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Former Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman nearly broke the internet this week after he told Queerty that Bert and Ernie were "a loving couple" that was based on his own relationship with his partner Arnold Glassman, who died in 2003. Saltzman wrote for the children's show in the 1980s and '90s.
"I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were [a gay couple]. I didn't have any other way to contextualize them," Saltzman said, adding, "I don't think I'd know how else to write them, but as a loving couple."
The interview generated a flurry of press attention, even in mainstream outlets. And, as has happened in the past when media speculation on the pair's relationship makes headlines, there came swift denials.
"As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends," Sesame Workshop, the organization that produces Sesame Street,insisted on Twitter, in a statement almost identical to one released in 2011 after a Change.org petition circulated urging the PBS children's show to let the puppets come out. "They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves."
"Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation," the statement continued.
Saltzman himself said his comments were misinterpreted in the uproar. And Frank Oz, the puppeteer who originated the performances of Bert, also weighed in on Twitter. Rather than saying the pair "do not have a sexual orientation," he explicitly stated that they were not gay.
\u201cIt seems Mr. Mark Saltzman was asked if Bert & Ernie are gay. It's fine that he feels they are. They're not, of course. But why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay? There's much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness.\u201d— Frank Oz (@Frank Oz) 1537295463
Oz's dismissive "They're not, of course" and "Does it really matter?" prompted a pushback from Twitter users, who had to defend why the queer identity of children's puppets -- or at least the plausibility of it -- does indeed matter. In fact, it's a truism that GLAAD has preached since its inception: Visibility is important, particularly for members of groups who never see themselves represented on television -- let alone children's entertainment.
"When you're young and feel like the world doesn't want you, seeing someone like you on your favorite show... it helps," said Twitter user @spikepoint.
"It's important for characters to be explicitly declared queer, because the mainstream will code them straight by default," added @TokyoTrash. To which Oz replied, "It is also important when a character who was not created queer, be accepted as such."
Oz's insistence that characters "be accepted" as straight taps into a tension as old as time: Who has authority over art, its creator or its consumers? What complicates this matter is the existence of multiple creators. "I created Bert. I know what and who he is," stated Oz, in a declaration of his authority over the contributions of the gay Sesame Street writer.
Yet as lovers of film history and Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet know, there were no characters "created queer" in Hollywood for decades, thanks to the Production Code's antigay censorship guidelines. Their identities were coded -- and not always confirmed after-the-fact by the actors who portrayed them. For example, actor Charlton Heston denied there was a gay subtext in Ben-Hur, despite critical interpretation to the contrary. Likewise, The Odd Couple's Oscar and Felix -- a precursor to Bert and Ernie -- may never have marched hand-in-hand in a Pride parade, yet they were notable for their queer subtext in the closeted '70s era.
Children's entertainment is arguably still in a hangover from the Production Code era. The absence of any clearly gay characters in the Disney canon is a testament to how studios are still reluctant to introduce obviously LGBTQ characters to young viewers -- even though new research indicates a "sizable" number of children who identify as queer long before reaching adolescence. However, Disney films are also filled with gender-nonconforming characters who have been interpreted as queer by critics and internet memes alike, and some have seen an allegory for the AIDS crisis in Beauty and the Beast.
Thankfully, more and more kids' shows are introducing explicitly queer characters; an upcoming gay character in Disney's Jungle Cruise, despite the casting of a straight actor in the role, is also a sign of change. Yet conservative groups like One Million Moms will invariably call out these shows for "pushing an agenda," keeping LGBTQ inclusion in children's entertainment in the middle of the culture wars.
By repeatedly insisting their characters are not gay, like Liberace publicists of yesteryear, Sesame Workshop has inadvertently fallen into these culture wars of politicizing LGBTQ inclusion. This is perhaps why the organization deleted its remarks from Twitter and replaced them with another with more carefully worded language.
"Sesame Street has always stood for inclusion and acceptance," the new statement reads. "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 than themselves."
In this revised statement, Sesame Workshop removed its assertion that the characters have no sexual orientation, which would have meant that there are no LGBTQ Muppets. Twitter user @spikepoint summed up the dilemma caused by this assertion when he explained that "having the flexibility to see them as I needed [to] was good for me, and the more voices I see CONFIRMING that they DEFINITELY ARE NOT is what makes me sad."
There is nothing strange about coming to the conclusion that Bert and Ernie might be a gay couple. In fact, it's logical. They are two male characters who have lived together and felt comfortable bathing in front of each other for decades. Connect the dots.
What is strange are the repeated denials, which tap into a sad history of erasure and suggest a discomfort with having queer characters in children's entertainment. The truth is that Bert and Ernie are gay, because that is how they have been embraced by LGBTQ culture. And no amount of press releases or denials will change that.
DANIEL REYNOLDS is an editor at The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @dnlreynolds.