The Duggar family - made famous by TLC's popular reality television show - just helped repeal an ordinance protecting LGBT people from discrimination. What responsibility does TLC have for the work being carried out by its reality TV superstars?
Since the debut of their TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting in 2008, the Duggar family has slowly evolved from a television novelty to a prominent icon in Republican politics. Their religious fervor, opposition to abortion, and emphasis on conservative “family values” have helped transform them into champions for social conservatives who now make frequent appearances on the campaign trail for GOP candidates. Many have noted the disturbing and ultra-conservative radicalism that lies beneath the Duggar's “family values” - namely the family's extreme views on women's and LGBT rights.
But the Duggar family has maintained a largely symbolic role in right-wing politics - acting more as champions of a socially conservative ideal than as actual players in the fight against social progress.
Until this week.
On December 9, the city of Fayetteville, Arkansas, voted 52 to 48 percent to repeal its recently-enacted Ordinance 119, a measure that would have prohibited discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and several other categories.
National news outlets correctly credited the Duggar family for helping repeal the measure. Michelle Duggar, the matriarch of the Duggar family, recorded a robocall earlier this year urging voters to oppose the ordinance, falsely claiming that it would allow male sexual predators to enter women's restrooms. The family donated $10,000 to the campaigns of three vocal opponents of the ordinance. Josh Duggar, who is Executive Director of FRC Action - the political arm of the anti-gay hate group Family Research Council - used his position to urge voters to repeal of the ordinance.
The margin for repeal was less than 500 votes. Given the amount of even local media coverage the Duggars' involvement received, it's not a stretch to suggest that the family played a significant role in helping repeal the ordinance.
On December 10, the Human Rights Campaign asked - "Does TLC Know What Its Celebrities Are Up To?":
It's not the first time the Duggar clan has used their celebrity to advocate against equality. In October 2013, the Duggars went on the road with the Family Research Council for a “Values Bus Tour” across Virginia in support of a radically anti-LGBT gubernatorial ticket. Last month, Josh Duggar led a rally against marriage equality in Little Rock, Arkansas last minute.
It is time for the TLC celebrities to end their nationwide campaign to walk back the rights of LGBT Americans.
It's an important question, especially now that the Duggars have used their reality show fame to help do real, concrete damage to LGBT people in Fayetteville.
It seems unlikely that TLC is unaware of the Duggars' anti-LGBT political work. In November, tens of thousands of people signed a petition to have 19 Kids and Counting canceled in response to Michelle Duggar's Ordinance 119 robocall. The petition sparked an a counter-petition from supporters (and with the help of one of the country's most extreme anti-LGBT hate groups) asking TLC to keep the show on the air. TLC refused to comment on the controversy.
TLC's silence on the Duggars' work in Fayetteville highlights the uncomfortable position the network has been forced into. It also highlights a problematic double standard when it comes to the network's willingness to accommodate and tolerate anti-LGBT bias.
Imagine if, rather than opposing Ordinance 119, the Duggars had been working to repeal a local non-discrimination law banning racial discrimination. Imagine if Michelle Duggar had recorded a robocall falsely suggesting that racial non-discrimination laws would be exploited to protect criminals. Imagine if the Duggars had donated nearly $10000 to support candidates openly advocating for the repeal of basic civil rights protections for racial minorities. Imagine if Josh Duggar was also the Executive Director of a hate group notorious for spreading vicious smears about African Americans. And imagine if the Duggars were actually successful in repealing those non-discrimination protections.
In that world, would TLC be forced to respond and distance itself from the the Duggar family's political work? Even if the Duggars never explicitly referenced their TLC show on the campaign trail, might the network feel compelled to react to the extreme agenda being championed by the family that it helped turn into a mainstream political powerhouse?
The network's silence over Ordinance 119 might be due in part to the media's vague, evolving, and frequently inconsistent standards for what passes as “acceptable” degrees of anti-LGBT bias. Earlier this year, a history of homophobic and Islamophobic remarks was enough to get HGTV to cancel its reality show with the Benham Brothers. Last December, homophobic remarks from Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson resulted in only a temporary suspension.
In both cases, conservatives rallied to the defense of their reality TV icons, accusing the networks of discriminating against Christians by censoring ostensibly religious speech. That conflation of blatant homophobia and sincere religious belief is likely part of the reason that the Duggars' anti-LGBT work gets a pass from TLC. Networks are understandably sensitive to conservative accusations of targeting Christians' free speech.
But in the case of the Duggars - unlike the Benham brothers and Phil Robertson - it's not just typical speech that's at issue. With Ordinance 119, the Duggars used their TLC fame to engage in political work that has now left countless LGBT people in Fayetteville at risk of being fired, refused service, or denied housing. That's real harm for real people, thanks in part to the work of TLC's cash cow.
It remains to be seen if TLC will stay silent while the Duggars continue to use their growing popularity to do more damage to LGBT Americans. Whether the network can keep stomaching the Duggars' pro-discrimination work will speak to how successful the American LGBT movement has been in making blatant homophobia and transphobia a liability for major television networks.
TLC did not respond to Media Matters' request for comment.