If you’ve ever seen an episode of Arthur on PBS, the theme song has planted itself, indelibly, in your brain. “It’s a simple message,” Ziggy Marley tells us. “Believe in yourself” first and you will learn to get along with each other.
The show first aired in the fall of 1996. And despite its cast of animal characters, over almost 250 episodes, Arthur has consistently asked children to see the humanity in the people who pass them on the street, who go to school with them and who teach them. Every episode, the theme reminds viewers that today is that “wonderful kind of day” to work toward cooperation and kindness.
Most recently, this emphasis on the humanity and dignity of others played out in the show’s 22nd season premiere, titled “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone.” Spoiler alert: Mr. Ratburn marries Patrick, and his students are happy to see him happy. It’s a simple message, but one I never dared to imagine would air when I was younger. It felt like a milestone in representation.
But with small steps forward come reminders of the forces that want to push queer people aside. Public television stations in Arkansas and Alabama refused to air the episode, opting for a re-run instead. They have no plans to air it at a later date. Here is their reasoning, according to Alabama Public Television’s director of programming Mike McKenzie:
“Parents have trusted Alabama Public Television for more than 50 years to provide children’s programs that entertain, educate and inspire. More importantly—although we strongly encourage parents to watch television with their children and talk about what they have learned afterwards—parents trust that their children can watch APT without their supervision. We also know that children who are younger than the ‘target’ audience for Arthur also watch the program.”
Here is the less PR-friendly summary of McKenzie’s words:
Gay or queer identities—and especially relationships—are inappropriate topics for children.
It’s an idea that is often replicated in schools. We hear it most clearly when school leaders and teachers hush students or offer euphemisms when asked about gay teachers or guardians. We hear it in the language that surrounds school dances, and we see it in the family photos that are —and, notably, aren’t—displayed on teachers’ desks.
And while this refusal to engage is often presented as a “neutral” stance, it’s time for us to be honest about what it really means. To suggest that queer relationships are inappropriate for children—absent any overtly sexual content—is inherently homophobic.
We allow children to grapple with the concept of love: Children’s books, movies, even history lessons are riddled with heteroromantic plotlines. Like the fairy tales they’re based on, Disney movies often end in a kiss.
But when we suggest that children are not “old enough” to see queer couples, we deny them the chance to see other forms love can take in this world. And when we do that, we send a clear message: that queer people are dangerous or inexplicable, either sinister or so unnatural that children couldn’t possibly comprehend their existence.
We tell students what is “normal,” and the consequences are clear: When they finally encounter a queer couple walking down the street, they will see a story they haven’t been told. They will see a story that adults in their lives have determined isn’t worth telling. Some of them will realize that this story aligns with one they’d imagined for themselves and wonder: What is my worth?
But this is about more than just representation.
It’s not lost on me that Mr. Ratburn is a teacher who has not shared his identity with his students. When television stations refuse to air the episode of his marriage—or when school leaders and teachers refuse to acknowledge LGBTQ people in schools and curricula—what message does that send to queer teachers? It says, Your identity endangers your job, and perhaps your students. It says, You have no support here.
And what message does that send to queer students? That their identity is best kept secret? That they will never be celebrated? That—in a moment of pivotal self-definition—the adults tasked with caring for them are afraid to label them as normal?
It’s a fear, if I’m honest, that I understand. When I worked in a school, I performed this erasure on myself. I did not share my identity with students. And I’m not alone. Even at a conference last year for LGBTQ educators, nearly a third said their identity at school was a secret. We’re not immune to internalizing the messages being sent about our existence around children; we’re not immune to the potential consequences. We—and students like us—need allies.
Only a month ago, a former student found me on Instagram. I block minors as a policy, but before I could, I saw the comment he’d left on a photo of me and my partner: “You’re gay?” he wrote. “You were my favorite teacher at school. But not anymore.”
When I saw the news about Mr. Ratburn’s wedding, I imagined that student, somewhere, watching that episode. I wondered if it could counter the messages he’d been taught by silence and, instead, offer a simpler one: That just like the students on Arthur discovered, this person who worked at their school was, at his essence, a human seeking happiness. And what’s more normal than that?
We live in a strange cultural moment. All at once, the first major, openly gay presidential candidate is on the cover of Time with his husband while a network refuses to expose children to a scene of G-rated gay marriage. The disconnect between the world our students inhabit and the world we decide is appropriate to show them is stark.
And it says something about us if we don’t fight against that in the classroom. Every day we don’t is a day we’re failing to prepare students to understand others and themselves. Every day we don’t is a day we accept homophobia as the default setting in our schools.
Obstacles to equity exist and should be acknowledged. The forces that can remove an episode from the airwaves also exist in the school space. Outside groups pressure schools to remove LGBTQ-friendly policies and curriculum. Some state legislators put that practice into law. In seven states, “No Promo Homo” laws prohibit public schools from discussing LGBTQ people in health and sex ed courses. Some of these states’ laws are vague enough to seemingly ban any positive mention of LGBTQ people in the classroom. But even educators outside of those states comply with the spirit of the laws when they choose silence.
Sometimes, that choice stems from an understandable unease. Teachers’ job security often rests on a knife’s edge.
But when we can tell these stories, we must. When we refuse to offer a window or a mirror, we are closing doors.
When we can push for a better system, we must. Not just because representation matters, but because exclusion is dishonest. Exclusion offers an incomplete picture of the world, its people, its past and its present. Exclusion keeps people from telling their own stories while those who would do them harm step in to fill the gaps.
The situation is complicated, but the lesson here is simple. And, like the lessons on Arthur, it comes from the heart: Our LGBTQ students deserve to believe in themselves. So do our queer teachers. But how can they believe in something we never name? How can they believe in something we never celebrate?
And when we do, wow, what a wonderful kind of day that will be.
Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.
Editor's Note: Following their decision not to broadcast the episode of Arthur, the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) reversed course. While they have not aired the episode at the time of this publication, the station tweeted that it plans to air “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone” later this month.