Ana Veciana-Suarez

Bert and Ernie debate is more than just talk about puppets on a TV show

Rumors about Bert and Ernie’s sexual orientation have swirled around for years.
Rumors about Bert and Ernie’s sexual orientation have swirled around for years. Abaca Press/MCT

Are they or aren’t they?

The virtual world has been abuzz with this question, and people have stormed out of the Twitter woodwork and into the analog universe to opine. Yes, some say, Bert and Ernie are most definitely gay. How can anyone think otherwise?

But another group has an entirely different take. No, they insist, Bert and Ernie are not gay, no way, no how. They’re simply best friends, roommates close enough to get on each other’s nerves.

Bert and Ernie. Ernie and Bert. Remember them? Those yellow and orange skinned Muppets with the thatch of black hair and striped shirts? They’ve been an integral part of the “Sesame Street” cast for decades, along with Big Bird, Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, Kermit, Elmo and Oscar the Grouch. For generations, they’ve been instrumental in teaching kids about letters and numbers, about getting along with others — valuable lessons we desperately need even as adults.

Rumors about Bert and Ernie’s sexual orientation have swirled around for years, at least as long as my children were young. It was one of those circular debates that never managed much traction, perhaps because the discussion was promptly forgotten after an episode, or a play date, or a party where parents congregated around the chips and dip.

But this speculation exploded last week when a former “Sesame Street” writer, Mark Saltzman, told Queerty, a gay and lesbian news and entertainment site, that he wrote the two characters as a loving couple: “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were [a couple]. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.”

In fact, Saltzman, who is gay, said he borrowed from his long-term relationship with the late film editor Arnold Glassman to inform Bert and Ernie. Not surprisingly, people on the internet (and later, the traditional media) had plenty to say about this. For many, it was both confirmation and vindication. Finally.

But not so fast, said the show’s parent company. Sesame Workshop initially said that puppets “do not have a sexual orientation.” Later, in a second statement they added that the show “has always stood for inclusion and acceptance. It’s a place where people of all cultures and backgrounds are welcome.”

This did little to clear things up. After all, if I remember correctly, Count von Count had a girlfriend, right? And that thing between Kermit and Miss Piggy? Surely there’s plenty of sexual orientation in that. But Saltzman clarified his comments to The New York Times, saying that no, the striped-shirt characters were not a gay couple after all, and Frank Oz, who helped create the characters, confirmed on Twitter that the two are not gay.

Frankly, I was confounded by this back and forth. Why were we even discussing this? They’re puppets, fictional beings in a make-believe world. But then I began to read and hear from queer people whose response to this decades-long debate was so different from mine. This was not a superficial discussion about characters in a children’s TV show, nor was it an idle way to out a closeted pair that had spawned plenty of speculation over the years.

For adult gays, once gay children, claiming Ernie or Bert as one of them matters — and it matters a lot. When you grow up feeling excluded because of religion or skin color or disability or sexual orientation, without role models on TV or on the toy shelf, knowing there are others like you, knowing that you are represented in a warm, humanizing way can serve as both a welcoming handshake and a pat on the back.

Bert and Ernie may or may not be gay. Only they know for sure. But I, for one, will not define them by whom or how they love. Instead I’ll subscribe to something Saltzman, their writer for 15 years, proposed about their relationship, “It’s like poetry. It’s what you need it to be.”

Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at avecianasuarez@gmail.com or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.
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