EDITORIAL: Private Industry, and anti-Gay Boycotts


We have heard a lot of controversy and even litigation about public school curricula lately, about such matters ranging from evolution to homosexuality. There seems to be a fault line between rationalism (“secular humanism”) and religion here. It’s understandable that the spending of public funds for sharp-edged curricula will raise questions and objections.


But over the years there have been attempts by the Right to pressure corporate America with boycotts. Several religious groups have objected to the Walt Disney Company’s offering domestic partner benefits to employees and to allowing its movie subsidiaries, which operate as independent companies with their own bottom lines, to release controversial films sometimes seeming to “promote” modern attitudes towards homosexuality (such as Priest from Miramax in 1995). Generally their boycotts were not particularly successful.[1]


Recently Microsoft was caught in a crossfire. It had been supporting a workplace anti-discrimination bill in the Washington State legislature until a local conservative minister and ex-NFL player with a congregation including many Microsoft employees created a stir. The bill would lose by one vote. Bill Gates would say in radio interviews that companies tend to be wary of taking public positions on controversial social issues, leaving the thinking up to their individual employees, even thought as employers they are likely to support non-discrimination and domestic partner benefits. Both sides began speculating on the effects of a possible boycott. After all, Microsoft is showing signs of stress from susceptibility to security holes, and competition from Apple and Linux.[2]


A more alarming incident concerns Proctor and Gamble. The soap manufacturer in Cincinnati, Ohio withdrew sponsorship of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “Will and Grace” after a boycott organized by the American Family Association, which got 360000 families to sign petitions objecting to P&G. The company was reportedly surprised by the vehemence and strength of organized opposition to shows that to many  straight people seem innocent, comic, and pretty much within a modern cultural mainstream. Similarly, the ADA has campaigned against Kraft for supporting the 2006 Gay Olympics, and several companies (Safeway, Lowe’s, Tyson Foods, Kellogg, and S.C. Johnson, have been targeted for sponsoring “Desperate Housewives” (with several not buying additional time on the show).[3]


To someone who would like to sell scripts of major storylines with unusual treatment of gay themes to film and television investors (if not outright Tinseltown) this is an alarming development. It is interesting to note that a few other major dramatic shows featuring teens and young adults have introduced homosexual characters in at least brief (sometimes substantial) episodes. These shows (particularly on TheWB) include Everwood, Jack & Bobby, One Tree Hill, and Smallville.  Generally, these treatments are respectful of various points of view, present some major arguments, avoid showing explicit sex, and fit within the practices of mainstream television, even what seems “PG-13” in child suitability. Smallville presents the problem of being both gifted and “different” and having to hide with a “don’t ask don’t tell” mentality that almost equates extraterrestrial origin (of teenage Clark Kent) to homosexuality in terms of being able to fit in as a teen. Queer as Folk, on Showtime, while completely out and “gay” often presented charismatic characters (like Justin Taylor) who pretty much match the heroes of the mainstream shows for dramatic appeal and viewer hook.


Will the Christian right target these shows next? Well, I certainly hope they wouldn’t get anywhere if they did. I wonder why their religious intolerance has moved beyond what is publicly funded to what people may choose to see in their own homes and can easily avoid if they want. Okay the cable and network industry can do even more to give parents the ability to block shows that, for their own convictions, they don’t what their kids to see. But what is really going on here?


It does seem like there has been a backlash against cultural rationalism, ever since Lawrence v. Texas. The harder economic times and scary atmosphere in the wake of 9-11 certainly contribute. People see homosexuals, particularly, as having cheated on family responsibility and, by competing in the same economic and cultural space, making it harder to raise kids. That’s a tempting thing for the right to play on.


For one, though, I like the trend of the newer dramatic shows, to present homosexual people as simply part of a diverse world, that bring their own salt and pepper to the moral ambiguity that makes us root for these characters and feel disappoint at their falls. I, for one, want to develop a property where at least one of them doesn’t fall. But, the Right tolerates no ambiguity, takes no prisoners, and says there is only one Way to be.


©Copyright 2005 by Bill Boushka. All rights reserved, subject to fair use.


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[1] Here are some references: Southern Baptists: http://www.cnn.com/US/9706/18/baptists.disney/

Catholic League and Assemblies of God: http://www.religioustolerance.org/disney1.htm

[2] Alan Murray, “How Microsoft Tripped Over Gay Rights,” The Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2005, p. A2.

[3] William C. Symonds, “Earthly Empires,” sidebar on p 29, “Caught in the Crossfire,” Business Week, May 23, 2005.