SpongeBob HotPants?

SpongeBob SquarePants, one of Nickelodeon's most popular characters, has been outed as a gay icon.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that, while the underwater-dwelling cartoon sponge was never created to be a homosexual character, SpongeBob can now be found far from his hometown of Bikini Bottom in tchotchke-selling, gay-themed stores across the country and on the television sets of gay hipsters who tune into him regularly.

"There is this innocence," New York clothing designer Alex Fung told the newspaper. "He's not very masculine for a male character. He's soft."

When SpongeBob's creator, Stephen Hillenburg, and voice actor, Tom Kenny, are interviewed for television talk shows or newspaper stories, they're regularly asked to weigh in on their character's sexuality. Hillenburg adamantly denies that SpongeBob was intended to be gay.

But fans point to SpongeBob's characteristics as a telltale sign of his homosexuality: Flamboyant, defiantly cheery, emotional, gregarious and sometimes breaking out in song with his male companion Patrick and muscular female friend Sandy Squirrel.

"I've had to reorder this more times than I can count," Manhattan novelty-store owner Roger Roth said of a SpongeBob doll that sings out, "Go self!"

SpongeBob SquarePants also features relationships that seem to strike a chord with gays. Jot McCloud, a retail consultant, compared the attitude of SpongeBob's boss toward the little yellow sponge, as similar to that of some straight people with obviously gay men.

"(Mr. Krabs has this attitude) around SpongeBob because SpongeBob's so flamboyant and outgoing," McCloud told the newspaper. "Like a straight person who for whatever reason is thrown into a situation where they are around a gay person and they don't have that comfort level."

And if being unapologetically square is a sure ticket to being a gay icon, SpongeBob -- he is called SquarePants, after all -- may continue to become the biggest gay icon since Barbra Streisand.

SpongeBob is only the latest of a series of children's characters who some have read as homosexual or have been adopted by the gay community including Velma from Scooby-Doo, Peanuts' Peppermint Patty, the Powerpuff Girls, the Teletubbies, Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie.

But SpongeBob is at the height of his popularity, easily Nickelodeon's most-watched show. The program was designed to appeal to kids between 2 and 11 years old, yet 22 percent of the show's regular audience is between 18 and 49, according to Nielsen Media Research.

And some of the $500 million of SpongeBob merchandise is clearly intended for an adult audience; besides the usual plush dolls, key chains and lunchboxes, items include Bikini Bottom thongs.

Questions about SpongeBob's sexuality may soon fade. The expiration of Hillenburg's contract means no more new shows will appear after this year. A film version, however, is scheduled to appear in 2004.