent on the episode. She warned in closing: “You can be assured that in the future the department will be more clear as to its expectations for any future programming that it funds.”

It’s still pertinent to ask the question, “What about my family?” and a discussion like the one we had at that PBS meeting 13 years ago.

What about my family? What about gay teenagers growing up—as most do—in families with both male and female parents? What about families headed by two lesbian moms or two gay dads?

What can these families now expect from their public television station? Are they so marginal, or worse, that we should hide them and their acceptance by at least some acquaintances, even if they are only cartoon rabbits? Does the station regard them as debatable people, whose value, legitimacy, visibility and perhaps even existence has been dismissed as a public policy, as if they were a city policy that had been revised or defeated?

They—we—are parents, too. They are taxpayers, too. Yet they and their children face the prejudice that the education secretary seeks to protect, on behalf of parents she claims to speak for.

If public television has a role in education, what responsibility do we have to those lesbian and gay taxpaying parents and their children?

I believe our job is to do just exactly what the producers of Postcards from Buster set out to do—show viewers the real world, not just a narrow segment bounded by prejudice. If we err as broadcasters, we should err on the side of showing the world as it is, if there is any question, rather than hide the parts that some people don’t like.

Does the education secretary herself really want to live in “a civilization that is locking people out”—the dark place Kulczycki described years ago? Even in families where homosexuality is feared, don’t the children have the right to know that there are lesbian and gay parents in this world, whose children they may meet someday?

I understand the counterargument that broadcasters should leave parents with the decision about telling their children about matters connected with faith and with sex.
What I fear is that parents who think this way will never discuss these issues with their children, or they’ll do it with their prejudice and without context.

In the “Sugartime!” episode, the lesbians’ daughter, Emma, shows Buster a picture of her moms and tells him how much she loves them. As I watched the scene, I thought to myself: Here is the true educational message that needs to be delivered to all our children—love of family. There’s something about every family that somebody doesn’t like or approve of, but our love of family can be far stronger. This simple message from that little girl goes to the heart of the matter; it’s about love.

I was struck by the conversation between Lily and one of her moms, who was quoted in Current’s article [Jan.31] about the Postcards from Buster decisions. Lily’s mom explained to her children why the episode was withdrawn and how some stations bravely chose to run it anyway.

"That’s what Martin Luther King did,” Lily volunteered.

That’s when I remembered what David Liroff from WGBH, Boston, said at that PBS meeting 13 years ago. If PBS decides that the national program service “represents the values of the least courageous in this room,” he warned, “it won’t be worth being in this business.”

Perhaps we should let Fred Rogers be our guide. “As you play together in a symphony orchestra,” Mister Rogers once said, “you can appreciate that each musician has something fine to offer. Each one is different, though, and you each have a different ‘song to sing.’ When you sing together, you make one voice. That’s true of all endeavors, not just musical ones. Finding ways to harmonize our uniqueness with the uniqueness of others can be the most fun—and the most rewarding—of all.”

This simple, profound statement has always had special meaning for me because I believe he is including me in the symphony as a gay man. If Mister Rogers had made that statement when I was a gay teenager, it would have made all the difference in the world to my life and what I went through in the early ’60s. Now I think it’s all we need to remember when we look at the variety of people in this world. We are all different, but we are all here to harmonize and make this world a better place.

I would like to think that Bruce Christensen used this philosophy, being a devout Mormon, to defend the decision to broadcast Tongues Untied and open the landscape of public TV to further understanding. But how many times have people like the education secretary placed roadblocks in our path because of personal prejudice and beliefs commonly referred to as “what’s appropriate for children” and “community standards?”

In 1968, some communities felt their standards were violated when Petula Clark, a white woman, touched the arm of Harry Belafonte, a black man, after they sang a duet on an NBC special. This simple gesture was more than many people in the South could tolerate and many Southern television stations did not air the program because they were upholding “community standards” and “what’s appropriate for children.” At that point in history, a mixed-race couple could not get a hotel room in the South because of “community standards.”

Now, half a lifetime later, public television stations are wondering whether they should air Postcards from Buster because of “community standards” and “what’s appropriate for children.” Would I, as a child of the ’50s, have been damaged to see a white woman touch a black man’s arm? Or would it have given me the option of comprehending that we are all here to “harmonize,” as Fred Rogers would have us believe?

When I screened “Sugartime!” before we aired it at WNED, I felt that the episode was definitely appropriate for children. There were no implications about sexuality in having two moms. The focus was on maple sugar and children’s fun, not on older folks.

The only outcome I could imagine is a child going to a parent and ask how Lily could have two moms. The parent could respond according to his or her personal beliefs—deal with the issue now or put off the discussion, as all parents do when the time isn’t right.

I believe the producers of Postcards from Buster intended the series to reveal and celebrate human diversity, and the Department of Education endorsed that as a curricular objective. And I believe it is our responsibilities, both as adults and as broadcasters, to do the right thing and live up to the message expressed by Rogers and put on the television screen by Buster’s producers.

We should show not only the similarities of people in this world—the easier part of the job—but also what makes us different—a task that sometimes takes more courage. And if “PBS doesn’t do it, who will?” does not apply, then it is our responsibility at stations to be the answer, and to do it ourselves.

Ron Santora is director of broadcasting at WNED in Buffalo and a board member of the Public Television Programmers Association. He started in public TV at KCTS in Seattle, where he worked in programming, education and fundraising production starting in 1973. He became program manager of KQED in San Francisco in 1990 and joined the Buffalo station in 1997.

Web page posted March 7, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

EARLIER ARTICLES

In the wake of a 1991 flap over a vastly more explicit program about gay people, Tongues Untied, Santora engages his public TV colleagues in a debate on purpose and courage.

Buster to visit gay moms on some pubTV channels.

RELATED ARTICLES

PBS President Pat Mitchell probes Buster's detour into controversy. Episode airs in half of country. She discusses the issue in an extensive interview.

LINKS

Education secretary takes a stand for your family, says New Life Christian Ministries.

Another pro-family group, the Family Pride Coalition, defended gay parents, protested Spellings' remarks and streamed the Buster episode online.

In a Speaking Freely interview, Harry Belafonte tells how he and Petula Clark defied demands that they edit out a moment when she touched his hand in a 1968 broadcast.

 

Some NBC affiliates didn't air Petula Clark's 1968 special because her touching Harry Belafonte's hand violated "community standards."

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