Bert and Ernie: A stifled opportunity

illustration by Alison Sedenkov

illustration by Alison Sedenkov

Noah Walch, columnist

When I was four years old, I was obsessed with Sesame Street. When I was four years old, I thought that I was straight.

I was never given any reason to think otherwise. The world taught me that heterosexuality was the default through the overwhelming narratives of Prince Charmings and their princesses, or, in the puppet world, Kermits and Miss Piggys.

So when Mark Saltzman, former Sesame Street writer, revealed to Queerty magazine that he channeled his romance with editor Arnie Glassman into Bert and Ernie’s relationship, I hoped against hope that a pair so significant to my childhood could be confirmed as gay. Two days later, Sesame Workshop released a statement on Twitter refuting Saltzman’s claim.

In doing this, the creators of the show squandered a prime opportunity to not only honor the spirit in which two characters were written, but to alter the next generation’s perceptions of homosexual relationships from a young age.

This would have an extremely beneficial effect on LGBT children, as the young viewers of Bert and Ernie’s antics are shown a type of love not often shown in media, especially programs geared toward their age group. It could upend the trends that show many people now identifying as gay or bisexual did not realize it until adolescence.

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States concluded after a survey of 1,752 college students that 48 percent of respondents only became aware of their sexual orientation in high school. If young children can be exposed to an explicitly gay relationship, they can also become more conscious of their sexuality at this younger age, and therefore have more time to feel comfortable in their own skin.

Exposure early in life does not just affect Sesame Street fans who may identify with a gay Bert and Ernie. It has been demonstrated that the presentation of LGBT people through media increases tolerance, especially at a younger age, as concluded by Doctors Phillip Ayoub and Jeremiah Garretson in their article “Getting the Message Out: Media Context and Global Changes in Attitudes toward Homosexuality.”

“The changes in popular culture that media currents make visible may be responsible for the increased social tolerance of gay people cross-nationally,” write Ayoub and Garretson.  “Younger audiences … are less likely to have formed firm opinions towards gay people and are thus more likely to respond to new information transmitted through post-1990s media.”

Some believe this exposure would have a negative impact on their children. Some have unfounded fears that the effects of displaying a relationship such as Bert and Ernie’s to young children could extend beyond mere tolerance. They worry that homosexuality would “rub off” onto their impressionable kids.

Not only is this concern homophobic, it is also wrong. The American Psychological Association has asserted that genetics play a considerable role in sexual orientation.

“The preponderance of opinion within the scientific community is that there is a strong biological component to sexual orientation and that genetic, hormonal and environmental factors interact to influence a person’s orientation,” they write. “There is no scientific evidence that either homosexuality or heterosexuality is a free will choice.”

Sesame Street would be taking a risk. An explicitly homosexual relationship on a children’s’ TV show is controversial; it would face backlash from parents who do not want their kids exposed to it. The show could see a fall in ratings, their ad sales could plummet.

I’m sure that Sesame Workshop carefully considered that when they released their statement, saying that Bert and Ernie “remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.” I’d bet Frank Oz, puppeteer of Bert, thought of the show’s reputation before he tweeted “Why that question? Why does it matter? Why the need to define people as only gay?”

What Oz doesn’t realize is that it does matter. It matters because it would teach the youth of America that homosexuality is not an undesirable trait that makes one less-than, nor does it erase all other qualities of a person or puppet. It matters because it would show LGBT children that they can be comfortable with themselves and their sexuality. And it would show me all of that too.