US gay lobby doesn't get the 'Bruno' joke

British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen – creator of Ali G and Borat – has found a new constituency to offend with his latest movie satire

His previous films have launched on a tidal wave of outrage from race-relations campaigners, Jewish groups and Kazakhstani government officials. Now, with impeccable timing, Sacha Baron Cohen has found a fresh collection of minority groups to take offence at his work.

A month before the release of his latest satirical movie, the British comedian has provoked noisy complaints from America's gay rights lobby about the alleged excesses of his new alter ego: a flamboyantly homosexual fashion journalist from Austria called Bruno. The character, who spends the film wearing mesh vests, zebra-skin underwear and leather S&M gear, is supposed to send-up the ignorance and intolerance of real-life individuals he meets during a filmed journey across the US. However, he has instead been accused of promoting gay stereotypes.

Several liberal groups claimed this week that Bruno's behaviour and image – he has bleached hair, wears copious amounts of make-up, and appears to strip-wax his legs, buttocks and chest – will actually end up promoting rather than undermining homophobia. "Some people in our community may like this movie, but many are not going to be OK with it," was the stern prediction of Rashad Robinson, of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "Sacha Baron Cohen's well-meaning attempt at satire is problematic in many places and outright offensive in others."

Ms Robinson is particularly troubled by a scene in which Bruno appears on a TV chat-show brandishing an adopted child dressed in a T-shirt with the logo "gay-by." He boasts to the seemingly-conservative studio audience that the infant is proving a highly-effective "man magnet". Also near the knuckle are scenes in which Baron Cohen's character attempts to seduce the former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul (who storms out of the room muttering about "queers") and takes lessons in how to fight off predatory homosexuals from a martial arts instructor.

The film's publicity material trumpets "real people, real situations", and gay rights groups, which are in the midst of a delicate battle over same-sex marriage, are concerned that US audiences will fail to appreciate Baron Cohen's irony and instead leave the cinema with their homophobia reinforced. Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay lobbying organisation in the US, has even called for filmgoers to be instructed about the "message" they should draw from the film, which follows TV presenter Bruno's efforts to be "cured" of his homosexuality in order to relaunch his career.

"We strongly feel that Sacha Baron Cohen and Universal Pictures have a responsibility to remind the viewing public right there in the theatre that this is intended to expose homophobia," a spokesman for the group said.

Concerns are not limited to US lobby groups. This week, Brooks Barnes, the New York Times media reporter, revealed that Sir Elton John had declined a request to allow his track "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" to be used in a pivotal closing scene where two men taking part in a real-life cage-fighting match stop wrestling and start canoodling. Sir Elton, one of the most prominent gay rights advocates in showbusiness, "learned of the scene's particulars and blanched," according to Mr Barnes, who citing "one of the singer's advisors" added that he agreed to allow a different song to be used in a less inflammatory part of the film.

Baron Cohen has built a career out of stirring up public debate. The character who made him famous, Ali G, was satirising white middle class youths who adopt the persona of black gangster rappers. However, some dubbed him racist. When his last character, Borat, was accused of promoting anti-Semitism, Baron Cohen was able to deflect criticism by pointing out that that he is Jewish. But Bruno offers no such get-out: Baron Cohen is robustly heterosexual, with a fiancée (the Australian actress Isla Fisher) and a young daughter.

Universal Pictures, which financed the project, issued a statement this week saying that Bruno "uses provocative comedy to powerfully shed light on the absurdity of many kinds of intolerance and ignorance, including homophobia. By placing himself in radical and risky situations, Sacha Baron Cohen forces both the people Bruno meets and the audience itself to challenge their own stereotypes, preconceptions and discomforts. We believe the overwhelming majority of the audience will understand and appreciate the film's unarguably positive intentions."

Meanwhile, the gay community isn't the only place where concerns are being aired about the forthcoming movie. In certain corners of Europe, broadcasters have taken issue with the character's stated intention to "be the most famous Austrian since Hitler" and "live the Austrian dream of finding a partner, buying a dungeon and starting a family."

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