When the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson arrived at Paramount Picture's main gate, the battle lines were already drawn. Yellow police tape stretched down both sides of L.A.'s Melrose Avenue. On the north side of the street, immediately in front of Paramount's ornate, 1920s-replica wrought-iron entrance, more than 200 homosexual protesters hoisted signs and railed against talk-radio diva Laura Schlessinger. Across the street, about 40 pro-family demonstrators chanted back. More than 30 Los Angeles police officers stood between them.
"Dr. Laura is harmful to gay and lesbian children!" cried one gay man above the crowd's rumble.
Another protester jabbed a sign up and down: "Dead bigots can't hate."
Mr. Peterson, 50, the African-American founder of BOND, a 10-year-old Los Angeles-based group that focuses on "rebuilding families by rebuilding men," doffed his jacket and hoisted a bullhorn. "What do we want?" he shouted to the tiny band of pro-family counterprotesters.
"Dr. Laura!" they yelled back.
"When do we want her?"
The March 21 confrontation ended peacefully despite the incursion into the police-brokered neutral zone of three gay protesters who shouted in the faces of Dr. Laura supporters. It was only one episode in an escalating controversy over her upcoming fall television show. Homosexual activists, outraged at the radio psychologist's moral criticism of homosexual parenting and special rights, are demanding that Paramount drop the show. At first a war of words, the anti-Laura onslaught has turned potentially violent: Hardcore homosexual activists have threatened Dr. Laura's life. As a result, she has canceled at least five speaking engagements including her annual birthday bash, which last year raised $60,000 for abused and neglected children.
Kraig T. Kitchin, CEO of Premiere Radio Network, which owns The Dr. Laura Program as well as conservative talk-radio shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh and Michael Reagan, says the FBI has concluded that the security threat against Dr. Laura is real. "We have a legitimate fear for her life," he told the Family Research Council's Culture Facts.
The confusion surrounds Dr. Laura's view of homosexuality. She disapproves of it-and says so-based on her religious convictions. In the mid-1990s, as her radio program marched across North America picking up both markets and fans (it now reaches more than 20 million listeners in the United States and Canada, and recently eclipsed Mr. Limbaugh's show in popularity), Dr. Laura became known as a friend to the homosexual community. But following her conversion to Orthodox Judaism, her opinion of homosexuality changed. In an August 1998 radio broadcast she confessed, "I've always told people who opposed homosexuality that they were homophobic, bad and bigoted and idiotic. I was wrong. It is destructive."
Since then, Dr. Laura has publicly maintained that homosexuals do not deserve special rights, that gay sexual behavior is deviant, and that the inability of homosexuals to relate to members of the opposite sex is the result of a "biological error." Gay groups and several mainstream press outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, have erroneously reported that Dr. Laura calls homosexuals themselves biological errors. But earlier this year, Dr. Laura told WORLD she has "never belittled a gay or lesbian person" on her program. "It happens that a top executive on my television show is a lesbian, and my dearest male friend in the world is a homosexual."
That friend is Gary Morris, an interior designer who first met Dr. Laura two years ago when she hired him to help remodel her home. The two have remained close ever since. Mr. Morris told WORLD he stays at the estate Dr. Laura shares with her husband, Lew Bishop, "once every two or three weeks. We'll have dinner, I'll play Monopoly with Deryk, her son. We hang around, we talk. It's a very loving relationship. Not only is she compassionate, but we've had really very deep conversations about my lifestyle. I'm very open with her ... [she's] a friend and someone who I know really cares about me and loves me-she couldn't give advice in a way that would be bigoted or prejudiced without me knowing it."
Do homosexual activists know this?
"They haven't asked," Dr. Laura said. Gay activists call her convictions "hate"-and it's troublesome, for the future of religious freedom in America, that the activist attack began when Dr. Laura realigned her thinking with the Old Testament. "They don't care; they have an agenda."
The agenda's current bottom line is keeping Dr. Laura off television. While claiming that her group doesn't dispute Dr. Laura's right to speak her mind on the topic of homosexuality, GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) president Joan Garry told Paramount, "It's time to accept your responsibility and drop this show." A new website, StopDrLaura.com, also calls for Paramount to cancel the show and threatens to post the name of Dr. Laura's first national TV sponsor on its homepage. In addition, StopDrLaura.com trots out a pull-quote photo parade of celebrities, rabbis, and average Joes to castigate Dr. Laura.
"I'm totally against wasting the airwaves giving visibility to a person who is clearly in dire need of compassion, education, and a good shrink herself," opines actress Susan Sarandon, whose comments are posted on the website. Ms. Sarandon also thinks Paramount should at least give equal time to someone with a "more enlightened and contemporary perspective" on homosexuality.
StopDrLaura.com selectively aggregates both media coverage of the controversy and the e-mail comments of Dr. Laura supporters. Transparently, though, the site posts only gay-bashing comments that site owners claim were e-mailed to them by Dr. Laura fans, and only pro-gay, anti-Laura news coverage. But several syndicated columnists have come to her defense. Cal Thomas, Don Feder, and John Leo have decried the threat to freedom of expression and freedom of religion posed by the gay campaign to silence Dr. Laura.
Anti-Schlessinger stories have far outpaced those supporting her. The lopsided media rift parallels a similar split in the gay community. While gays and lesbians who want Paramount to drop Dr. Laura seem to be shouting the loudest, others defend the radio personality's right to speak her mind. Rocker Melissa Etheridge, a self-proclaimed lesbian, has criticized the pressure campaign against Dr. Laura. And Bill Dobbs, a homosexual civil-rights attorney and member of the organization Queer Watch, said the assault flies in the face of the First Amendment. "It feels like we're in the 1950s again," he told the Los Angeles Times: "I don't know how this can be progress."
Meanwhile, Dr. Laura's chief of staff Keven Bellows said "Paramount is steadfast" in its commitment to air Dr. Laura's program in the fall. In response to the March 21 protest outside its historic gates, the studio issued a statement in which it acknowledged the right of groups to protest, while ceding no ground on the issue of the radio psychologist's television debut.
Many media organizations in recent years have given in to homosexual pressure, though, and Jesse Peterson, the minister who attended the demonstration at Paramount, worries that it is religious conservatives who may ultimately cede both free speech and freedom of religion.
"The more we give in to these people and people like them, the more we're going to lose our right to express what we believe," he said. "The whole aim of radical homosexual groups is to stop people from expressing their beliefs, and for the primary reason that they do not want to be reminded of their own internal guilt. That's why this issue with Dr. Laura is so important to this country: If we let them take away her right to speak and believe, it's over for the rest of us."