Sesame Street’s famous duo of Bert and Ernie first appeared in 1969, the same year as the Stonewall riots, which to the nation’s surprise catapulted the LGBTQ liberation movement. At that time, the idea of partnering these two lovable striped-sweater-wearing puppets as gay was as inconceivable as the idea of legalized same-sex marriage.
But four-plus decades later, with Bert and Ernie’s relationship outliving many heterosexual living arrangements—roommates or married—and mirroring the subtle ways in which LGBTQ couples discreetly went about their lives back in the day, the question of whether the guys are gay is not only apropos, but so, too, is the question of their nuptials.
“They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets,” said Gary Knell, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop. “They don’t exist below the waist.”
A funny thing that I’ve learned as a lesbian is that the dominance of heteronormativity in society is always assumed—whether it’s above or below the waists of people or puppets. Oddly, heteronormativity is also assumed without questions, expected without exception, and explained even in its silence.
But Knell was not entirely truthful in his reply that the puppets are neither gay nor straight.
My favorite Jim Henson Muppet is the over-the-top heterosexual prima donna, femme fatale, and sex siren Miss Piggy. And the love of her life, Kermit the Frog, unwittingly marries her in The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Sesame Street has always moved and grooved with the times. Its concept of “Muppet diplomacy,” a term coined to depict the show’s efforts to educate children around the world, has tackled tough social issues like HIV/AIDS, child obesity, 9/11, and military deployment, to name a few, and has danced and sang with mega artists like Bono, Beyonce, and Justin Bieber.
Is it possible that my “gaydar” is off about Sesame Street? Perhaps. But hasn’t it over the years, in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, winked and nodded to the LGBTQ community?
For example, was it mere coincidence how, during Coming Out Month in October 2010, African-American lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes appeared on the show? Sykes is not the only openly LGBTQ person who appeared either. Openly gay guest stars like Neil Patrick Harris played a “shoe fairy,” while will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas sang “What I Am”—a song about self-acceptance, creating an online kerfuffle about its underlying message.
Is it now time for Sesame Street’s under-the-radar winks and nods to the LGBTQ community to be replaced with a full-throated statement of support? The show has a long history of teaching children about diversity and acceptance, so why should the issues impacting LGBTQ children be excluded? Moreover, many of the children watching the show are not only LGBTQ, but so, too, are their parents and households.
In other words, could it be that Sesame Street needs to come out of the closet?
In many ways, their most famous duo has. Bert and Ernie have not only been roommates, but they have also been sleepmates, lying next to each other like any long-term committed couple.
I realize that in a culture that constantly sexualizes the coupling of same-gender relationships as gay, we often label such friendships as “best friends forever” (BFF), which is what Sesame Street producers are stating about Bert and Ernie. In another example, for more than two decades Oprah and her gal pal, Gayle King, editor-at-large for O, The Oprah Magazine, have denied rumors they are lesbians, but instead have publicly stated they are just two sistah-girls being sister-friends.
After 30 years of four-times-a-day phone calls and frequent sightings of Oprah with Gayle, though, the public continues to question their relationship.
“I’m not even kind of a lesbian,” Oprah stated on a Barbara Walters special one time. “The reason why it irritates me is because it means that somebody must think I’m lying. That’s No. 1 … No. 2 … why would you want to hide it? That is not the way I run my life.”
I also realize that in constantly labeling same-gender relationships as gay, it diminishes and distorts the romantic relationships we LGBTQ people have with our significant others. As a matter of fact, constantly labeling same-gender relationships as gay not only wrongly assumes that the only reason for two people of the same gender getting together is for sex, but it also keeps in place the myth of the hypersexual and predatory LGBTQ person.
With that said, Sesame Street is an open classroom for kids, reflecting the times. Same-sex marriage is one of the social issues of the day. How will the show explain to children in same-gender families and households why Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog can marry, but Bert and Ernie can’t?
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Mark Saltman, who wrote Bert and Ernie episodes, said that he has always thought of them as gay.
I have too.
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.