Is SpongeBob SquarePants, Nickelodeon's buoyant cartoon character, a friend of Dorothy? Or of Queer Duck and Mr. Smithers? He might be, according to the Wall Street Journal. Certainly plenty of his fans are gay, the Journal says, noting that stores in New York and Atlanta that cater to gay customers can't keep SpongeBob merchandise on the shelves. As one adult SpongeBob fan tells the paper, ''He's not very masculine for a male character. And he's soft.''
Consider: SpongeBob lives in a pineapple in an undersea locale called Bikini Bottom. His best buddy is an ebullient pink starfish named Patrick. Another friend is a finicky squid named Squidward who enjoys bubble baths and classical music and talks like Paul Lynde. SpongeBob and Patrick are occasionally seen holding hands and enjoy watching a superhero TV show called ''The Adventures of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy.'' As an article on the Gay Financial Network's website puts it, ''You do the math, folks.''
OK, maybe SpongeBob isn't as overt as Tinky-Winky, the purple, purse-wielding Teletubby who was outed in Rev. Jerry Falwell's National Liberty Journal in 1999. When Tom Kenny, the comedian who voices SpongeBob, appeared on ''Late Night with Conan O'Brien'' last month, he was cryptic about the sexuality of the show's characters. ''It's never been addressed by us on the show,'' he said, but he added, ''All the main characters are hiding horrible secrets of their own.''
While Nickelodeon tells the Journal that the characters on ''SpongeBob SquarePants'' are not gay, and that the show is aimed at kids ages 2 to 11, the channel acknowledges an adult fan base, airing the show as late as 11:30 p.m., or as late as 11 p.m. on sister channel MTV. Nielsen ratings indicate that a fifth of the show's audience is between 18 and 49.
Not only are mature fans buying SpongeBob items in stores in gay neighborhoods in New York and Atlanta, as the Journal reports, but in West Hollywood and San Francisco, too, PlanetOut.com reports. ''They are pretty good sellers especially with young gay kids, and guys in their 30s think it's hilarious,'' Raymond Riddering, the assistant manager of the Don't Panic store in San Francisco's Castro District, tells the website. ''I don't think anyone has bought it because they think he's gay. He doesn't have anything on him that screams gay. But the gay population likes him.''
''He's a sponge; how can he be gay?'' Cathy Renna of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation tells PlanetOut, though she adds that she does wonder about. SpongeBob's tomboyish squirrel friend, Sandy Cheeks. She points out that ''SpongeBob'' is a hit among straight adults as well, but she says of gay viewers, ''I think our community has a finely tuned sense of what is fun and campy, and the show is definitely fun and campy.''
Series creator Stephen Hillenburg, who tells the Journal he's not gay, says, ''I always think of [the characters] as being somewhat asexual,'' but he says he understands why gay people might respond to his creation. ''I do think that the attitude of the show is about tolerance. Everybody is different, and the show embraces that,'' he says. ''No one is shut out.''
If gay fans are reading more into ''SpongeBob'' than Hillenburg intends, there's a reason. As 36-year-old fan Ryan Breneman tells the Journal, ''When you grow up without your own culture, you have to take things from the culture and make them your own.''