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Why Bert and Ernie’s sexuality matters to LGBTQ people

It’s affirming to see people who are like you in the fiction you read and watch, especially when you’re young.

Ernie and Bert of “Sesame Street” pose in front of the Queen Mary II in the harbor of Hamburg. (Fabian Bimmer/AP)

On Sunday, Queerty released an interview with longtime “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman that touched on Bert and Ernie’s relationship. Asked whether he’d thought of the two characters “as a gay couple,” Saltzman responded: “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.”

In the wake of this admission, the Internet went wild with the “confirmation” that the cohabiting Muppets are, as so many of us have always suspected, queer.

On Tuesday, the official Sesame Street Twitter account posted that Bert and Ernie were merely “created to be best friends.” Frank Oz, their creator, also addressed it, this time with a dismissive shrug:

“They’re not, of course,” Oz wrote. “But why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay?”

Queer people have been hearing these questions for our entire lives, especially when we seek out images of ourselves in the media we consume. We hear them most often when we zero in on characters who aren’t explicitly queer, and — for the record — we often zero in on characters who aren’t explicitly queer because very few characters are that way: What would it add if we learned that Xena is bisexual or Dumbledore is gay in the actual text of their respective stories? Why do we need to know that Korra and Asami of “The Legend of Korra,” or Ruby and Sapphire of “Steven Universe,” or Princess Bubblegum and Marceline of “Adventure Time” are romantic couples, not just platonic friends? If there’s more to this character than their sexual orientation, why should we bother correcting the assumption that they’re hetero?

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The answer is, of course, that it’s affirming to see people who are like you in the fiction you read and watch. Most of the exposure that kids get to queerness comes in the form of the slurs they’re called on the playground. Whether you’re figuring out that you’re queer at the age of 4 or 14, that’s pretty depressing. When you’re desperate for something more positive, sometimes you have to remake the world in your own image, and that often means telling yourself stories about the stories others tell, the ones that really do bring you pleasure and delight.

If you’re straight, Saltzman’s assertion that he contextualized Bert and Ernie as a queer couple might not have meant much to you. But think about the thing he says after, that his own bond with his late partner, Arnie, was a “Bert & Ernie relationship.” For some queer people, statements like that can be a friendly “hello” in an otherwise alienating world; being able to see people like you in loving, positive relationships is a balm against the sinking feeling that comes over you every time someone makes a joke about AIDS where you can hear it. It’s easy to say that sexual and romantic orientation don’t matter when you already see examples of people like you everywhere. But when you’re from an underrepresented group, it can be a huge boost to see people like you living happy lives.

Consider one of the most famous queer readings of pop culture. In his 1954 book “Seduction of the Innocent,” the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham notoriously referred to Batman and Robin as “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” Describing a therapy session with a “young homosexual” in his care, Wertham writes: “When he was eight this boy had realized from fantasies about comic book pictures that he was aroused by men.” Wertham seems to believe the stories pushed the boy toward desires he otherwise wouldn’t have felt. It’s clear from his own descriptions, however, that his patient was merely responding affirmatively to images that were otherwise inaccessible in his cultural milieu, imprinting the things he already wanted over images in the comics he loved. With their help, he found a kind of relief, maybe even the possibility of peace.

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Queer people have been similarly seeing themselves in Bert and Ernie for decades; Saltzman was just someone who was able to put a bit of his heart in what was really on screen. As his approach shows, LGBTQ representation doesn’t even have to be about the kid-unfriendly topic of sex, which has never been where queerness begins and ends. What he and the rest of Sesame Workshop did with those characters was a little boost to queer watchers, both kids and adults. Bert and Ernie’s presence implicitly told queer people who related to them that they not only weren’t alone, but that people like them are happy and thriving.

It would obviously be a kindness to lot of queer people to have Sesame Street or Frank Oz just come out and say that Bert and Ernie are queer. But that’s not the only path they could have taken. They could have simply said that they are honored that queer people have seen themselves in their characters, that they hope that doing so has made a positive impact on their lives. Instead, they chose to invalidate the queer reading. Oz repeated the same interrogative excuses we’ve seen cisgender, heterosexual people use about the irrelevance of representation that we’ve heard our whole lives.

It’s precisely because of that attitude — precisely because the world remains so inimical to visions of queer intimacy — that so many of us have identified with characters like Bert and Ernie. We’re not going to stop. But that doesn’t mean the Frank Ozes of the world need to make things harder.

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