Longstanding outrage over the L.A. Times’ coverage of stories affecting the gay community was stoked earlier this month when the paper greeted the Vermont Supreme Court’s unprecedented ruling on behalf of same-sex couples with editorial silence. In contrast, The New York Times came out with an editorial in favor of full civil rights for gay people.
But the uproar was nothing like the reaction to a January 13 political cartoon, by resident conservative Michael Ramirez, that appeared to equate homosexuality with bestiality. It drew still more angry letters. Writers like local performance artist Tim Miller said they were canceling their subscription.
Then, adding salt to the wound, the Times tried to address the controversy in a column last Sunday by associate editor and readers’ representative Narda Zacchino. But many gays think she furthered Ramirez’s bigotry by failing to apologize for his attack on gay readers, and ended up endorsing Ramirez’s attack on gay readers.
The cartoon showed a military policeman approaching a jeep with a soldier behind the wheel, sitting rather affectionately alongside a sheep, with his arm around the animal’s shoulder. The MP is depicted admonishing himself, “Don’t ask. Don’t ask. Don’t ask.” Many gay people saw the cartoon as sanctioning an argument commonly advanced by the radical right, that homosexuality is as illegitimate as bestiality, pederasty, drug addiction and murder, and that Ramirez used the current military “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” controversy to insidiously convey a homophobic agenda.
That day, the Los Angeles office of the national Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center received telephone calls and e-mails from angry gay and lesbian readers. “We felt that the cartoon demonstrated a very clear intent to link gay and lesbian service people with the notion of bestiality,” says GLAAD Deputy Director for Communication Stephen Spurgeon. “We were appalled.”
GLAAD, along with Gwen Baldwin, the executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Center, sought a meeting with Times editors. The meeting occurred on January 20 with Janet Clayton, editor of the page; Davilynn Furlow, deputy reader representative; and Zacchino. “All three of the women were open to our point of view that the cartoon was completely denigrating to a category of people,” says Spurgeon. He also says the newspaper rejected a request to print an apology, saying it wasn’t their policy to print apologies for editorial cartoons. “They said that the cartoonist is there to help balance the liberal cartoons the paper also runs.”
Zacchino, in her piece, said she is sympathetic to gay people and cited letters from readers criticizing Ramirez for inciting the kind of hatred that led to the recent beating death of a gay soldier by another solider. She reported that the editorial-pages editor, Janet Clayton, and editor Michael Parks, who have rejected cartoons in the past, “had no link in their minds between gays and bestiality and had never heard of such a slur,” thus implying they bear no responsibility for their actions.
What most incensed gay readers was the way Zacchino just didn’t seem to get it. She quoted Ramirez as saying that “The bestiality analogy is ‘an extreme interpretation’ by people ‘with an agenda.’”
“I think that Zacchino’s effort is actually more disturbing than Ramirez’s, because we at least know that he is an ultraconservative,” says ACT UP member Wendell Jones. “But here Zacchino is actually the Times’ representative, calling herself the readers’ representative, essentially not only covering up Ramirez’s first mistake, but allowing him to represent those of us who can read the obvious imagery in the cartoon for what it is — as the real extremism.”
On Tuesday, Zacchino struck a more conciliatory tone in an interview. She realized she hadn’t been as clear in her column as she would have liked. While not apologizing for Ramirez, she said that “If I had to do it over again, I would have stated my position more firmly. I regret that the cartoon ran, that it raised gay stereotypes and dehumanized gay people, and that was reprehensible.”
Editorial-pages editor Janet Clayton said she had discussed the cartoon with editor Michael Parks: “We’re not unaware people. We looked at the [Ramirez] cartoon a long time, and Michael and I discussed it. I thought that some people were going to look at this cartoon and draw the conclusion that this cartoon was going after people for who they are. But it was also our judgement that, by the end of the day, people were going to see what [Ramirez] is saying, commenting on the stupidity of [the military’s] policy. I know that some people took offense [at] the article. But a newspaper is not in the habit of apologizing for doing what a newspaper is supposed to do, which is provoke discussion. Cartoons are blunt instruments.”
The Rev. Paul Tellstrom, pastor of Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church, doesn’t appreciate the attempt to explain away Ramirez’s comments. “The cartoon wasn’t provoking discussion,” he says, “but promoting prejudice, and should never have been allowed to run. I might be able to see how some editors didn’t see the [homophobic] reference, but when 97 percent of reader responses call attention to that reference, it’s time for the Times to say they were wrong.”