Tinky Winky Tempest: A Televangelist vs. The Teletubbies

It all began in a Texas hotel room.

What did? The interstate conspiracy that would soon make headlines around the world. I was on a speaking tour, and I called the Americans United office to talk to Joe Conn, AU's director of communications. He claimed to be on to something. Something big. Something about Jerry Falwell.

Joe reads just about everything produced by the Religious Right. He finds patterns where others would only see oblique sentences. He said Falwell, who had recently announced that the Antichrist is already here - and Jewish - had made another big discovery. This one was immediate and threatening and was about a menace to the world's children. I said, "I'm ready to hit the shower so I can go make my big speech of the day. Lay it on me."

Perhaps it was just my imagination, but I thought I heard his door close, a suggestion that the news was close to "X-Files" material.

"I just read the latest issue of Falwell's newspaper, the National Liberty Journal," Joe said. "He has an editorial that says Tinky Winky may be gay."

Tinky Winky! This was big. After all, we were talking about a television character known to parents and children throughout the world, a character almost as big as Barney, the famous PBS dinosaur beloved by toddlers everywhere. Tinky Winky, in case you don't regularly tune in to PBS's morning fare, is a "Teletubby" of public broadcasting's highly rated kids' show "Teletubbies," a British import that began airing last year.

Just who are these "Teletubbies"? As far as I can tell, they're four furry, constantly smiling, bipedal beings with fat stomachs containing television screens. Each of the four is a different color. Tinky Winky is purple.

According to Falwell, this fact has great significance: promotion of gay pride. Need more proof? Atop his head Tinky Winky wears an antenna shaped like a triangle. The others have different shapes. Everyone knows triangles are a symbol of the gay rights movement. Oh, yes, there's more: Tinky Winky has a male voice, but carries a red "purse." Three strikes, Tinky Winky, and you are "outed." That's what it boils down to.

Most people don't read the National Liberty Journal. I realized they wouldn't learn about this unless somebody alerted them. The Falwell communications machine hadn't been too effective in spreading the word.

"OK, Joe," I said, "I'll call back in 10 minutes. I'll think of an angle." The soap lather wasn't dried before I was back on the phone. "It's got to be an exclusive," I said. "There must be some reporter who can take a risk with this story."

It took a little time, but Associated Press reporter David Reed of the Richmond, Va., bureau took the plunge. He was in touch immediately with the Itsy Bitsy Entertainment Company, which markets Teletubbies toys.

Why the purse, he asked the company president? Came the reply, "There is no purse. It's a magic bag." Turns out somebody's kid had actually seen Tinky Winky take a scooter out of the bag. This seemed to shoot down the purse theory. After all, when was the last time you saw a woman take a vehicle out of her purse?

The story hit the national wires on Tuesday night. I knew it would be big. Within 36 hours it was everywhere - "Good Morning America," "Today," "CBS Evening News." The ABC News website conducted a poll: "Do you think Tinky Winky is gay?" 15.2 percent said yes. ABC also asked, "Do you think Jerry Falwell is crazy?" 84.7 percent said yes. (Remember, I'm not responsible for their language.)

CNN interviewed the president of Itsy Bitsy on camera. He actually said he couldn't believe "real journalists were covering this story." Right, divert attention. Jay Leno made a joke, but I can't print it here -- and not for copyright reasons. Joe Lockhart, President Clinton's spokesman, was asked if Clinton had a reaction. He joked that some Republicans are looking into the suspicious relationship of "Sesame Street's" Bert and Ernie.

That Friday's edition of USA Today ran a photograph of a protestor dressed as a Teletubby holding a sign reading, "HE IS NOT." The Washington Post broke the news that Americans United had leaked the story. (We should have known; The Post broke Watergate).

I was asked on a radio talk show how to explain the bottom line for me. I said, "I'd rather watch the Teletubbies than a certain televangelist."

To get serious, I do think that there was method in our madness. Jerry Falwell finds offense everywhere. If he ran the networks, I have the sinking feeling that all we'd be allowed to see would be his show and perhaps The Weather Channel. If you don't buy his cultural criticism, maybe his political advice isn't worth too much either.

My hope is that the next time someone hears Falwell criticizing the separation of church and state, they will stop and think, "Wait a minute. Isn't this the same guy who thinks one of the Teletubbies is gay?"

But maybe Falwell is on to something. I've been looking at Tinky Winky's three associates. Dipsy is green (a subtle reference to radical environmentalism?). Laa-Laa is yellow. (How many times did John Wayne ask, "What's wrong, are you yella?"). And Po is red! (Enough said).

Maybe we should send Jerry a letter: "You were only one quarter of the way to identifying the whole cabal. Call us next time."

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.