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Censorship: The
big chill

Censorship: The
big chill


Paul Reubens: arrested for collecting vintage nude photos. Howard Stern: silenced for on-air speech. How a nationwide crackdown on "obscenity" could freeze out gay and lesbian expression for years to come

In November 2001, Los Angeles police officers raided actor Paul Reubens's Hollywood hills home, seizing what they alleged to be stacks and stacks of obscene material and what Reubens called his "vintage art collection." They confiscated his computers, his PalmPilot, his address book. Suddenly, the man who as Pee-wee Herman was the most popular children's television star of the late '80s was in the spotlight, accused by the city of Los Angeles of possessing child porn. Reubens fought back for more than two years, but on March 19--facing prosecutors determined to make an example of him in what they called their stand against the "sexual exploitation of children"--he agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor obscenity charge, pay a $100 fine, and register with the police for three years. There would be no show trial for Pee-wee Herman, but the damage was done. The big chill had come to Hollywood. Reubens declined to speak to The Advocate, citing his busy schedule, but in interviews with Dateline NBC and Entertainment Weekly he stressed that he possessed no child pornography, and he revealed the kind of images that had offended the Los Angeles Police Department: old physique photographs such as those on the cover of this magazine and featured in writer-director Thom Fitzgerald's 1999 film Beefcake. "There were nude pictures," the actor told EW. "It's a collection of vintage photography, and a lot of it is erotic or sexual. But I don't view my collection as dirty in any way. I view it as art.... They seized magazines that were 40, 50, 60 years old--stuff that was legally produced and legal to possess at the time." Back then, models were often photographed nude, but artists painted clothing on the images before the magazines were sold on newsstands, Fitzgerald says. The original photographs, classically posed, were seen as an important addition to art collections. "The images [of that time] were nude but rarely pornographic," he says. "I think it's important that there are law enforcers pursuing child abusers; however, I can think of several examples where that pursuit has gone terribly awry." Physique poses. Old art photos. Vintage nudist magazines. Images that any curious gay man might pick up at a flea market without thinking twice. "People should ask themselves, 'What do I have in my house?' " Reubens warned EW readers. " 'What would I do if the police came with no warning?' " If Reubens is a sex offender, does that mean every gay man in America should fear the government combing through his hard drive or searching under his mattress? In 2004 in the United States of America the definition of "obscene" is suddenly broadening to encompass all kinds of adult self-expression, including Reubens's art collection, Janet Jackson's PG-13 Super Bowl stunt, and Howard Stern's familiar radio antics. Cross the line with the LAPD or the FCC and the hammer of censorship may come down on you. You could lose your reputation, your voice, your broadcast license, and hundreds of thousands of dollars. "There is so much weird stuff going on today--the idea that everyone should conform," Reubens told EW. "One of the points of my TV show [Pee-wee's Playhouse] was that it was OK to be weird. Fourteen years after the show went off [the air] conformity is even more encouraged." Indeed, conformity to the new, narrow definition of what is acceptable is being harshly enforced. On April 8, Stern's talk show was dropped by Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest chain of radio stations, after the Federal Communications Commission proposed a $495,000 fine for broadcasting Stern's "indecent" material. Think what you like of Stern, but to much of the country--and to regulators--his sexually explicit vulgarity is a little different from, say, portrayals of same-sex affection on ER or It's All Relative. With so much money at stake, Hollywood insiders say, the current atmosphere in television and film production can best be described as "chilled." With censorship looming large, writers, producers, and studio executives are all more cautious about the gay and lesbian subject matter in their projects. While queer programming on broadcast TV and basic cable seems to be enjoying an all-time high in popularity--with hits such as NBC's Will & Grace and Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy--many are concerned that the green light for new projects may change to red as media companies attempt to curry favor with regulators and politicians. "There are two very strong opinions about how images should be seen and heard in this country right now," says Stephen Macias, entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "In one direction you have a bright stream of GLBT images in many, many shows, and in the other you have a very conservative administration in Washington." In fact, the U.S. Justice Department has launched a vigorous new crackdown on what it calls "adult obscenity"--a federal focus on prosecutions akin to what Reubens endured. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has hired antiporn crusader Bruce Taylor as senior counsel for the criminal division on obscenity issues. President George W. Bush's 2005 budget includes $4 million to hire more prosecutors and FBI agents devoted to targeting adult obscenity. The American Civil Liberties Union and other free-speech groups have said that the new measures amount to pure censorship and appear to be political maneuvers in the conservative culture war. Meanwhile, the FCC, headed by George W. Bush appointee Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, is clamping down on radio and TV networks. Shock jocks like Stern and fellow New Yorkers Opie and Anthony as well as Tampa, Fla.'s Bubba the Love Sponge have either been slapped with fines or threatened with retroactive penalties for sexually explicit broadcasts. Todd Clem, a.k.a. Bubba the Love Sponge, was fired for sexually explicit radio segments in February, with his Tampa-based station subject to $755,000 in fines. The "obscene" segment? A bit that featured cartoon characters such as Alvin the Chipmunk discussing sex in a manner "designed to pander to, titillate, and shock listeners," the FCC said. The commission fined the station's owner, Clear Channel, the maximum of $27,500 for each time the segment aired. Soon after, Stern's morning show was temporarily pulled from six Clear Channel stations sexual content. The final ax came down a month later. (Stern was on vacation and could not be reached by The Advocate.) That same week--the last week in February--executives from ABC, Fox, NBC, Pax, and Clear Channel testified before a congressional committee on broadcasting standards that has suggested raising the FCC's maximum fine from $27,500 to $275,000. At the rate proposed, Clear Channel could have been subject to more than $7 million in fines for Bubba the Love Sponge's inane goofing. Media historians caution that what is happening now is likely little more than a temporary "reining in" of U.S. entertainers after years of pushing the envelope with bold and provocative projects. It's a pattern that has emerged over decades as artists push two steps against the establishment only to be pushed back one step. Eventually, experts say, the artists push two more steps forward before the establishment pushes back again, but the society as a whole remains ahead of where it was. "It's a momentary overreaction to the Super Bowl, not a real change in the culture," says Al Franken, host of radio's The O'Franken Factor on the recently launched liberal radio network Air America. "Basically, we're just dealing with a group of people right now who think some things are good and some things are evil. Sex outside marriage is evil. Sloth is evil. Homosexuality is evil. Violence gets a pass because of gun issues, because if an evil person were to come into the house of a good person, they want to be able to shoot them." Franken saw his share of infighting among network censors as an actor and writer on NBC's Saturday Night Live and admits that people are much more sensitive to slips of the tongue or costume than in the past. However, Franken tells The Advocate that even the most ardent opponents of sexual content on television are unlikely to support a concrete ban anytime soon. "In hotels something like two thirds of all the movie rentals are pornographic films, and the people buying them are businessmen, mostly Republican conservatives," he says. "If they really wanted to go through with this thinking, then imagine a congressman standing up and saying, 'As a cultural conservative, I'd like to submit a bill banning pornography in hotels,' and meanwhile, 435 other guys are sitting there saying, 'Um, uh, Chuck--no. No, no, no.' " But even if the impact on free expression for gay and lesbian content is temporary, it could be devastating, particularly at this moment in history. Given President Bush's vocal, politically motivated support of a constitutional amendment denying marriage rights to same-sex couples, some producers and writers imagine networks may be under pressure to keep gay-oriented programs off the air. And in a business where decisions on projects can be based on even the slightest hint of a problem, the risk of gay-friendly programming being killed before it sees the light of day is a threat many are living with. "What if Will & Grace were coming out now and NBC had it in development and started doing interviews for it and suddenly started getting complaints about the content?" posits Craig Zadan, an executive producer of ABC's gay-inclusive It's All Relative sitcom, TV movies such as Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, and theatrical films including the steamy Chicago. "We might be in a place now where the show wouldn't get on the air." Zadan felt the sting of censorship pressure well before Janet Jackson's Super Bowl appearance when The Reagans, a miniseries he produced with business partner Neil Meron, was yanked from CBS's TV lineup last November as a result of crushing pressure from Republican members of Congress and outrage from others on the right. The movie attracted attention for its portrayal of Nancy and Ronald Reagan as flawed characters, in the literary tradition, as opposed to deified objects of praise. Zadan and Meron vehemently argued that the portrayal was meant to help viewers gain an appreciation and understanding of the Reagans as people, but opponents argued that the movie was a slap at an often-polarizing political figure. Eventually, the movie was edited and shifted to CBS sister network Showtime, a pay service not subject to the FCC or advertisers' fears and therefore less vulnerable to censorship. "I don't blame CBS at all, because they did what anyone would do facing that much pressure," Zadan says now. "But it shows that this pressure was out there before the Super Bowl and that if it wasn't the Super Bowl incident, it would have been something else because [conservatives] have been waiting for something like that to happen." (Zadan and Meron also lost a project as a direct result of Jackson's Super Bowl appearance when Lena Horne announced in the aftermath that she would not allow Jackson to portray her in a Horne biopic Zadan and Meron were developing.) For now, Zadan and Meron's show It's All Relative, which features two gay men as parents of a woman whose fiance is a man with Irish Catholic parents, remains in good standing at ABC, the network owned by Disney. But the show's creation was a result of a direct request from ABC Television Entertainment Group chairman Lloyd Braun, who Daily Variety reported on April 6 would likely be replaced in May--about the time Zadan and Meron will learn whether Relative will be renewed for a second season. The key question that remains in the minds of many observers is, What will the entertainment world look like in 12 to 18 months, when new television, movie, and radio projects conceived in these awkward times are finally reaching screens and airwaves? Will the big chill of 2004 translate to lukewarm entertainment options and increasing gay and lesbian invisibility down the road? Gary Edgerton, professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia and coeditor of the Journal of Popular Film and Television, says he believes the situation will improve as the combined effects of the Super Bowl and the presidential election disappear into the cultural soup and the nation moves on to fresh issues to debate. "Temporarily, it will have a chilling effect, and that will affect [gay and lesbian] programming because it's so high-profile right now," Edgerton says. "But clearly things have been easing up and becoming more tolerant, and that trend will continue. Right now the custodians of culture are focused on this, but with so many outlets and so many channels, eventually their attention will be drawn to other places." But from Zadan's perspective, even a temporary blip in the momentum for gay and lesbian programming may be too much, because the identity of the victims of the current spate of censorship in America will never even be known.

"It's the projects that are out there now trying to get made, where changes are being sent back to scripts that were approved before, and maybe entire projects are getting scrapped. I know it's happening right now, and I'm surprised more artists haven't spoken out," says Zadan, who coincidentally is currently working on a movie version of Fahrenheit 451, a story about government- sanctioned book burning, due for release in 2005. "The thing is, you won't ever know about it because the networks or studios can always say they didn't like it for creative reasons, and then it's gone."

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