Bert and Ernie

Are they or aren’t they?

The on-line world has been buzzing with this question, and people have crept out of every Web nook and cranny to weigh in on the most hotly contested issue of the week. 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, it’s not possible. They’re simply best friends and roommates close enough to get on each other’s nerves.

Find me five people on Planet Earth who don’t remember Ernie and Bert. I don’t know a single soul who doesn’t have a memory of Sesame Street, and these two characters are definitely among the most memorable. Of course it didn’t occur to me back then that they were in a relationship, but that had more to do with me being a little kid oblivious to relationships than with anything. All I knew was that Ernie was annoying and Bert was cranky, and they drove each other crazy. (I guess maybe I should have assumed they were married….)

Rumours about Bert and Ernie’s sexual orientation have swirled around for years, at least as long as I’ve been alive, because I remember hearing murmurs about it when I was a young teen. It was one of those circular debates that never got much traction, probably because the discussion was forgotten soon after someone turned the channel, and because the Internet hadn’t been invented yet.

This speculation came to a head last week when a former Sesame Street writer, Mark Saltzman, told a gay and lesbian 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],” he said. “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 his significant other to create the characters of Bert and Ernie. Not surprisingly, people on the Internet (and soon after, the rest of the media) had plenty to say about this. For many, it was long-awaited confirmation and vindication.

But not so fast, said the show’s parent company. Sesame Workshop initially said that “puppets do not have a sexual orientation” – which makes sense, I suppose. 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.” Which is great, but did little to clear things up.

And not to nitpick, but what about Kermit and Miss Piggy? And didn’t the Count have a girlfriend for awhile? Surely Sesame has to admit there is sexual orientation involved with those pairings, so what makes Ernie and Burt any different?

Saltzman “clarified his comments” (otherwise known as “backpedaled”) to The New York Times, saying that no, Ernie and Burt were not a gay couple after all. Frank Oz, who helped create the characters, confirmed as much on Twitter.

Frankly, I was surprised by all the back and forth. Why were we even discussing this? They’re puppets, fictional characters in a make-believe world. But then I began to read comments from gay people whose response to this decades-long debate was much 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 and end some old speculation.

For gay adults, once gay children, having Ernie and Bert be a part of their community matters, and it matters a lot. When you grow up feeling excluded because of skin colour, or disability, or sexual orientation, without role models on TV or on the toy shelf, knowing there are others like you and that you are represented in a warm, humanizing way by beloved characters would be a great comfort, I would think.

Bert and Ernie may or may not be gay – only they know for sure. It doesn’t really matter to me, but I’m certainly not going to think any less of them either way. Imagine, though, how much happier and more comfortable a childhood it might have meant for others had they been out before now.