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Alabama church decides to host screening of banned Arthur episode featuring same-sex marriage

A Birmingham church decided it will show the episode and throw a "wedding party."

WGBH/PBS KIDS
WGBH/PBS KIDS

After Alabama Public Television decided not to air an episode of the children’s television show Arthur that featured a same-sex marriage, a Birmingham church said it planned to hold its own screening. The First United Methodist Church will hold the screening on June 15 and plans to serve wedding cake and sparkling apple juice to celebrate the union of the show’s characters, Mr. Ratburn, Arthur’s teacher, and Patrick, a chocolatier.

In May, the director of programming at Alabama Public Television (APT), Mike McKenzie said in a statement to media that it would be a “violation of trust to broadcast the episode” because the “vast majority of parents will not have heard about the content, whether they agree with it or not.”

APT showed an Arthur rerun instead of the episode, “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone.” The episode begins with Mr. Ratburn’s students becoming concerned that he was marrying the wrong person after they heard him having difficult conversations with a woman on the phone about wedding plans. They try to stop the marriage but realize later that it was Mr. Ratburn’s sister he was talking to, and that he was about to marry a nice man instead.

APT also refused to air an episode that was a spinoff of Arthur called “Postcards From Buster.” The episode showed a queer female couple parenting one of Buster’s friends. Their daughter refers to them as her mother and stepmother and Buster says, “That’s a lot of moms!”

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The church is working with Sidewalk Film Festival and Shout LGBTQ Film Festival to organize the event. The creative director for those festivals, Rachel Morgan, told AL.com,  “Weddings take places at churches all the time. So First Church seems like a perfect venue for the cartoon in my opinion. (The church) frequently communicates to the community that they are an ‘open place for all,’ and I think this event reflects that statement.”

Rev. Stephanie Arnold, the church’s senior pastor, told the AP that she is urging Methodists to embrace “full inclusion.” The United Methodist Church recently voted to uphold a ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage.

Despite APT’s choice not to air the episode, the reception across the United States to this portrayal of queer Arthur characters was likely very different than the reception of two moms in 2005. At the time, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings wrote to the head of PBS Pat Mitchell, “Congress’ and the department’s purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children. Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode.”

PBS eventually succumbed to pressure and pulled the episode.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has shown numerous times that her policies are antagonistic to the LGBTQ community but has not taken similar action. Although many religious right groups have continued to object to showing LGBTQ characters on television, as they did in 2005, GLAAD said in its 2018-2019 report on LGBTQ characters in media, “Representation in daytime kids and family television continues to grow in leaps and bounds.” One such example is The Loud House, which focuses on a family that includes a bisexual daughter and regularly features a child whose parents are two men.

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In 2005, only 36% of Americans said they favored same-sex marriage but in 2019, 61% of Americans say the same, according to the Pew Research Center. Non-stereotypical or harmful portrayals of queer people on television, such as Arthur, may contribute to a change in attitudes. According to a 2019 research article, “’The Rippled Perceptions’: The Effects of LGBT-Inclusive TV on Own Attitudes and Perceived Attitudes of Peers Toward Lesbians and Gays,” LGBTQ-inclusive television can have modest yet positive effects on viewers’ attitudes toward gay people.