Are beloved children’s television characters Bert and Ernie gay?
Whether they are or not, does it even matter?
These are the sort of questions the public has been debating for the last few days, ever since an exclusive interview for Queerty.com was published on Sunday, where Mark Saltzman, an openly gay, former writer for Sesame Street, made a revealing confession. Saltzman stated that when he was writing scenes for Bert and Ernie, he “always felt that without a huge agenda” they were lovers .
In the candid story, Saltzman opens up about what it was like working on the popular show during an era when the AIDS epidemic was on the rise and anti-gay sentiments went unchecked in the workplace.
“I already had my life partner, the love of my life,” he explains in the interview. “All our friends knew, but I don’t think I was professionally out. I think I was cautiously out. I remember not inviting Arnie to the first Christmas parties, you know. But, then I have memories of bringing him to beach house parties with everybody. I think during Sesame Street was when I came completely out. By ’86 we had an apartment together. My father knew. There was no hiding it.”
The man who wrote for Bert and Ernie about two male puppets living together in mostly domestic bliss, was living with his own domestic partner, (coincidentally named ARNIE) while he was writing it?
Come on fam. The parallels here are pretty blatant.
It’s not like most of us didn’t connect the dots on our own years ago.
While the LGBT community and it’s supporters posted, “I knew it!” and “Duh, obviously” messages all over social media, it seems the production team over at Sesame Street wasn’t so excited about two of their most iconic characters being outed in the press.
In fact they were so hurt about it, they even tweeted a response denouncing Saltzman’s admission.
“As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends,” Sesame Workshop tweeted Tuesday going on to explain that while they may have many human traits they “remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
Please see our most recent statement regarding Bert and Ernie below. pic.twitter.com/gWTF2k1y83
— Sesame Workshop (@SesameWorkshop) September 18, 2018
Well first of all that’s complete bulls**t because Miss Piggy is a puppet too (albeit owned by Disney and not Sesame Street) and makes her sexuality abundantly clear every time Kermit walks into the room.
But I digress.
Frank Oz, who is credited with creating Bert in 1969, as well as originally performing as the character chimed into this pseudo-controversy Tuesday by tweeting, “It seems Mr. Mark Saltzman was asked if Bert & Ernie are gay. It’s fine that he feels they are. They’re not, of course.”
When I wrote “They’re not, of course”, did you think I was saying something like, “They’re straight like everyone else.” ? What I was actually saying was “They’re not, of course. Jim and I never created them to be gay”. Just a misunderstanding. Thanks for for the discussion. https://t.co/148yb3BuUk
— Frank Oz (@TheFrankOzJam) September 19, 2018
He then went on and provided further clarity, but before doing so, his statement quickly sparked a surprisingly heated debate between Oz and followers trying to explain their disappointment in his stance. He eventually lamented, “Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay?”
And it’s a fair question. Why does any of this matter?
“I don’t really care if Bert and Ernie are gay (they are), but I’m definitely over straight people telling me queer identity doesn’t matter,” tweeted Louis Peitzman of Buzzfeed News.
And before any of you dismiss his sentiments on representation as just more gibberish from liberals with “a gay agenda,” I want to share a quick anecdote about a childhood experience with Sesame Street that’s leads me to believe Peitzman is right.
I don't really care if Bert and Ernie are gay (they are), but I'm definitely over straight people telling me queer identity doesn't matter. pic.twitter.com/VUZhzjb6W8
— Louis Peitzman (@LouisPeitzman) September 18, 2018
As I’ve shared previously, I am not American made…shocker. As an immigrant, I quickly learned that assimilation was necessary for my survival. I made it my business to learn the King’s English, lose my accent, and be perceived as “normal” as quickly as possible to avoid the merciless bulling of kids in the working class (and predominantly white) Boston community where I lived growing up.
Usually, I fit in without incident until one day, when my mom struck up a conversation with an employee from the daycare center while dropping me off. This woman wasn’t an educator, but was instead a part of the maintenance staff; hired to clean up the classrooms and tidy up the facilities.
Back then, my mom had just joined me in America and her English was still very shaky. She barely spoke when we were in public, and I constantly had to translate for her wherever we went. However, that day she had a relieved smile on her face as she and this lady struck up a relaxed conversation in Spanish; a language I was already starting to forget in my quest to “sound American,” but constantly heard playing in the background while my auntie watched her telenovelas.
As my mom and her new friend wrapped up their pleasantries, two little girls – one white and the other Vietnamese – suddenly approached me with screwed up faces and said, “Your mom speaks Spanish?” in a tone that was equal parts confusing and accusatory.
Bare in mind this was the late 1980’s, some 30 years before reality stars like Amara La Negra would spark national debates on what it means to be Afro-Latina in this country. Aside from that first season of “The Cosby Show” where a then Dominican, Claire Huxtable used to make Rudy and all the other kids respond to her en Español (a valuable storyline I was sad to see them drop in subsequent years), there really weren’t any visible examples to explain how MY Black mama was currently chatting up the cleaning lady in one of her native tongues.
Even at the tender age of six, I was quick on my feet, and without skipping a beat I casually responded, “Yeah, my mommy speaks Spanish, just like Maria from Sesame Street!
As soon as those girls heard that name, a wave of acceptance washed over them, like, “Oh! Ok. You’re mom is like Maria. Cool” Just like that, the threat of being judged by savage, judgmental kindergarteners was averted. That is thee anecdote I thought of when I heard about this Bert and Ernie controversy last night because I’ve always been hyper aware of the power that television has on our kids, and dare I say it, on us adults as well.
What gets piped into our TV sets (and now onto our laptops) is what sets our norms and tells us whose lived experiences matter and are worthy of everyday acceptance. Denouncing the obvious elephant in the room about two grown men who have been happily living together for decades, the execs over at Sesame Street don’t even realize that they have also missed an amazing opportunity to let our children know that, “Yes, being gay is ok.”
And someone must have pointed all of this out to the team on Tuesday, because hours after they originally denounced the gay storyline, the organization circled back to add: “‘Sesame Street’ has always stood for inclusion and acceptance. It’s a place where people of all cultures and backgrounds are welcome. Bert and Ernie were created to be best friends, and to teach young children that people can get along with those who are very different from themselves.”
Teaching kids to get along with people from all walks of life is great, but why do so while also asking us to pretend the gay couple that’s been living next door for the last 40 years are just “friends?”
Look, ya’ll can front all you want, but the rest of us know what’s up. As clearly evidenced by that infamous 2013 cover of The New Yorker which featured the pair snuggled up together on the couch, presumably watching the Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage.
That was a wonderful moment!
— Tank ATX (@BikerButt) September 18, 2018
“It’s amazing to witness how attitudes on gay rights have evolved in my lifetime,” said Jack Hunter, the artist behind that week’s cover called, Moment of Joy.
“This is great for our kids, a moment we can all celebrate,” he explained at the time.
I’m with Jack on this one.
Our kids need to be taught early how to accept people who don’t look or think just like them, or we risk raising another generation of red cap wearing Trump supporters.
In fact, there’s probably a little girl out there right now being questioned by her nosey friends about having two dads, having a mom who wears a hijab, or maybe even having a sibling who is living with autism, and she (just like 6-year-old me), is probably depending on pop culture to help her explain why her family deserves to be accepted too.
Sesame Street is usually really good about creating a space for those type of discussions to take place, but how they handled what happened this week – was a fail.
Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric