Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Why Sponge Bob?

Tinky Winky was obvious. I mean he was purple and he carried a purse and there was that pink triangle on his head; clearly a walking icon of queer symbolism infiltrating all those innocent children's minds. Tinky Winky the Teletubbie had to go. But why Sponge Bob? I would actually have to see him in context. Sunday morning after brunch, four of us put our Gay radar on high and popped a DVD of his show into the tube. Yes he did indeed live in a pineapple, but his neighbor lived in a Tiki head which is pretty campy right there. He did have a starfish friend Patrick with a very butch voice; he might even have been an adult and children do hold hands with adults when going on outings. There was also a female character that had invited Sponge Bob to tea. His heroic effort to meet her on dry land despite danger of dehydration had to count for something, but no, one of us deemed the relationship platonic, as were all his relationships. There was nothing remotely Gay or heterosexual, or even erotic about Sponge Bob at all. He was just a kid, doing wacky kid things like splitting his pants to make his friends laugh.

No, what really got the Religious Right going was the video that would be sent to elementary schools. Sponge Bob and friends singing "We are Family" along with cartoon people of diversity and color including Whoopi Goldberg. There weren't even any Gay people in it. There didn't have to be. Did they know it was our song, the adopted anthem of the Gay community? We who are rejected from our families making our own family. "All my brothers and sisters and me." You need only to sing it while dancing with your chosen group to understand its power. It is defiant in its ability to pump into your core, shots of unity, love, cooperation and solidarity no matter who is trying to divide you. It works for any disenfranchised group and even for baseball teams. In 1979 the Pirates sang it as their team song and went on to win the World Series that year. It is just the song to heal a divided nation, which was the intention of the post 9/11 "We Are Family Foundation" that made the Sponge Bob video. Though not a Gay group it did include Gay people in their tolerance pledge on their website. This was too much for the conservative Christian groups.

Family values are the totem of the Religious Right. The mother of one of my high school love interests introduced me to them. (My girlfriend and I were too paralyzed to do more than hold hands in that senior year, but her mother was painfully aware of the feelings between us). I had come back to visit my friend after a year of college. We were sitting in the pool house reminiscing when her mother stormed in fit to be tied. "You are a lesbian," she sputtered at me, "and don't deny it." I wasn't about to deny it. I had spent a liberating year at a progressive school. I had all the support I needed to face this woman's accusation, yet still, she got me.

I withstood more than an hour of her firing away at me the many reasons why I was a sick deviant to society in the eyes of the Lord and she had proof because she had read my journal, left in my backpack in their apartment. She told us she would shoot us both if she ever found us together. She asked my friend to make a hypothetical choice between us. The friend hedged, told her mother she was being ridiculous. Finally I said I didn't have to listen to this any longer and I got up to leave. At the door I asked to be let into the apartment to fetch my stuff. She denied me this request said she would drop off my bag at my house the next day. There was a beat as I considered this unfair tactic. I didn't have shoes on. Would the police help? I believed they would not. I felt caught in the sight lines of this woman's verbal rifle. She had only to hold my stuff hostage, my journal - a precious piece of me, and my camera and there was the absurdity of my bare feet. I did have my keys. I could have left, but I surrendered. I would give her what she wanted.

"All right" I said exasperated, turning to face her, "I promise." "Promise what?" she asked startled. "Promise that I won't be a lesbian anymore." "Come here," she said.

At her request I got on my knees in front of her and raised my right hand and swore that I would give up being a lesbian. Yes it was a blatant lie, but the thrill of capture was hers and the memory of having swallowed the hook to find myself writhing on the line, was mine. She made me swear I would look at my friend only as a sister. (We could hardly speak to each other after that.) Her curiosity, too, defiled me. She asked me what we would do if we were lesbians, she and I. Us? Was she serious? She scoffed when I told her lesbians make love. "That's not love." When she was done, she had the gall to ask me to give her a hug. And I couldn't refuse; I had to and mean it, to insure my release. I hugged her hard until she let go. "Now go along you two," she said as if we were being let out of school. My friend and I tried to laugh it off. "Get a post office box," I quipped. Then I drove too fast over the mountain back to Santa Cruz where I told the whole outrageous story to my friend Tim and roommate at the time. He remembers how shaken I was.

The Religious Right have had me in their sightlines on and off for most of my American life and to keep myself whole I have stood out there declaring my queer identity and daring them to shoot. In 1993, I wrote a column (as a lesbian of some color) for the Palo Alto Weekly. Many readers wrote challenging letters to me care of the Weekly, but one day I received a letter at my home address which was unlisted. As I stood in the driveway and read the hateful passages of Bible quotations condemning me, I felt the rifle cocked on me again, the hair standing up on the back of my neck. How soon before it was more than a letter, I wondered. The Palo Alto Weekly succumbed to the pressure of anonymous callers asking them to get rid of the pervert writer. They wrote me a letter thanking me for my year as a guest columnist which was now over though I had long been irked by their conservative Republican writer who had written for years in that spot.

It has been too easy for liberals to ignore the Religious Right, calling them ignorant, intolerant and so filled with nonsense, how can anybody possibly take them seriously? Look at how obsessed they are with cartoon characters. It was a waste of time to even discuss them. In 1996, Mathew Shephard was tied to a fence, beaten and left to die. I felt vindicated. "See homophobia does exist and does kill. Is this okay with you?" A few straight people do march with us through PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays). We are so grateful for their presence at our parade that we cheer wildly, weep and run out to ask for hugs from these surrogate parents.

In 1999, all over San Carlos, my neighbors put up signs on their lawns supporting the Knight initiative to ban Gay marriages. I wanted to knock on their door and ask them "Do you mean me?" just to put a face on their target. I had a client at the time and after two hours of advising her on how to best attend to her bill paying after the death of her husband, I turned around and saw a large hand lettered sign in the corner. "Save Our Families, Support the Knight Initiative." The color must have drained from my face because she asked me if I lived alone. "I have roommates," I hedged. "Women?" she asked. She was one of the few clients I didn't come out to. The initiative passed.

The media loved the Sponge Bob story. It gave them the opportunity to show how on it they were, exposing this oddball claim that a cartoon character was Gay. "Look, we're not conservative, we stick up for Gay people. The Religious Right calls us the liberal media. See we'll even show you the video" Could the pertinent question please be asked? Should such bigotry be allowed? Is this persecution of Gay people not a threat to American ideals of freedom, personal safety and the pursuit of happiness for all its citizens?

We have won cultural acceptance by coming out in every public and private arena. Now fags are accepted best friends to girls on TV and an entire passel of them are even allowed into straight men's' closets. Meanwhile, inflamed by this increased presence, our persecutors work day and night to set the political agenda. No on Gay marriage, no on homosexuals adopting kids, no on homosexual teachers, no inclusion on basic civil rights.

In the wake of the 2004 elections, when we were so devastated, it was noted that the Right are politically powerful because "they live there". They have integrated political activity into their lives, mobilizing each other to support conservative candidates and issues. By comparison the Left doesn't live there; we just sell tickets, satisfied that it is enough to get out the vote during an election year. We have given up so much turf already that we've got Democrats mentioning God in every speech in the hopes that they won't be deemed politically impotent. Separation of Church and State be damned.

I met a political activist recently, a Prius owner and an environmentalist, a member of the Electric Vehicle Association (San Francisco chapter) and most likely Gay. He had that in-your-face determination about him. I asked my new friend what exactly did he do to affect policy. "I contact my representative", he said. I gave him a dubious look though I had heard that Barbara Boxer speaking out during the confirmation hearings of Condoleezza Rice may very well have had something to do with the thousands of e-mails she received. "First I fax them," he told me. "Then I call the office, then I e-mail them and mail them a letter with a stamp," he explained "and if that doesn't work I show up at their office." Oh you mean you really work at it, I thought, like a job. And I was thinking of peace marches, street theater and photos with large banners draped on buildings Greenpeace style. I was being a bit romantic, I realized, looking for the revolution and finding out it was just glamorous newsreel footage. Yes this is what the Religious Right does without fanfare or parades. They call people in power - persistently. My agenda was set.


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