Why can’t puppets Bert and Ernie be gay?

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Rev. Irene Monroe
Rev. Irene Monroe
Bert and Ernie as gay couple was inconceivable in 1969

Sesame Street’s most famous duo Bert and Ernie first appeared in 1969. That is the same year as the Stonewall Riots. Stonewall, to the nation’s surprise, catapulted the LGBT liberation movement. At that time, the idea of partnering these two lovable striped-sweater-wearing puppets as gay was as inconceivable as the idea of legalized same-sex marriage.

But four plus decades later Bert and Ernie’s relationship has outlived many heterosexual living arrangements. It mirrors the subtle ways in which LGBT couples discreetly went about their lives back in the day. The question of whether the guys are gay is not only apropos, but so is the question of their nuptials.

Bert and Ernie don’t exist below the waist

“They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets,” President and CEO of Sesame Workshop, Gary Knell said. “They don’t exist below the waist.”

The funny thing about the dominance of heteronormativity in society, I’ve learned as a lesbian, is that it is always assumed whether it’s above or below the waists of people or puppets. And, oddly, heteronormativity is also assumed without questions, expected without exception, and explained even in its silence.

But Knell is not entirely truthful in his reply that the puppets are neither gay nor straight.

My favorite Jim Henson Muppet is the over-the-top heterosexual prima-Donna, femme fatale, and sex-siren Miss Piggy. And the love of her life, Kermit the frog, unwittingly marries her in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Sesame Street has always moved and grooved with the times. Its concept of “Muppet diplomacy,” a term coined to depict Sesame Street’s efforts to educate children around the world, has tackled tough social issues like HIV/AIDS, child obesity, 9/11, and military deployment, to name a few. Characters have danced and sang with mega rock stars and hip-hop artists like Bono, Beyonce, and Justin Beiber.

Hasn’t Sesame Street over many years winked and nodded to the LGBT community?

Is it possible that my “gaydar” is off about Sesame Street? Perhaps. But hasn’t Sesame Street over the years, in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, winked and nodded to the LGBT community?

For example, was it mere coincidence that during “Coming Out Month” of October 2010 African American lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes appeared on the show? But Sykes is not the only openly LGBT person who appeared on the show. Openly gay guest stars like Neil Patrick Harris played a “shoe fairy,” and will.i.am of the “Black Eyed Peas” sang “What I Am?,” a song about self acceptance, creating an online kerfuffle about its underlying message.

Is it now time for Sesame Street’s under-the-radar winks and nods to the LGBT community be replaced with a full-throated statement of support?

Sesame Street has a long history of teaching children about diversity and acceptance. So, why should the issues impacting our LGBT children be excluded? Moreover, many of the children watching the show are not only LGBT,  but so are their parents and households.

Sesame Street needs to come out of the closet 

In other words, could it be that Sesame Street needs to come out of the closet?

In many ways, their famous duo has. And Bert and Ernie have not only been roommates, but they have also been sleep-mates, sleeping next to each other like any long-term committed couple.

I realize, however, in a culture that constantly sexualizes the coupling of same-gender relationships as gay, we ignore our friendships with our “best friends forever” (BFF), which is what producers of “Sesame Street” are stating about Bert and Ernie.

For example, for over two decades Oprah and her gal pal, Gayle King, editor-at-large for O, The Oprah Magazine, have denied rumors they are lesbians, but instead have publicly stated they are each other’s BFF, just two sistah-girls being sister-friends. After 30 years of four-times-a-day phone calls, and frequent sightings of where you see Oprah you also see Gayle, the public continues to question Oprah and Gayle about their relationship.

“No, I’m not a lesbian, I’m not even kind of a lesbian,” Oprah stated on A Barbara Walters Special: Oprah, The Next Chapter.

“The reason why it irritates me is because it means that somebody must think I’m lying. That’s number one,” Winfrey told Walters. “Number two… why would you want to hide it? That is not the way I run my life.”

Constantly labeling same-gender relationships as gay diminishes and distorts the romantic relationships we LGBT people have with our significant others. As a matter-of-fact, constantly labeling same-gender relationships as gay wrongly assumes that the only reason for two people of the same gender getting together is for sex. It also keeps in place the myth of the hypersexual and predatory LGBT person.

However, Sesame Street is an open classroom for our kids, reflecting the times. Same-sex marriage is one of the social issues of the day.

How will Sesame Street explain to children in same-gender families and households why Miss Piggy and Kermit the frog can marry, but Bert and Ernie can’t?

I’m going with what Mark Saltman’s said, that when he wrote Bert and Ernie episodes for Sesame Street, he thought of them as gay.

I, do, too!

Rev. Irene Monroe
Rev. Irene Monroe

Rev. Irene Monroe can be reached at twitter.com/revimonroe