Alabama's ban of the Arthur gay wedding episode shows how many people still see queerness as perversion
Author Michael Arceneaux discusses Alabama Public Television’s decision to ban an episode of children’s program Arthur in which a gay wedding takes place.
A month ago, after speaking at a panel during the National Antiracist Festival at American University, an elementary school teacher approached me and asked if I could recommend any LGBTQ children’s books featuring characters of color. She spoke of her struggles to not only implement LGBTQ-related material into her classwork, but to then find material that didn’t feature only white characters. I told her that, unfortunately, no books came to mind as such material remains difficult to find even for adults, but then I circled back to how challenging it must have been to get approval to discuss queerness and transness with children.
After she provided a few more specifics, my response was blunt. “See, they still look at it as perversion.”
Both of us recently recalled that exchange in light of reports that Alabama Public Television refused to air an episode of the children’s series Arthur because it featured a gay wedding. In the episode, which aired nationwide on May 13th, Arthur and his friends attend their teacher Mr. Ratburn’s ceremony to his partner. While others merely either shrugged their shoulders or told their timelines, “I knew that teacher was gay,” Mike McKenzie, the director of programming at APT, opted to throw a fit.
In an email to AL.com, McKenzie argued: “Parents have trusted Alabama Public Television for more than 50 years to provide children’s programs that entertain, educate and inspire. More importantly—although we strongly encourage parents to watch television with their children and talk about what they have learned afterwards—parents trust that their children can watch APT without their supervision. We also know that children who are younger than the ‘target’ audience for Arthur also watch the program.”
It appears that show creator WGBH and broadcaster PBS alerted local stations in April about the episode, titled “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone.” My trouble with them alerting them of the episode in advance is that it gives the indication that there is something wrong with two consenting adults who love each other deciding to have a ceremony for what is effectively a contract that is perfectly legal, given it is recognized by the state.
Some would say, “Think of the children!” I would say in response, “Kudos to you for confirming you are a bigoted fool.”
WGBH and PBS should not have opened the door for Mike McKenzie to present his prejudices as an act of virtue, as though it is some great consideration of the precious minds of children. If the station felt the episode was inappropriate, they wouldn’t have made it—much less opted to air it. If Arthur and the crew were tipping to a wedding featuring two people of opposite genders, McKenzie would not have batted an eye.
McKenzie’s position is a testament to anti-queer biases and the ignorance that informs them. To wit, in 2005, this same station pulled an episode of Arthur that featured a bunny character named Bunny who had two mothers. Considering most of the gay parents in this country are in the South and predominately lesbian, the episode spoke to an obvious reality for many—especially those living ‘round their way.
However, Alabama Public Television’s executive then-director Allan Pizzato told AL.com at the time, “Our feeling is that we basically have a trust with parents about our programming. This program doesn’t fit into that.”
Consider all of the romance and innuendo children see in animated works. Then think about the violence, which you would think is far worse than two men getting married and a bunny rabbit having two mommies. Not so to self-righteous homophobes who don’t clutch their Bibles so much as they do the patriarchy.
What Alabama Public Television said then and is saying now is that there is only one way to be, and if a character differs from that, they do not make for appropriate viewing. Moreover, when it comes to homosexuality in particular, APT has reminded us that, no matter how mildly you present it, some folks’ minds will rush to sexual acts.
This is honestly no different than some former Indiana lawmaker and homophobic preacher recently arguing that Pete Buttigieg must denounce fisting and rimming in order to become the next president of the United States. Yes, seriously. In a blog entitled “Pete, Since You Brought It Up, How ‘Gay’ Are You?” Don Boys basically says Buttigieg needs to promise the country he doesn’t have AIDS, and that yes, he is gay, but not, like, really into the butt stuff.
“I don’t hate Pete or his lover or any other homosexual, but I will not give them a pass when they or others suggest that ‘gayness’ is not perversion, that it is normal, maybe even admirable,” Boys writes.
Boys sounds like an utter idiot, but he speaks to the mindset held by the same men who have banned two Arthur episodes with any queer characters. To these people, we are incapable of romance or subtlety; we solely exist through sexual acts which, by the way, are really, really icky, unnatural, ungodly, and not appropriate for anyone—much less for God’s precious children who already watch women get depicted as conquests in far too many fairy tales.
Those people literally thought Arthur’s gay teacher and that guest character’s mamas were going to stage a Godless gay orgy on PBS just to soil the minds of their kids. It’s easy to mock and rightfully stokes anger, but it’s also quite depressing. It is a reminder that, for a lot of us, our basic existence is inappropriate. No matter how we present ourselves as “just like the straight people”—even in a kiddie-crafted tone—their minds will take us to the gutter.
In their minds, we are perverts. When they see us, they hope their children don’t view us as anything other than wrong. Because they don’t want their children to become us. And we are going to spend all of our lives trying to prove otherwise—sometimes to no avail.
Michael Arceneaux is the New York Times bestselling author of I Can’t Date Jesus from Atria Books/Simon & Schuster. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Essence, The Guardian, Mic, and more. Follow him on Twitter.