Coming Out of the Felt Closet
It’s been difficult to keep up with all the news in pop culture this month, what with the Deputy Attorney General maybe getting fired, the circus surrounding the Supreme Court nomination, and a burgeoning love affair between the North Korean dictator and the President of the United States. So you’ll be forgiven if you somehow missed that during September 2018, a couple of Muppets came out of the closet…again.
The question of whether irascible Bert and goofball Ernie are more than roommates is not a new one. Back in 1994, the New York Times broached the question in an op-ed entitled, “Are Bert and Ernie Gay?” It was written in response to a bunch of homophobic parents who wondered if the creators of Sesame Street were somehow plotting to homosexualize a generation of American children.
And now, almost a quarter of a century later, we’re asking the question again. But this time, it’s the gay community which is proudly embracing their fellow felt friends of Dorothy. This time around, it started with an interview on the LGBTQ website Queerty, in which former Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman, an out gay man, recalled basing most of the interactions between Ernie and Bert on his own relationship. “Without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were [a couple],” he said. “I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them. The other thing was, more than one person referred to Arnie [Glassman, Saltzman’s late partner] and me as ‘Bert and Ernie.’”
So Saltzman never really said that Bert and Ernie were gay, just that the dynamic between them was very much like the dynamic in his own homosexual relationship. But it was enough to send the gay world aflutter. On Buzzfeed, Allie Hayes wrote a terrific piece called, “So Bert and Ernie Were Based On an IRL (In Real Life) Couple and My Little Queer Heart Is Screaming.” Predictably, within days, the Children’s Television Workshop took to Twitter (where all important news is made these days) to issue a bland denial which ended with, “they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
Before I go too much farther, let me be clear. I don’t require Bert and Ernie to be queer. I’m 47 years old, I’ve been to therapy, and I’ve seen Angels in America twice. I have enough validation in my life to be at peace with my fabulous gay self without the aid of two adorable puppets. All the same, the blanket denials that Bert and Ernie could be gay have filled me with a surprising and frightening amount of rage. Let’s take the arguments one at a time, shall we?
“Why limit Bert and Ernie this way?” Look, if you believe that gay people are simply bipedal, anthropomorphized genitalia, grow up and join the 21st century. Gay people have career aspirations, favorite foods, migraine headaches, pets, homes, and automobiles just like straight people do. We are just as complex, glorious, and flawed as any garden variety heterosexual.
“Puppets don’t have a sexual orientation!” Really? Because someone should probably tell Miss Piggy, who is a screaming heterosexual with a distinct amphibian fetish. But nobody thinks that’s too much for kids to handle. Next question.
“Why are you making them gay? This is a show for children!” Okay, first of all, there are children who are gay. Additionally, there are kids out there with gay parents, and lots of kids who go to school with kids of gay parents. There are kids whose parents have gay friends. There are many, many lesbian aunties and gay uncles.
The idea that innocent children should be protected from the dastardly influence of potentially gay puppets in a world where children of all ages are meeting real-life same-sex couples all the time is absurd.
If a child asks about a gay couple they’ve met, what follows is typically not a detailed description of sexual positions, but a simple, “well, they love each other, just like [point to the nearest straight couple],” and that’s that. And if that’s good enough for reality, why say anything different if a kid asks you if two of their favorite puppets are more than good friends?
If a child doesn’t know any gay couples, it’s just good education. If they do, especially their own parents, then it’s not only healthy, but vital for these kids to see their own lives reflected on screen in this way, somewhere.
No one is asking the Children’s Television Workshop to let them lead a Pride Parade down Sesame Street (although that would be fabulous; admit it), but to simply let them be exactly who they are—and if a child (or an adult) sees themselves or someone they love in these adorable characters, to just be quiet and let that happen. Because that’s healing, and it’s wonderful, and it’s actually necessary. ▼
Eric C. Peterson is a diversity and inclusion educator living in Washington D.C. and co-host of a weekly podcast about pop culture.