Four days ago, Simon Barnes, the 52-year-old actor best known for playing Tinky Winky, the purple creature in the BBC preschool children’s series Teletubbies, passed away, giving us pause to remember Winky’s legacy as the “the gay Teletubby.”
In a 1999 article by homophobic televangelist Jerry Falwell published in his magazine National Liberty Journal, Falwell declared that Tinky Winky was gay.
“The character, whose voice is obviously that of a boy, has been found carrying a red purse,” Falwell wrote. “He is purple, the gay pride color, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle, the gay pride symbol.”
First off, purple isn’t the gay pride color — it’s lavender or rainbow. Second off, Winky carried a “magic bag,” not a “purse.” But otherwise, Falwell’s absurd and alarmist claim hit a nerve.
Outspoken gay gossip columnist Michael Must declared, “Tinky Winky is … a great message to kids: not only that it’s okay to be gay, but the importance of being well-accessorized.” But even before Falwell’s article, The Advocate had called Tinky Winky, a “big, fabulous fag,” a British media researcher called him, “the first queer role model for toddlers” and The Independent labeled him “a gay icon.”
In an emergency press conference about Falwell’s claim, Teletubbies spokesman Kenn Viselman said, “If gay people think Tinky Winky is gay, it’s because there aren’t enough gay role models on TV. But they aren’t going to find one on this show…. There is simply nothing sexual in our show.”
Barnes, who had taken over the role of “the gay Teletubby” in 1997 from Dave Thompson who was unexpectedly fired from the show.
“People always ask me if Tinky Winky is gay,” Barnes said. “But the character is supposed to be a three-year-old so the question is really quite silly.”
Slate writer Ruth Graham concluded that calling Tinky Winky “gay” didn’t mean he had sex or that the show had sexual innuendo, but rather that “sexuality and gender expression emerge long before sexual maturity,” that TV is more comfortable with the presence of queerness, and that it doesn’t harm children at all.