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Tuesday, 19 April 2005

Lock Up Your Children

Despite the visibility of the same sex marriage movement, queers are not usually the focus of right wing pundits’ ire. Homophobia is often used as an aside. Alien others are compared to homosexuals to emphasize the otherness of the target group and the degeneracy they must therefore represent. Gayness is a symbol and gay people themselves are usually invisible. Therefore, because it was never a focus, I collected samples of homophobia, but did not engage it directly as an issue until late in my time at Wesleyan. My own status as an alien other informed my work, but was not directly represented.

During the spring of 2005, a furor erupted over a children’s TV series called Postcards from Buster. In one episode, a cartoon rabbit meets real life kids who have two moms. Nothing is ever said about this fact and the women are not identified as lesbians. The focus of the episode is on sugar production in Vermont. The show was so innocuous, that the left treated the situation as a joke. The Wonkette, with typical irony, described the episode as disappointing in its lack of objectionable content. (http://www.wonkette.com/politics/culture-war/too-hot-for-pbs-buster-does-vermont-035656.php) A Slate columnist jokingly questioned, “Is ‘maple sugaring’ actually code for some sort of sexual practice between women?” (http://slate.msn.com/id/2112706/) Most left wing commentaries seemed to ignore the entire event. Wesleyan’s own undergraduate queer community seemed to be entirely unaware of the controversy. A message to the campus’ queer mailing list, “endless acronym.” urged people to watch the episode when it aired locally, but never mentioned the controversy.

Much ado, however, was made of this issue by some right wing media figures like Bill O’Reilly, who frequently who has cautioned his viewers on multiple occasions that the recognition of same sex marriage will lead to the legalization of people marrying goats (http://mediamatters.org/items/200504150005) and thus bring about the destruction of our society as we know it. (http://mediamatters.org/items/200503310004) Most of the commentators seemed to be special homophobic guests, like spokespeople for Focus on the Family and not TV fixtures like O’Reilly.

O’Reilly was careful to explain that he wasn’t homophobic, but would equally block out all similar, heterosexual forms of degeneracy and perversion.

It's not only about homosexuality . . .. I wouldn't want Buster hopping into a bigamy situation in Utah. I wouldn't want him hopping into an S&M thing in the East Village here . . . let's keep Buster out of the sexual realm in all areas. Wouldn't that be the best thing to do?

(http://mediamatters.org/items/200502170007)

Dissecting the heteronormative nature of that remark is an exercise left to the reader. These comments, however, clearly are homophobic while he rather ridiculously claims that they are not.

O’Reilly’s comments made me yearn for the honesty of an honest-to-God homophobe. The obvious choice was Fred Phelps. This preacher became famous for showing up with picketers to funerals of AIDS victims. The signs the held said things like “God Hates Fags” “AIDS Kills Fags Dead” and sometimes would feature the name of the deceased and proclaim that he was now in hell. He showed up to Randy Shilts’ funeral in 1994 and was greeted by counter protesters armed with eggs. Phelps was an early adopter and has had a web page for the last several years at godhatesfags.com. He posts sermons there in mp3 format, all about one hour long. The tone of his sermons matches the tone of his protesting. Nevertheless, the words “lesbian” and “gay” have crept into his vocabulary, in addition to his preferred terms, “fags,” “dykes,” and “sodomites.”

Phelps is entirely occupied with the issue of queer civil rights and when he talks about political issues in other areas, he tends to see it as it pertains to the evil sodomite agenda. He tends to view anyone that does not spend as much time occupied with hating sodomites as much as he does as pro-gay. Therefore, he pickets Catholic churches, Billy Graham and other fundamentalists that most queers would perceive as homophobic. Phelps would affirm O’Reilly's claim of tolerance and attack him for it. O’Reilly pales in comparison.

Phelps’s hour longer sermon was too long and too meandering to process automatically. It also was extremely distorted. He recorded it much too hot, which made the spaces between phrases fairly loud. I selected emblematic homophobic phrases from one sermon and created several shorter audio files containing those phrases. I used automatic processing on my O’Reilly sample, which came from Media Matters with other Buster- related content of “Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway [asserting] that it's not an issue of ‘right versus left, but right versus wrong’ and that people ‘don't want their kids looking at a cartoon with a bunch of lesbian mothers.’” (http://mediamatters.org/items/200502170007) I took the phrases pre-loaded from Phelps and the ones automatically discovered in O’Reilly and used the pitch finding algorithm that I developed for my Rush Limbaugh piece. I also used the same marimba sound. When that sound expands to the time scale of a spoken phrase, it becomes much more gamelan or gong-link.

I was concerned that re-using my Limbaugh code would make the pieces sound too similar. I went to Professor Kuivila for feedback. He told me that the pieces were adequately distinct and suggested that I take the Phelps piece further. Instead of merely showing similarity between right and far right discourse, Ron suggested that I add in mainstream commentary to show how all discourse contains homophobia, as we all have some degree of internalized homophobia. I found content from PBS’s News Hour commenting on the Buster controversy and incorporated it.

I then added in other commentary clips discussing Buster and other homophobic audio files I had been collecting, including the president excluding same sex marriage, an initially puzzling comment that poor school discipline was the fault of queers (this comment is discussed in a previous chapter) and a Fox News correspondent badgering Disney’s president about “Gay Days” in the theme park. (http://mediamatters.org/items/200408060012) All of these clips had in common an idea of incompatibility between queer relationships and ‘normal’ family life. Queers are unfit for marriage and, perhaps more importantly, we are dangerous to children. Children at Disneyland are not protected from us. Children in New Jersey cannot be educated because their governor is gay. Children across the nation are irreparably harmed by Buster commenting that one of the kids on the show “has a lot of moms.” (http://slate.msn.com/id/2112706/) The danger doesn’t seem to be just that the kids will turn gay, but they will become every kind of alien other. Violent, sexual, dangerous, perhaps animal, not quite civilized monsters, who exist outside of social norms.

I finished this piece only days before my concert. My original plan was to realize all of my pieces in stereo, so that I could use the chapel’s installed speakers, thus saving myself setup time and creating pieces that could be played virtually anywhere. I plugged my laptop into the chapel’s sound system and was met with Rev Fred Phelps screaming about fire and brimstone and sodomites burning in hell. The chapel setting gave him authority. Church is his own turf. His damnation seemed almost reasonable. I could not compete with him through the architectural speakers. Instead, I routed all the voices through two small speakers on the stage. The gong sounds went through the architectural speakers alone. They are introduced slowly as the piece progresses and linger after the voices end, getting the last word. The greater authority of the musical sounds and their persistence fills an allegory of music triumphing over politics.

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