AP NEWS

Gay or straight? To LGBTQ people, it’s a big deal

September 23, 2018

Last Sunday, the gay online publication Queerty released an interview with longtime “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman that touched on the relationship between popular characters Bert and Ernie. Asked whether he’d thought of them “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 two cohabiting Muppets are indeed, as so many of us suspected, queer.

In response, the official Sesame Street Twitter account posted that Bert and Ernie were merely “created to be best friends.” Creator Frank Oz addressed the issue 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 images of ourselves in the media. We hear them most often when we zero in on characters who aren’t explicitly queer, and, frankly, very few are. What would it add if we learned that Xena is bisexual or Dumbledore is gay? 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?

The answer is, of course, that it’s affirming to see people like you in books and on screen. Most of the exposure kids get to queerness comes at them as playground slurs. When you’re desperate for something positive, sometimes you have to remake the world in your own image.

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

Consider the 1954 book “Seduction of the Innocent,” in which the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham notoriously referred to Batman and Robin as “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” Describing a “young homosexual” in his care, Wertham wrote, “When he was 8, this boy had realized from fantasies about comic book pictures that he was aroused by men.” Wertham seemed 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 positively to images that were otherwise inaccessible in his cultural milieu. In Batman and Robin, he found a kind of relief.

Queer people have been seeing themselves in Bert and Ernie for decades; Saltzman just put a bit of his heart in what was really on screen. His approach shows that LGBTQ representation doesn’t have to be about sex, which has never been where queerness begins and ends. Bert and Ernie’s presence told queer people they are not alone, and they can be happy and thrive.

It would obviously be a kindness to lot of queer people to have Sesame Street or 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 said they are honored that queer people see themselves in the characters, that they hope that’s made a positive impact on their lives. Instead, Oz repeated a trope we’ve heard our whole lives from cisgender, heterosexuals: that queer representation in media is irrelevant.

It’s precisely because the world remains so inimical to visions of queer intimacy that so many of us identify with characters like Bert and Ernie. The Frank Ozes of the world need not make things harder.

Nora Reed is the creator of the twitter bots @thinkpiecebot and @infinite_scream. This essay first appeared in the Washington Post.

AP RADIO
Update hourly