From the 'family traditionalists,' an unpalatable Whopper

Robert A. Bernstein

December 12, 1990|By Robert A. Bernstein

BURGER KING is merchandising another whopper -- the proposition that those who parade under the banner of "traditional family values" are in fact good for American family life.

In advertisements in The Evening Sun and some 300 other newspapers nationwide, the fast-food firm recently stated that it supports "traditional American values on television, especially the importance of the family." The mega-buck ads climaxed a two-month boycott of Burger King by a fundamentalist group that accused the company of sponsoring what it calls "anti-family" programs.

The critics presumably are well-intentioned. But they are also tragically mistaken. The success of what is probably the principal thrust of their crusade can be directly measured in shattered families and teen-age suicides.

Neither Burger King nor the complainting group, CLEAR TV -- an acronym for Christian Leaders for Responsible Television -- will say precisely what programs were involved. But the phrase "traditional values" is code for a set of standards among which the most predominant is an aversion to sympathetic portrayals of gay men and women.

By this credo, homosexuality is necessarily anti-family, and anything that hints at kindness or understanding toward lesbians or gay men must be the working of the devil. CLEAR is but one of several fundamentalist watchdogs prepared to bark, in the name of "traditional values," when homosexuality is publicly depicted in anything other than a condemning light.

Ironically, the families most likely to be devastated by negative attitudes toward homosexuality are those of the watchdogs themselves -- and any others whose "traditional values" preclude the realistic reexamination of shopworn stereotypes.

The statistics of human diversity determine that something like one-quarter of all families will have gay or lesbian members. They are among the healthy, productive and creative citizens in every walk of life -- and are loved and loving participants in countless warm family circles.

Parental loyalty to rigid and outmoded belief systems provides no immunity against the biological happenstance of a child's being gay. But it can subject that child to untold domestic mayhem, ranging from simple discord and parental rejection to domestic beatings and, too often, death by suicide.

A government-sponsored study reveals that gay and lesbian teens are up to three times as likely to commit suicide as other youth, precisely because of the unwarranted stigma brought to bear on them by society and their families. (Significantly, the study's recommendation that something be done to save such children was rejected by the secretary of health and human services, at the urging of fundamentalist forces, as contrary to -- I kid you not -- "traditional family values.")

These are some of the reasons the United Thank Offering of the Episcopal Church recently contributed major financial backing to suicide prevention program aimed specifically at gay and lesbian adolescents.

Among those on hand for the announcement of the program in Anaheim, Calif., last October were the suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and the president of the Los Angeles school board. They, along with other speakers, cited fundamentalist zealots as important impediments to reducing teen suicides.

But the most compelling testimony that day came from Mary Griffith, a northern California mother of four. At times in tears, she recalled how her one-time adherence to fundamentalist church teachings had contributed to the suicide of her gay son, Bobby, at the age of 20 seven years ago.

Bobby killed himself because he was convinced his homosexuality made him a doomed sinner. "I did not know then, as I do now," Griffith said, "that Bobby did not have any more choice regarding his sexual orientation than did my other son and two daughters, all of whom are heterosexual. I did not know then that Bobby's homosexuality was, for him, natural and healthy.

"More importantly, Bobby did not know those things either . . . There were no programs that could have offset what he was told by me at home and by others in our church."

Griffith has cut her fundamentalist church ties and now works with support groups of other parents of gay children. She says she does it to help them avoid her own mistake.

To keep them, in other words, from buying into a Burger King whopper.

Robert A. Bernstein, a retired law professor and U.S. Department of Justice lawyer, is vice president of the Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. He writes from Bethesda.

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