“Sesame Street’s” most famous duo Bert and Ernie first appeared in 1969, the same year as the Stonewall Riots, which to the nation’s surprise catapulted the LGBTQ Liberation Movement. And 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 with Bert and Ernie’s relationship outliving many heterosexual living arrangements―roommates or married―and mirroring the subtle ways in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ) couples discreetly went about their lives back in the day, the question of whether the guys are gay is not only apropos, but so, too, is the question of their nuptials.
“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 totally truthful in his rejoinder that the puppets are neither gay nor straight.
My favorite Jim Henson Muppet is the heterosexual over-the-top 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, and 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, and has danced and sang with mega rock stars and hip-hop artists like Bono, Beyonce, and Justin Beiber.
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 LGBTQ community?
For example, was it mere coincidence that during “Coming Out Month” of October 2010 African American lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes appeared on show? But Sykes is not the only openly LGBTQ person of appear 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 LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ children be excluded? Moreover, many of the children watching the show are not only LGBTQ, but so, too, are their parents and households.
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 own 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 rather 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.”
I also realize that in constantly labeling same-gender relationships as gay, it diminishes and distorts the romantic relationships we LGBTQ people have with our significant others. As a matter of fact, constantly labeling same-gender relationships as gay not only wrongly assumes that the only reason for two people of the same gender getting together is for sex, but it also keeps in place the myth of the hypersexual and predatory homosexual.
However, “Sesame Street’s” 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?
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Ford Fellow and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School. One of Monroe’s outreach ministries is the several religion columns she writes - “The Religion Thang,” for In Newsweekly, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender newspaper that circulates widely throughout New England, “Faith Matters” for The Advocate Magazine, a national gay & lesbian magazine, and “Queer Take,” for The Witness, a progressive Episcopalian journal. Her writings have also appeared in Boston Herald and in the Boston Globe. Her award-winning essay, “Louis Farrakhan’s Ministry of Misogyny and Homophobia”, was greeted with critical acclaim. Monroe states that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American , queer and religious studies. As an religion columnist I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Because homophobia is both a hatred of the “other ” and it’s usually acted upon ‘in the name of religion,” by reporting religion in the news I aim to highlight how religious intolerance and fundamentalism not only shatters the goal of American democracy, but also aids in perpetuating other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism and anti-Semitism.”
Email this author | All posts by Rev. Irene Monroe