On the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the suicide of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student who killed himself after being outed as gay by a roommate, children’s television network Nickelodeon dragged a cartoon sponge out of the closet in a tweet posted Saturday. In doing so, Nickelodeon set a dangerous precedent for LGBT youth everywhere.
‘Celebrating #Pride with the LGBTQ+ community and their allies this month and every month’, the network posted on Twitter above an image of SpongeBob Squarepants bathed in a rainbow glow.
Fans have long speculated the beloved cartoon character might be homosexual. Others are mystified to discover that sponges have sex organs, let alone a sexuality. Squarepants has never addressed his sexuality publicly or privately with friends, neighbors and co-workers on his hit children’s show. Nickelodeon’s proclamation raises serious ethical questions — a decision that is usually deeply personal, private, and prolonged has been hijacked by a publicity stunt.
More than ever, Squarepants’s relationship with his best friend and sidekick Patrick, a starfish, is under the microscope. Learning from a third-party that an intimate friend is homosexual often leads to a deep sense of betrayal and confusion with many relationships unable to weather the storm. It can also lead to violence, particularly in male friendships where the other party becomes suspected of being the lover.
Now that rumors are flying and sex is in the water, fans may be looking suspiciously at Squarepants-confidant Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel in a diving suit, who’s always seemed a bit unwomanly. Had Nickelodeon’s reckless tweet come just a year earlier, Squarepants may have found his employment at the Krusty Krab burger joint, as well as his housing situation, in jeopardy. The city of Bikini Bottom lies underneath Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, which until 2019 had no legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Today the Marshall Islands ranks 88th for LGBT rights, according to the Human Truth Foundation, and does not recognize same-sex marriage.
The depth of Squarepants’s loneliness and isolation has also come to light with this bombshell revelation. There are currently no LGBT organizations in the Marshall Islands and according to a 2017 survey from UNAIDS, only about 150 gay men live in the nation of 60,000 people and none of them under water.
Media organizations have a mixed track record on outing public figures as homosexual, generally shying away from it unless that person has disagreeable politics. In 2016, tech billionaire Peter Thiel, a Trump supporter, bankrolled a death-sentence lawsuit against Gawker after the gossip blog outed him as gay. Last week, LGBT activists cackled and squealed as ‘Lady G’ trended on Twitter, an alleged nickname among male escorts for Republican South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham. (Graham has not addressed the claims.) In 2007, gay magazine Out came under fire from its own side after outing liberals Anderson Cooper and Jodie Foster on its cover about closeted celebrities. Earlier this year, when married, father of three Florida Democrat Andrew Gillum was photographed passed-out naked in a hotel room with two other men — one a prostitute, activists and gay media were silent, insisting it be left a private matter. This has led many to question who Squarepants may have crossed at Nickelodeon, which is owned by ViacomCBS, or, more importantly, who he votes for.