First appeared Feb. 21, 1999, in the Chicago Tribune.
WE ARE ALL Tinky-Winky now.
And I mean that in the scariest sense.
Jerry Falwell has expressed deep concern that a children's TV character named Tinky-Winky on the popular show, Teletubbies, is homosexual. The evidence is quite convincing to Falwell, who lays out his case in the February edition of the National Liberty Journal. Tinky-Winky has the voice of a boy but he carries a purse. Further, according to Falwell, "He is purple -- the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle -- the gay-pride symbol."
It's been a long time since a prominent real American has denounced a television character, so there's certainly reason to have a little fun with this. And at least when Dan Quayle went after Murphy Brown, the discussion could sound serious. This time around, it's tough to get too high-minded when you're castigating someone named Tinky-Winky, and explications are coming from a production company called Itsy Bitsy Entertainment.
But there are two reasons to take this story very seriously.
First, it gives the lie to one of the religious right's most frequent arguments about why they are not being mean-spirited and bigoted about homosexuality?hating the sin, but loving the sinner. This argument is often stated another way. The objection to homosexuality, it is claimed, does not have to do with sexual orientation, but with sexual conduct.
Lesbians and gay men have long known that was simply disingenuous, and Falwell now shows that it is. I doubt that, even taking his fevered imaginings to their most absurd lengths, Falwell believes Tinky-Winky was having sex with anyone. In short, this case is not about Tinky-Winky's sexual conduct, it is about Tinky-Winky's sexual orientation. Falwell's condemnation of Tinky-Winky is based only on factors he believes suggest Tinky-Winky could be identified publicly as gay --use of a color associated with gay rights, the triangle that gays adopted from their Nazi persecutors, and use of a "purse" by a "boy," neither of which can reliably be determined in the fanciful world of the Teletubbies.
In all of this, sexual conduct is entirely absent, and, given the character, is nearly unthinkable. How could this case, then, be about anything other than sexual orientation entirely independent of sexual conduct? And if that's true, then how is Falwell's objection to homosexuality not simply prejudice against people who do no more than identify themselves publicly as homosexual, without taking anything else about that person into consideration? Does Falwell believe, could Falwell believe that Tinky-Winky is a sinner without having had sex? And if he's not a sinner, why is he a bad role model for children?
That leads to the far more important reason this story is worth consideration. Falwell is not alone in spending an awful lot of his free time worrying about who is and who is not homosexual. Since he cannot look at sexual conduct to "prove" his case, he has to look for other evidence. But that search for evidence, the very need to search for evidence, should be troubling, and not just for lesbians and gay men.
When the desire to root out homosexuality becomes so relentless that even whimsical TV characters are under suspicion and investigation, how can heterosexuals escape the frenzy? The stigma about homosexuality has long been the chief problem in closed environments like the military, where heterosexual women in particular have been suspected of being lesbian. This places on them a burden of "proving" their heterosexuality. But how does a heterosexual prove heterosexuality? That question continues to plague the American military.
But Falwell helps us understand that this isn't just a problem in the military. Against a prejudice this dogmatic and about a factor that is so deeply personal and subjective, every heterosexual is vulnerable. On the day the Tinky-Winky story broke, the popular television series, "Dawson's Creek" aired an episode in which a high school boy is suspected of being gay -- for reading a poem he wrote that could be interpreted to mean that. Or it could have had the meaning he thought it had when he wrote it, which was not at all about secret homosexual desire. Similarly, shows like "The Simpsons," "Seinfeld," "Friends" and many others have explored, in comedic ways, how heterosexuals react when suspected of being gay. In Falwell's world, homosexuality is something everybody has to worry about.
This is one of the ways prejudice about homosexuality is different from prejudice about race or gender. Few white people are suspected of being black or Asian, and very few who do not intentionally want to do so are mistaken for a member of the opposite sex. Yet anyone can be suspected of being homosexual. Anyone.
And once suspected, the entire array of discriminatory behaviors -- from discomfort in the workplace to firing, from rude comments to physical violence -- are available. Lesbians and gay men know this from long experience. I'm sure many other lesbians and gay men are having the same mixed feelings I am seeing how the prejudice can run out of control. Heterosexuals shouldn't have to prove to anyone their sexual orientation in order to escape prejudice. But neither should homosexuals, or television characters or anyone.
Tinky-Winky is probably going to be fine, as will the children who watch him or her or it. But as long as the Falwells of the world continue to obsess about sexual orientation, Tinky-Winky's plight illustrates how our basic humanity is under attack as morality itself is being reduced to cartoon size.