Sesame Street’s most famous duo 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. Yet 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.
Four-plus decades later, Bert and Ernie’s relationship has outlived many heterosexual living arrangements ― roommates or married ― and mirrors the subtle ways in which LGBTQ couples discreetly went about their lives back in the day. Not only is the question of whether the guys are gay apropos, so, too, is the question of their nuptials.
This assertion came from former Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman, who revealed in an interview that he wrote them as a “loving couple” based on his own relationship with his partner.
“They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets,” said Gary Knell, president/CEO of Sesame Workshop. “They don’t exist below the waist.”
The funny thing about the dominance of heteronormativity in society, I’ve learned as a lesbian, is that it is always assumed – whether it’s above or below the waists of people or puppets. And, oddly, heteronormativity is also assumed without questions, expected without exception, and explained even in its silence.
But, Knell is not entirely truthful in his reply that the puppets are neither gay nor straight.
Take, for example, my favorite Jim Henson muppet: the over-the-top heterosexual prima donna, femme fatale and sex-siren Miss Piggy. She was quite straight when the love of her life, Kermit the Frog, unwittingly marries her in The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Is it possible that my “gaydar” is off about Sesame Street? Perhaps. But hasn’t Sesame Street over the years, in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, winked and nodded to the LGBTQ community?
For example, was it mere coincidence that African American lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes appeared on the show during “Coming Out Month” in October 2010? And, Sykes is not the only openly LGBTQ-friendly person who appeared on the show. Openly gay guest star Neil Patrick Harris played a shoe fairy, while Black Eyed Peas singer/producer will.i.am performed “What I Am?,” a song about self-acceptance, which created 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 be replaced with a full-throated statement of support?
Sesame Street has always moved and grooved with the times. Its concept of “Muppet diplomacy,” a term coined to depict Sesame Street’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 sung with mega rock stars and artists like Bono, Beyoncé and Justin Bieber.
Sesame Street also has a long history of teaching children about diversity and acceptance, so, why should the issues impacting our LGBTQ children be excluded? Moreover, many of the children watching the show are LGBTQ, and 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 famous duo has. Bert and Ernie have not only been roommates, they have also been sleep-mates, sleeping next to each other like any long-term committed couple.
I realize, however, in a culture that constantly sexualizes the coupling of same-gender relationships as gay, we ignore our friendships with our “best friends forever” (BFF) – which is what Sesame Street’s producers are stating about Bert and Ernie.
For example, for over two decades Oprah and her gal pal, Gayle King, editor-at-large for O, The Oprah Magazine, have denied rumors they are lesbians. Instead, they have publicly stated they are each other’s BFF, just two sistah-girls being sister-friends.
After 30 years of four-times-a-day phone calls, and frequent sightings of “where you see Oprah, you also see Gayle,” the public continues to question Oprah and Gayle about their relationship.
“No, I’m not a lesbian; I’m not even kind of a lesbian,” Oprah stated on A Barbara Walters Special: Oprah, The Next Chapter.
“The reason why it irritates me is because it means that somebody must think I’m lying. That’s number one,” Winfrey told Walters. “Number two…why would you want to hide it? That is not the way I run my life.”
I also realize that constantly labeling same-gender relationships as gay, it diminishes and distorts the romantic relationships we LGBTQ people have with our significant others.
This constant mislabeling not only wrongly assumes that the only reason for two people of the same gender to get together is for sex, but it also keeps in place the myth of the hypersexual and predatory LGBTQ person.
However, Sesame Street is an open classroom for our kids, reflecting the times. Same-sex marriage is one of the social issues of the day. How will Sesame Street explain to children in same-gender families and households why Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog can marry, but Bert and Ernie can’t?
Rev. Irene Monroe is an African American lesbian feminist public theologian, sought-after speaker, and preacher.