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Fundies Upset About Undies
the past 100 years Times Square has been the metaphoric center of American
anxieties about sexuality. From the new honky tonk freedoms of the early years
of the century to its state-imposed Disneyfication in the last few years it
has been the place where American culture has debated what was sexually
permissible and what went too far, what was “moral” and what was
“sinful.” It is no surprise then that the great white way became the site
of yet another public struggle over morality.
On February 18, Calvin
Klein was scheduled to unveil a new line of designer underwear for young
children. Along with numerous print ad placements, the centerpiece of the
campaign was a huge billboard overlooking Times Square. The ad (two separate
photos) featured two young children—you can't really tell their gender,
although the ad copy reads “boys' underwear”—clad in briefs and
shorts, dancing on a sofa. The kids are smiling and looking silly, the photos
look unrehearsed, and the ad has a light-hearted air about them. But after the
unveiling—and the appearance of the print ads—some critics rushed to
answer the unasked question: what is wrong with this picture?
Rev. Donald E. Wildmon of
the American Family Association, most vocal of the Christian Right's
advocacy groups, immediately complained that the ads were provocation to child
abuse and called for a boycott of all Klein products. “Whether you like it
or not, you have pedophiles in this society. Anything that could get them
excited is detrimental, irresponsible, and reckless.” Other conservative and
right-wing political commentators joined in.
Wildmon's statement is
intriguing for several reasons. The first is that the photos are, at least to
the untrained eye, innocent—no different from anything you might see in a
family album or an ad for diapers, swimsuits, or skin care products. In the
second photo it is possible to “read” one boy's finger next to his
Calvin boxers as his penis, but it is an interpretation that is not
Since the ads appeared in
the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Martha Stewart
Living, it is safe to assume that the average viewer or the advertising
departments of these publications saw nothing untoward in these images. Nor is
Wildmon particularly concerned that such advertising is another calculated
attempt to instill in young children a consumer mentality based on material
status and wealth that will set a standard for the rest of their lives.
Wildmon voices no concern about the child models being exploited or their
images portraying a false idea of childhood. Wildmon simply sees the danger of
Calvin Klein's ads as provoking adult sexual behavior, specifically
homosexual desire and behavior.
This line of attack is not
new. The child molester, the man in the raincoat who lurks on the dark fringes
of playgrounds, has long been a code for the dangers of homosexuality. This
bogeyman has been used politically to attack gay men (and lesbians) and to
brand them as dangerous to children and society. In this context these images
have almost nothing to do with actual concerns about the safety or health of
children, and certainly nothing to do with an interest in children's
sexuality, freedom, or autonomy.
Wildmon's attack on the
Klein advertising is the latest in a series of attacks on gay people and gay
rights that use the safety and protection of children as a cover for their
homophobia. Queer as child molester has been a long-standing myth in U.S.
culture and politics. In 1978 Anita Bryant's Save Our Children campaign and
the California Briggs Initiative banning gay teachers began a backlash on gay
rights we are still battling today.
A quick survey of recent
events reveals a spate of attacks—some new and some ongoing—on the public
presence of homosexuality, gay rights, and the freedom of gay expression. In
early February, Samantha Geller, a 17-year-old out lesbian high school
student, was one of five students to win top awards at the Charlotte Young
Playwrights Festival with a one-act play, Live vs. the Paperback Novel.
Part of the prize was a staged reading, and a chance to work with theater
professionals. The Festival and the Charlotte school Board decided that
because the play had two lesbian characters—who kiss on stage—that the
play could not be performed.
School and public libraries
are always under attack for including books with gay or lesbian content. Last
year the school board in Barron, Wisconsin removed Betty Jones's The
Drowning of Stephan Jones and James Earle Hardy's Baby BeBop
following a complaint that these pro-gay novels were “vulgar.” The
non-fiction titles, When Someone You Know is Gay and Two Teenagers
in Twenty, were also removed. The school board resisted all arguments to
restore the books and now a lawsuit by the ACLU—accusing the school of
censorship—has moved the case to the federal level in U.S. District Court in
Last July freelance gay
journalist Bruce Merkin, noted for his reporting on AIDS and gay youth, was
arrested for “intent to commit child molestation” after he went to meet an
on-line correspondent he thought was a 13-year-old gay boy who had asked
Merkin for help in dealing with being gay at home and school. The “boy”
was a Sacramento vice cop, as part of a sting operation, who went on the
Internet looking for pedophiles. On February 24, a Sacramento judge ruled that
Merkin would have to stand trial even though any sexual content in their
correspondence was initiated by the “boy” and was never responded to by
have these attacks focusing on queers and kids proliferated now? One of the
reasons is that, in the past decade, issues of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and
transgen- dered youth have become increasingly prominent. Through the efforts
of GLSEN, programs like the Massachusetts Safe School Program, Los Angeles'
Project 10, and a network of gay and straight alliances in high schools the
cherished (heterosexual) belief that all kids and teens are straight and
potential victims of queer molesters is being challenged. Efforts to demonize
gay people as dangers to kids had to be increased. These attacks are intrinsic
to the Christian Right's agenda—and promoted by them in their literature
and the language promoting anti-gay rights initiatives—but this is only
their most obvious manifestation. While the overt anti-gay sentiments of the
right wing seem extreme they have a completely intended ripple effect
throughout the rest of the culture. The same sentiments are played out on a
smaller scale when newspaper editorials support the legal battles of the Boy
Scouts of America to forbid openly gay boys and men from being scouts or
scoutmasters, when teachers make decisions not to discuss gay or lesbian
issues in the classroom, when librarians decide to pass on a gay or lesbian
title because it might cause controversy, and when parents and teachers
do not counter these ideas.
But there is another
reason: our society has reached something of a crisis point in its ambivalence
towards children. The rhetoric about protecting kids has increased. Legal
efforts from sexual offenders registry to Internet censorship to plans to rate
television shows have also increased. At the same time, children and young
people are being seen as inconsequential, expendable, and even dangerous.
While almost every child advocacy agency, public and private sector, has
sounded a warning about the harm being done to child welfare and health by
welfare “reform” neither federal or state governments have responded.
Nationally, many social and educational policies, such as remedial and special
education programs, are being reduced or, in some cases, eliminated. More
shocking are the changes the court system. In the past five years the number
of juveniles—commonly defined legally as under 18—being tried as adults
has increased 36 percent. In several states, such as Texas, this is happening
to children as young as 12. At the present time there are 74 inmates on death
row who were convicted and sentenced for crimes they committed when they were
under 18-years old. In a highly publicized Chicago case two eleven-year-old
boys were arrested and charged with the brutal murder and sexual assault of an
eight-year-old girl. They were released three weeks later only when semen
stains found on the girl's clothing ruled out the pre-pubes- cent boys.
It is in the wake of this
enormous cultural ambivalence that the demonization of queers as the ultimate
threat to kids occurs. What is frightening is that the hysteria around
“protecting” children—as opposed to the actual laws, programs, and
initiatives that provide heath, education, and safety to kids—is becoming
more and more reasonable. Commenting on the Samantha Geller case the generally
liberal Charlotte Observer noted that homosexual material was
inappropriate for middle and high-school students. “The schools do have a
special responsibility. Yes, in the age of ‘Ellen,' many young people do
know about homosexuality. But some don't. And seeing two women kiss
on-stage... isn't the best way to introduce them to the subject.”
Responding to a recent incident at a Newton, Massachusetts high school over
putting Shakespeare and Eleanor Roosevelt on a list of noted gay men and
lesbians, Camille Paglia, in a February 22 op-ed piece in the Wall Street
Journal entitled “It Wasn't Romeo and Julian,” claimed that gay
activists and programs to highlight gay life were making it more difficult for
sexually confused high school kids.
The power of these
arguments now carry so much cultural and political weight—and are so
difficult to counter—that within 24 hours of Wildmon's public attack
Calvin Klein discontinued the ad campaign. One doesn't want to be in a
position of defending the rights of a multi-billion dollar company who is
interested only in marketing its merchandise, but the issues here are larger.
The attacks on queers that prey on social fears of harming children will never
go away until we as a culture can discuss openly and honestly the lives and
needs of children. The rhetoric of “protection” is never sincere. In the
early 1970s, radical feminist T-Grace Atkinson stated, “Whenever I hear men
talking about protecting women and children I know they are talking about
control.” When we hear rhetoric about “protecting children,” it is
really going to be about controlling homosexuals.
Bronski has written numerous books and articles on culture and gay and lesbian
issues. He has been a regular contributor to Z