I’m watching videos of the most fun male twosome. The two guys share a bedroom, watch each other take a bath, sit in each other’s lap, wear campy hats and break into song on a dime. They bake bread, fix cars, play doctor and solve mysteries. Like any couple, they enjoy being together, have each other’s back, but sometimes get on each other’s nerves. What could be more queer?
Who is this charming duo? If you’ve been on social media recently, you’ll know it’s Bert and Ernie, the inseparable Muppets from “Sesame Street.” Yet again, people are saying (horror of horrors!) that Bert and Ernie are gay. Not queer dudes hooking up on Grindr, but a couple, living together, doing everything from getting each other a drink of water to throwing a surprise party for one another.
For eons, there’s been buzz about Bert and Ernie being gay. As Vox reported, the Muppet duo had become symbols of the “homosexual agenda” to social conservatives in the 1990s. In 2011, a Change.org petition urged “Sesame Street” to have Bert and Erie get married. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street,” nixed this idea. “They’re just best friends,” Sesame Workshop said, “they do not have a sexual orientation.”
The latest dust-up began after Queerty, a gay news and entertainment site, interviewed former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman. Queerty asked Saltzman, who is gay, “Were you thinking of Bert & Ernie as a gay couple?”
Saltzman was in a more than 20-year relationship with Arnold Glassman, who edited the renowned documentary “The Celluloid Closet.” (Glassman died in 2003.) “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were,” Saltzman said.
“I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them,” he added, “The other thing was, more than one person referred to Arnie & I as ‘Bert & Ernie.’”
If Sesame Workshop had said nothing, I doubt that there would have been a Twitter storm. But Sesame Workshop reacted as if Saltzman had said the Muppet duo were having hot sex. They’re just “best friends” and, since they’re puppets, they have “no sexual orientation,” the Workshop said in a now deleted statement.
Later, Sesame Workshop put out another statement that further excluded LGBTQ folk. “‘Sesame Street’ has always stood for inclusion and acceptance,” the Workshop said, “It’s a place where people of all cultures and backgrounds are welcome.”
Saltzman told the New York Times that his comments were misinterpreted. “As a writer, you must bring what you know into your work,” he said, “somehow in the uproar, that turned into Bert and Ernie being gay,” he said.
He didn’t limit the Muppet duo to a speicific sexual orientation, Saltzman said, adding that “Sesame Street” should have a same-sex human (but not Muppet) couple.
Yet, though saying the show shouldn’t have a queer Muppet couple, Saltzman said, “they are two guys who love each other.”
Frank Oz, one of Bert and Ernie’s creators Tweeted, “does it really matter?”
Mr. Oz, it does matter. Because children learn about the world through “Sesame Street” and other works of pop culture. Watching Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy shows children what being a boyfriend and girlfriend means. Seeing Bert and Ernie as a loving, queer couple helps kids to see that there are loving, LGBTQ people.
Sesame Workshop seems to think that sex is the only component of queer relationships. As if everything from friendship, to feeding the dog to parenting kids aren’t also involved. This homophobic way of thinking in 2018 when marriage equality is legal in many countries is unworthy of Sesame Workshop, an organization that says it believes in inclusion.
Sesame Workshop, for decades you’ve helped kids learn to accept and love people who are different from them. Why not let children know Bert and Ernie as they really are – a loving, queer couple?
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.