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Earlier this week, the LGBTQ gossip site Queerty published an interview with one-time Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman who remarked that when writing for Bert and Ernie, the show’s resident “Odd Couple,” he wrote them in the context of his own gay relationship. Immediately a zillion media outlets ran with a ‘Bert and Ernie gay couple revealed!’ headline.
That then led Sesame Street to release a statement saying no, they’re just “best friends” who, as Muppets, “do not have a sexual orientation.” Now people are losing their minds, calling the show’s statement homophobic and proclaiming Bert and Ernie — and everyone else on Sesame Street — are gayer than Christmas.
But allow us to put this to rest: Are Bert and Ernie gay? Nah. And that’s totally OK.
And even though Saltzman, as a gay man, envisioned Bert and Ernie as gay lovers when writing them during the ‘80s — mostly to help contextualize their domestic squabbles — Saltzman didn’t actually create the beloved characters; he only wrote for them while part of the Sesame Street team for 42 episodes.
Bert and Ernie were originally sketched during the early ‘70s by Muppets creator Jim Henson, designed by Don Sahlin and performed by puppeteer Frank Oz. In his autobiography about his time as an original crew member, Jon Stone said that Bert and Ernie were created to reflect the real-life friendship between Henson and Oz, two heterosexual friends.
Let’s also be clear, though, that Sesame Street’s assertion that Muppets have no sexual orientation is, well, bullshit. Some people have asked why Bert and Ernie can’t be lovers if Kermit and Miss Piggy are. Of course, Miss Piggy has never appeared on Sesame Street, meaning that Kermit’s appearances on the children’s program have otherwise been sexless.
But there have been other heterosexual Muppets on Sesame Street, like Elmo’s mom and dad (Mae and Louie), The Countess and The Count, Oscar the Grouch and his trashy girlfriend Grundgetta as well as lesser known couples Clementine and Forgetful Joe and Humphrey and Ingrid, owners of the Furry Arms Hotel.
Are Bert and Ernie gay? Well, we know Bert is attracted to women.
Bert has actually expressed interest in women at least twice on the show. He serenaded actress Connie Stevens with a romantic love song during a first-season episode of The Muppet Show, and he released an album track about his girlfriend entitled “I Want to Hold Your Ear.” (Hey, we never said he was a ladies man.) So at best Bert might be bisexual.
But the biggest reason to shrug off the Bert and Ernie gay claim is because the two have never shown affection toward one another on-screen, have never mentioned being physically attracted to one another and have never self-identified as gay. To proclaim them as gay would be similar to calling a gay guy straight because he lives with a woman and doesn’t have a boyfriend.
Yeah, it raises eyebrows when two single “bachelors” live together in the city, but it’s not like Bert and Ernie are banging when they’re off-camera. They’re Muppets, after all.
It’s understandable why people want them to be gay: In its nearly 50-year history, Sesame Street has never had the chutzpah to create an LGBTQ character. Elsewhere the series doesn’t seem to ‘go there,’ as on the South African Sesame Street, which has an HIV-positive female character named Kami.
After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, The New Yorker created a cover showing Bert and Ernie holding each other on the couch, adding fuel to the longstanding speculation that they’re gay. But they’re just roommates. And until we see them sucking face or proclaiming romantic love to one another (which probably ain’t gonna happen in a children’s program), they’ll remain straight.
Luckily there are plenty more depictions in 2018 of queer characters and queer-inclusive families on television (think Steven Universe, Adventure Time, Gravity Falls and Andi Mack), many of which have no issue enlightening — and in some cases, even targeting — younger audiences.