Nothing causes more overheated drama in a culture than a fight over who owns that culture. Everything from who invented rock and roll to displays of patriotism to what makes a real Harry Potter fan is fair game for overblown fights about whose name is truly on the deed.
There are those cultural movements and icons that take on a different meaning from what they started off as because some group has seen a unique symbolism in one of them and formed a deep emotional bond to it, creating a desire to maintain its sacredness and defend it against interlopers. This is why the sexuality of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie is such a contentious topic. This has been your bar stool explanation of cultural symbolism and identity.
People are going to have strong feelings about B&E no matter what because those guys have been around for almost 50 years. They have been on television and part of our lives long enough to start worrying about their blood pressure and retirement savings. We have instilled in them a deep emotional meaning since they have existed long enough to be passed down from a grandparent’s childhood. The duo, who first appeared in the original test episode that was shown just days after the Stonewall riots, are as old as the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
With Sesame Street being available to anyone with a television and tinfoil, it became ubiquitous in our lives, and the characters a gateway into a larger world. For many of us, the show was the first place to see ourselves represented and the first exposure to the diversity of our country. The first Latino people I saw on television were from that show, and I learned my first Spanish words from those characters. We saw people with physical and developmental disabilities, and now autistic kids. treated as equals. Sesame Street has long symbolized our desire to become a country of kindness and compassion.
So what does all of this have to do with LGBTQ people wanting Bert and Ernie to be gay, and why is it so contentious? It’s because we want to be part of that diversity, we want to be seen, and we want to be woven into the collective culture. Like I said at the start, these fights over who owns culture take place because not only do we share it, we collectively created it. While writer Mark Saltzman didn’t create B&E, he spent decades writing them as a mirror for his own queer relationship, meaning that whether they started that way or not, we as a community have helped shape their narrative and their part in our culture. Of course the people at Sesame Workshop, the production company that makes the show, are going to insist that B&E have no sexual orientation because they want stay out of the fight. It’s a liability for their financial bottom line to get caught up in the "culture wars."
All those folks who continue to freak out on the internet saying, “Why do they have to be gay?” — they’re kind of right. You see, no one ever has to outright say Bert and Ernie are gay for them to be gay. With what Sesame Street has come to be, they’ve transcended simple TV and become cultural symbols. Elmo is an icon of exploration, Big Bird one of compassion, Count is ... well, an example of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even if they were never meant to be, that's what they have become. So for us, yes, Bert and Ernie are gay. How can they not be? Two guys, living together for decades, intimately familiar, caring, supportive of each other — how can we not see ourselves in that? They don't have to kiss, they don't have to wear rainbows, they don’t have to “rub it in our faces,” they just have to be who they are.
We have given them meaning beyond their existence as puppets with removable noses and a love for songs about rubber duckies to become a representation of ourselves. We can sit down and see more than a friendship there and recognize a love between the two that we see in our own relationships. Even a straight parent could explain gay relationships to their child in the context of Bert and Ernie. It’s part of a long gay tradition of finding ourselves in the world and making our own spaces. It’s everything from show tunes to The Wizard of Oz to SpongeBob. We have claimed things that haven't been made by us or for us because we desire a connection to the greater culture we're so often excluded from.
Bert and Ernie have become part of our nation’s culture, a culture we helped build and shape but experience differently. We have no monopoly on it, but neither does the straight, cisgender world. No matter the narrative spun, this is the meaning we have given it, and no matter what, they can’t take that away.