WYATT ROBERTS, THE RADIO TALK SHOW HOST AND cultural watchdog, will tell you that he has been leading a crusade against sin and perversion, but to most of his critics, he simply has a thing about gays and lesbians. Certainly he has taken on the issue of homosexuality with particular vigor of late. His main target has been The Texas Triangle, a statewide newspaper for gays and lesbians. Last December, Roberts organized a boycott of the Triangle’s advertisers on the grounds that the paper’s content is offensive. “They say they don’t run explicit material,” he says. “That’s untrue. I have pictures of naked men discussing having sex with a butternut squash.”
In the early months of 1996, 32-year-old Roberts, who was born in Jackson, Mississippi, has emerged as the most prominent conservative political activist in Texas. He is the director of the Texas chapter of the American Family Association (AFA), which is based in Tupelo, Mississippi, and is famous for its boycott of the TV shows Married With Children and NYPD Blue; he also runs a lobbying group called the Texas Family Association and a political action committee, the Texas American Family Action Committee, that raises money for right-wing candidates. As such activists go, Roberts is more like Ralph Reed, the cherubic, personable executive director of the Christian Coalition, than the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the inflammatory head of the Moral Majority: Most of the time he employs moderate rhetoric, which makes him seem reasonable, though the causes he promotes are often extreme. He would like to ban adultery, wants to restrict the sale of magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, and recently devoted his weekly show on Austin’s KIXL-AM to a defense of Larry Pratt, a national co-chairman of Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign who took a leave of absence because of his alleged ties to white supremacists and militias.
But the issue that has catapulted Roberts into prominence is homosexuality. Indeed, it was homosexuality that first led him to become involved with the AFA. In 1993, while living in Dallas and working as a graphic designer, Roberts approached the AFA for advice about pursuing a complaint against radio station KNON-FM after it aired an explicit song called “I Want to Be a Homosexual.” Roberts can still recite the lyrics by heart: “Oh, Ben, gee, I think you’re really cute and sexy/And, well, I know you’re straight, but look, I know you have a girlfriend/But if you really want to [expletive deleted] . . . I guess I’ll let you as long as you respect me in the morning . . .” Roberts’ complaint, filed with the Federal Communications Commission, resulted in a $12,500 ruling against KNON, and it inspired Jeff Fisher, then the director of the Texas AFA, to ask him to lead the group’s Dallas chapter. Later, Roberts became the communications director for the Texas AFA, and when Fisher quit last year to work for Congressman Steve Stockman of Beaumont, Roberts was named director.
He soon began to focus on homosexuality once again. Last September, during his radio show, Roberts began reading the names of advertisers in the Triangle, charging them with supporting a publication that “makes light of pedophilia and incest.” He was referring to two Triangle cartoons drawn by freelance artist Todd Camp depicting characters horrified by those acts. In one, a man flirts with a stranger on the Internet until he learns that the stranger is a fourteen-year-old boy. “Oh my God! I’m guilty of computer statutory rape,” he cries. Roberts concedes that the man “appeared very shocked.” But the boy, he complains, “had no reservations whatsoever and proceeded to inquire whether the man had heard of NAMBLA, the North American Man Boy Love Association. It troubles me that the cartoonist is preoccupied by these things to begin with.”
Kay Longcope, the Triangle’s editor and publisher, dismisses Roberts’ interpretation as a distortion. “I don’t know anybody, gay or straight, who promotes incest or pedophilia,” she says. Todd Camp adds, “NAMBLA is an organization that we would do anything to divorce ourselves from because of the stereotype that all gays are pedophiles. I was confident readers would get the joke.” But not everyone did. At the time, Camp worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a graphics editor for a weekly section geared to kids. After a Star-Telegram reader who had been alerted to the Triangle cartoons by the AFA complained about Camp, executive editor Debbie Price transferred him to the paper’s features department, though Price denies having had any contact with the AFA.
Back in Austin, Roberts’ broadcasts were generating protests by about a dozen picketers in front of First Texas Honda, one of the Triangle’s advertisers. This subsequently prompted several counterprotests. The Reverend James Rigby of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church organized a prayer vigil in front of KIXL, and Cecile Richards, the founder of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that opposes the Christian Right, led a buying trip to the boycotted advertisers. Roberts, however, had already moved on to a new target: Juan R. Palomo, the openly gay religion reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, who had covered the boycott. Roberts sent letters to 1,088 religious leaders in Central Texas to warn them that before Palomo was hired by the Statesman, he had written freelance articles for the Triangle that were critical of conservative Christian groups. “I am neither encouraging you to, nor discouraging you from, granting [sic] an interview to this individual,” Roberts wrote. “I do believe, however, you should be made fully aware of some of the views he has expressed in the past.” Statesman editor Richard Oppel responded by slamming Roberts in a signed editorial: “If he doesn’t like gay people, and wants to see them shunned, he should say so. Texans may disagree with you, but they prefer clear talk to slippery doublespeak.”
Roberts insists he wrote the letter only because he thought Palomo is “anti-Christian.” Still, his critics see a pattern in the Christian Right’s focus on homosexuality, as well as adultery and pornography. “I think they do this to raise money,” Cecile Richards says. “It’s titillating. All they ever talk about is sex. It’s a way to push buttons and get folks to send money.” Adds Kay Longcope, “We are the scapegoats. Roberts is using homosexuality as an issue to get ahead personally.”
Whether the focus on sex is intentionally titillating or not, it has won Roberts publicity, and now he is planning a large mailing to solicit contributions for his PAC. In the meantime, he is preparing for the next legislative session, when he’ll push a bill to regulate abortion clinics more strictly. He is also organizing a boycott against Circle K convenience stores, which he says are “one of the largest retailers of pornography in the nation.” Such tactics are likely to garner Roberts even more publicity and influence, and his critics will continue to be confounded. “This state stands for tolerance and compassion,” Richards contends. “You don’t want the government or anybody else telling you how to live.” But Roberts sees it differently. “I feel I have a responsibility,” he says, “to do something about the coarsening of the culture.”