Cartoonist Joe King, who on Facebook lists "Christian satire" as his primary activity, has produced a 2012 wall calendar called "I'm Not Gay, I'm Just A Sissy" (subtitled "12 Months of Sexual Confusion - Not that there's anything wrong with that!".) The strong LGBT online reaction to its content got the calendar kicked off Barnes & Noble in a firestorm that illustrates the sometimes blurry line between satire and hate-speech.
Andy Towle got the ball rolling on Towleroad when, on December 27th, he simply highlighted the fact that a reader was upset to find the calendar for sale on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.
On December 30th, The Pink News, "Europe's Largest Gay News Service", notes that the calendar remains available on Amazon-UK, and reports, "One of King's cartoons depicts Paul Revere riding on horseback and shouting "The sodomites are coming! The sodomites are coming!". [The calendar] is dedicated to the memory of the US revolutionary hero and to gay rights opponent Anita Bryant."
At The Daily Kos, Chrislove writes, "I called Amazon and Barnes & Noble today. I spoke with a supervisor at Amazon who agreed that the calendar is highly offensive. She said Amazon does pull certain offensive items, but it takes a lot of customer feedback to make a decision like that. The customer service representative I spoke with at Barnes & Noble was noticeably appalled that the company was selling the item, and she said, 'Surely somebody wouldn't make something like this in this day and age.' Oh, but they would."
Additional mention on Huffington Post and elsewhere resulted in a barrage of demands to Barnes & Noble causing the calendar's boot and also resulted in an extremely negative ranking on Amazon that may eventually cause its removal from that retailer as well.
GLAAD (The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) takes a clear stand in its description of the calendar as offensive. GLAAD's Danny Heffernan writes, "The cartoons employ outdated, highly-offensive stereotypes about LGBT people, and more specifically, gay men... The 'humor' it purports to offer relies on a belief that there is something inherently funny about being gay or gender non-conforming. Furthermore, it espouses inaccuracies about LGBT people that only contribute to the stereotypes used to stifle progress toward equality."
Mr. King's Facebook response to all this is startlingly cavalier and grade schoolish with its come-on-guys-can't-you-take-a-joke attitude which is not what one would expect from an experienced satirist whose living depends on the size of his audience. Saying that he feels like David against a gay Goliath, he writes, "Hoo-we! Hell hath no fury like a he/she scorned... The telephone tree of tantrums is lit up like a Las Vegas marquee for "Boy-Lesque" today with hate mail, threats of boycott and even the risk of Jesus spitting on me for my "Sissy" calendar. I SAID I WAS A SISSY UP FRONT. Ironic who the real bullies are isn't it?"
To justify his harrumph over being attacked for the calendar, Mr. King serves up the assertions that he once worked for a lesbian, that the material in the calendar is not new, and that a queer publication once purchased rights to one of his cartoons.
Mr. King's cluelessness aside, the contentious calendar reminds us that there is a difference between free speech and hate speech. There is a difference between humor and defamation. Sometimes the litmus test of that difference is as simple as "I know it when I hear it," but more often, the LGBT community is faced with a constant barrage of depictions, references, jokes, ads, TV shows, pop songs, movies and bumper stickers that make some of us laugh and others cringe.
Does Mr. King really envision his vocation as being that of the boorish guy at a dinner party who, at table, tells an off-color or racist or homophobic joke and then wonders about the dead silent response? As a gay writer for a number of LGBT media outlets, I sometimes learned this lesson the hard way.
The trans community was not shy about letting me know when my attempts at humor or the words I chose were offensive to them. When I would explain that I intended no offense, their reply amounted to "Well, now you know." I took this to heart and have tried to craft my words carefully so as not to offend. I will not always succeed, but I see great merit in trying to elevate the quality of my self-expression.
I suspect that Mr. King, who has not responded to my request for a dialogue about this matter, feels that the rights of a satirist in the area of sexual identity are boundless now that LGBT characters of all types appear frequently in mainstream media. This is naïve. Does he really think we are a humorless and testy lot? Does he really think that making cracks about HIV and AIDS in a world in which so many of us live with the enduring and terrible sadness and grief over the loss of friends and relatives should go unchallenged?
I do not think Mr. King needs a lesson in freedom of speech and why it is different from defamation and slander, but I do think Mr. King would benefit from a lesson in good manners, which, when acquired, always increase rather than decrease a satirist's ability to delight and amuse. Finally there is that almost unteachable quality called skill. A skilled satirist succeeds where a clumsy one fails. Alas, some people who feel the music never become great dancers.
(A version of this report appears in the current issue of 10thousandcouples.com.)