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By nixing show, PBS spotlights gay family

Times Staff Writer

Like a twisted practical jokester, Buster the cartoon rabbit hopped into Vermont in late January, leaving a basket of good news and bad news for Karen Pike, partner Gillian Pieper and their three children.

First, the good news: WGBH-TV in Boston, producers of “Postcards From Buster,” wanted to feature their family in an episode from Vermont called “Sugartime.” The television crew came, spent three days filming the family in their daily activities and on a visit to a maple sugar farm. The kids were excitedly waiting for the show to air.

Next, the bad news: In a single day, PBS decided not to distribute the show and received a letter from the secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, who said that “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode,” which depicted an animated rabbit encountering a Vermont household headed by the lesbian moms in a matter-of-fact way.

But then 54 of PBS’ 349 stations (representing the major urban markets and 55% of U.S. households) decided to air the episode anyway; gay and lesbian activists mobilized to hold “Sugartime” screenings in church basements and a “virtual rally” online; the national media came calling; and the family was overwhelmed with expressions of support from strangers, including a case of ice cream from Ben and Jerry.

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“It’s been a frustrating and enlightening period for all of us,” said Pike, 42.

Pike, a photographer, and Pieper, 38, a health educator, were united in a civil union five years ago and make their home in Hinesburg, a rural suburb of Burlington, Vt., with Emma, 11, and David, 10 -- Pike’s children from a previous marriage -- and James, 11, whom Pieper had adopted with her ex-partner.

The frustration, Pike said, was because a PBS station had essentially come to them.

“Gillian and I both grew up watching ‘Sesame Street,’ ” she said. “We were really excited to open up our home to Buster and the young television audience. Our kids were excited to be able to show off their home, the family they love and the state they live in. It made them feel really special, which is what the show is supposed to be. It’s all about the kids.”

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When they got the call that the episode had been dropped and would not be distributed nationally by PBS because the parents are gay, “It was devastating,” Pike said. “It pulled the rug out from under all of us. Emma cried some very large tears. Our sons were so very confused.... The message it sends to my kids is, ‘What’s wrong with us?’ ”

Pike said “Now,” a PBS current events show, called about three weeks ago to arrange an interview for a feature on the controversy. But she said she was told about a week later it was dropped when it became clear that no one from the Department of Education or PBS would be available for interviews.

“Now” spokesman Rick Byrne said producers at WNET, a PBS member station in New York, decided to go with a more timely and hard-hitting story. He denied any influence by PBS. “My understanding is that PBS was fine with us going ahead with the story. They don’t assign us stories, and they don’t kill them,” Byrne said.

Though the “Buster” controversy spawned a new round of national debate about control of public television, Pike said her family has received only positive feedback. A trickle of support turned into a flood of hundreds of letters, e-mails and gifts for the family.

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“Emma got a stuffed bear from a family in Pennsylvania,” Pike said. “The father said he wanted her to know that as different as his family was from ours, we were all equally important. He sent her the bear to hug if it got too much.”

Some people got confused. “Gillian and I do not make maple syrup,” Pike said. “I have people calling me from Nebraska and Minneapolis wanting to buy my maple syrup or add it into their gourmet catering.”

She said their kids understand why the show was canceled but that “it’s fallen into the shadows” of all the people who’ve expressed kindness and support.

Some member stations, including KCET in Los Angeles and WGBH in Boston, said the response to their decisions to air the “Buster” episode was overwhelmingly positive.

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Other encouraging events followed:

* The National Television Academy nominated “Postcards From Buster” for two Daytime Emmys, one for writing and one for outstanding children’s series.

* Hoping to take advantage of the buzz, WGBH reissued a press release seeking national corporate sponsors for “Buster” and another educational children’s cartoon, “Arthur.” The Boston public station has received $18,000 in donations in response to the controversy, said Lucy Sholley, director of media relations.

So far, she said, “Buster” has no funding for a second season. The Department of Education financed the first season with a $5-million grant but has not received funding for the second season.

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* Gay and lesbian activist groups, the Family Pride Coalition and the Human Rights Campaign, got busy. On Thursday, the coalition held a virtual march on Washington in which website visitors found directions on how to call or e-mail Spellings to protest her objections and urge her to revoke her letter.

* On March 5, the Church of the Pilgrims Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., held a screening of “Sugartime” -- uncut -- in its basement that drew around 300 people, including Pieper and her children. The Human Rights Campaign provided postcards to send to Spellings, saying, “My friend Buster had a great time visiting families in Vermont. I’m glad Buster treats all families equally and hope you will too.”

A spokesman said the Human Rights Campaign is planning to replicate the event nationwide. “At least a dozen cities have done this and invited us to attend,” Pike said.

One of the group’s goals is to move gay and lesbian issues from the political arena to the personal.

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“This was an opportunity for more people to get that ‘aha’ moment and realize that you’re a family trying to get your kids to soccer practice and get them fruit rollups like mine is,” said Mark Shields, deputy director of communications.

Pike has appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and Q Television, a gay and lesbian network. Pieper flew to Denver to appear on a talk show.

“We’re just trying to do what we can,” Pike said. “I didn’t expect to be this huge gay activist at 42. At the same time, I can’t seem to walk away from it.”

The local public television station in Vermont will air “Sugartime” on March 23, which coincidentally is the anniversary of Pike and Pieper’s civil union. “We will have a little celebration,” Pike said. “I’m going to surprise the kids with a Buster cake in the shape of a bunny.”

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