Freethought Today, June/July 1997


Censorship and Homophobia in Alabama
(Imagine That!)

By Adam Butler

I have lived in Alabama all of my life, so although I am constantly frustrated by the multitudes of Southerners that seem to gain pleasure in making our state look backwards and incompetent, I am quite used to it. Every once in a while, a normal Southerner will be interviewed on national television and have something intelligent to say, but most of the time it seems to be the job of every shirtless, toothless, brainless idiot in Alabama to get on national television gumming his chewing tobacco, standing in front of his gun collection, and explaining how his wife was abducted by aliens during last week's tornado, pausing only to express his paranoia that the Jews, communists, lesbians, environmentalists, and koala bears can read his mind and are planning to poison the county water supply.

Such was the case on April 30, 1997, when the first sitcom in which the main character "came out" as a lesbian was broadcast by every ABC affiliate across the country--except one. Local affiliate ABC 33/40 informed the public that the episode of "Ellen" was "inappropriate for the family viewing hour" (the words of General Manager Jerry Heilman) and refused to air the program, "blacking out" most of central Alabama from the broadcast. All over the country, people were planning parties to watch the show and celebrate this history-making moment while half of Alabama was subject to the media censoring itself because of one small-minded man and his fear of homosexuals.

Birmingham Pride Alabama, the organization that handles Alabama's Gay Pride Day and related events, after a few fruitless attempts, was able to successfully rent an auditorium and the equipment to show "Ellen" via satellite. The Birmingham Freethought Society and the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Alliance (GLBA) at UAB both wanted to help, but we didn't know how to go about it. Some people wanted a rally, some people wanted a boycott, some wanted letter-writing campaigns, and so on, but there was no real plan. Then something wonderful happened.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Alabama (GALAA) assembled a coalition of small groups to attend a meeting in the hopes of unifying the efforts of these organizations and getting some larger goals accomplished. Leaders from Birmingham Pride, the Birmingham Clinic Defense Team, GALAA, the GLBA, the Birmingham Freethought Society, the Alabama chapter of the ACLU, and the Birmingham chapter of the National Organization for Women gathered to discuss ways to fight the discrimination. An official boycott of the companies that pulled their advertising from the episode was announced (see adjacent).

Birmingham Pride discussed the upcoming party at the auditorium and gained new volunteers to help with the event. Petition and letter-writing campaigns gained new fuel. Members of Pride and GALAA organized a press conference. The ACLU, GLBA, BFS, NOW, and Clinic Defense Team joined together to produce a press release and to plan a rally.

The "Come Out and Support "Ellen!" rally was held on Monday, April 28. Temporarily calling ourselves "The Coalition Against Censorship," we acquired a permit for Magnolia Park, a band, and speakers including a representative from Birmingham Pride, NOW, GLBA, ACLU, Birmingham Freethought Society (gee, I wonder who the representative was . . .), Birmingham Clinic Defense Team, a lawyer, a Unitarian minister, and a journalist. The rally was a huge success and, in memory of the crowd estimates given by Judge Roy Moore's rally just a month before, we estimate about 25,000 supporters attended.

On the following Wednesday, over 2,000 people turned out to watch the character Ellen Morgan tell America she is gay on a huge projection television in Birmingham's Boutwell Auditorium, an overwhelming success for all of the organizations involved.

As of now, ABC 33/40 is still blacking out "Ellen."


Five companies caved into homophobia and pulled their advertising during the April 30 episode of "Ellen." Not only is it important to avoid buying their products, but please also contact them and tell them that their decision displeases you and why.

J.C. Penny Company, Inc.
Chairman William Howell
PO Box 10001
Dallas TX 75301

Phone: 214-431-1000
Fax: 214-431-1977

Chrysler Corporation
Chairman Robert J. Easton
1000 Chrysler Drive
Auburn Hills MI 48326

Phone: 800-992-1997

General Motors Corporation
Chairman John F. Smith
3044 West Grand Boulevard
Detroit MI 48202

Phone: 313-556-5000
Fax: 313-556-1988

Johnson & Johnson
Chairman Ralph S. Larsen
One J & J Plaza
New Brunswick NJ 09833

Phone: 800-635-6789
Fax: 908-214-0332

Wendy's
CEO Dave Thomas
4288 West Dublin Granville Road
Dublin OH 43017


Adam Butler, a Foundation member, directs the Birmingham Freethought Society at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.