Recently, a whirlwind of controversy swirled around speculation that childhood favorites Bert and Ernie, of “Sesame Street,” might be partners—yes, a gay couple. In an interview with Queerty, Mark Saltzman, who wrote for the show from 1985 to 1998, discusses the challenges of being in a gay relationship during the 1980s, particularly in the television industry. Toward the end of the interview, Saltzman is thrown a curveball question: Were Bert and Ernie a couple? According to Saltzman, to some degree, yes. “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,” Saltzman revealed. Following Salzman’s confirmation of many a fan’s hunch, social media went ablaze with viral takes on the issue. But then, in tandem, Sesame Workshop and Frank Oz, who once played Bert, rained on everyone’s parade. Oz insisted that “of course” Bert and Ernie aren’t gay. “I created Bert. I know what and who he is.” To double down on dismissing the rumors, Sesame Workshop released an official statement, clarifying, “As we’ve always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most “Sesame Street” Muppets do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation." One question sums up my response to the controversy: If taking such an unequivocal stance on Bert and Ernie’s sexual orientation mattered so much, why wait until now, the moment when the world is convinced that they are not straight, and not just friends? The answer to that question not only reveals society’s misconceptions about what educational and entertainment content is considered “developmentally appropriate,” it also exposes the invisible discrimination and prejudice that many LGBTQ+ educators experience in elementary schools—a worrisome burden that I’ve confronted firsthand.
BACK INTO THE CLOSETWhen I returned to elementary school for the first time in 20 years, every direction I turned, I was surprised to find color-coded name tags, hall passes, and seating charts, all denoted by only two of many genders: boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll always remember feeling “too gay” after my first day—and how fearfully and tensely my body responded to this environment, until the very moment I stepped foot out of the school building. Without even noticing, I became paranoid and self-conscious, which would sound preposterous to any of my friends who know my work as an LGBTQ+ activist. But, the reality is that society places a heavy burden of respectability politics on elementary educators. To those who identify as LGBTQ+, this culture of respectability often hints that they should go back into the closet, since, supposedly, their existence is too difficult for children to understand. Adults, parents more so than educators, often hold this misconception because they don’t give children enough credit for what or whom they can learn to become tolerant of. Consequently, I had no option but to conform to a culture dictated by what parents believed was a safe and wholesome environment for their kids—free of gender non-conforming people and “out” individuals in same-sex partnerships, of course. Many who’ve never been in this situation might say that conforming was a choice; but to that, I’d say that keeping a roof over my head was not. I did what I had to do, but admittedly, I regretted every minute of it. Day by day, I caught myself unconsciously policing my attire and mannerisms. I began putting bass in my voice, pushing my shoulders back more, and stepping and swaggering in wider strides, all to perform traditionally masculine gender presentation. Essentially, I took on a bold Sasha Fierce-esque alter ego of sorts, that I wouldn’t dare project in real life. It sounds silly, yet, this strategy of appearing more masculine—and to the straight eye, less gay—worked for me. Regardless of how oppressive toxic masculinity and the inflated male ego are in the adult world, playing into male privilege got me approval around young kids, because it made me seem protective and paternal. This is the mold for male educators in elementary schools. Unfortunately, [pullquote position="left"]schools have yet to see how much children need the presence of real and authentic LGBTQ+ people, in order to facilitate young children’s character development. Take, for instance, a report by The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which found that 45 percent of students in grades 3-6, and 49 percent of teachers of grades K-6, reported that the word “gay” was mostly expressed in a derogatory way. Students also reported hearing many other words used as anti-gay or anti-trans attacks; like “dyke,” “faggot,” “fairy,” “lesbo” and “sissy.” So, with all this evidence that promoting LGBTQ+ inclusivity would be a good thing, why isn’t there more representation of LGBTQ+ people in elementary schools? The same reason “Sesame Street” skirted around the issue.
THE TAKEAWAY: LGBTQ+ INCLUSION IS NOT RATED RWe’ve already seen "Sesame Street" champion numerous lessons on diversity, as well as moral and social development, like when it came to normalizing breastfeeding, working through grief, raising awareness about girls’ rights in Afghanistan, and unpacking adoption and parental incarceration. The show has even broached living with HIV, embracing natural African-American hair textures, moving through the world with a wheelchair, and growing up with Down Syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. I’d say that you can’t push the envelope any further, but the truth is that “Sesame Street” has been too staunch of a social justice advocate to turn its back on the LGBTQ+ community, for any reason whatsoever. Moreover, the only difference between the uproar about a potential same-sex partnership, versus an equally “provocative” issue like HIV, is the belief that LGBTQ+ inclusion is too explicit for elementary school. Rated R. Regardless of the rainbow flags worn during Pride season, many straight folks still believe that their children won’t be heterosexual after “exposure” to the LGBTQ+ community. There’s also the misconception that the LGBTQ+ community will expose children to sex prematurely. None of this is actually how young children’s introduction the LGBTQ+ community plays out. So, how would a young child react to being introduced to same-sex partnerships? Probably casually, curiously, or both. To be sure, their mind certainly would not wander to inappropriate thoughts, like many educators and parents presume. They’d probably only ask how children like themselves refer to their two moms or two dads, without confusing them—would it be dad and papa, and mom and mama? In fact, typically developing “Sesame Street”-aged children can’t sexualize peers, adults, or anyone else, for that matter, since concepts of desire and lust are only abstractions that they cannot comprehend (see Piaget’s stages of intellectual development). However, children can wrap their minds around love, and also romantic partnership, at the most basic level. Children’s lexicon and emotional repertoire includes love because from birth, we all have the capacity to feel loved, as well as affirmed, nurtured and protected—feelings that are all extensions of love. This explanation is the nuanced yet very uncomplicated answer to the “What do I tell them?” question that most parents ask in regards to discussing same-sex partnerships with children. With that said, Sesame Street Workshop’s takeaway from this controversy should be that erasing Bert and Ernie’s possibly same-sex relationship was a missed opportunity. And I hope that the company realizes that the implications of their public statements disappointed many people, like LGBTQ+ parents; and especially LGBTQ+ elementary educators, who have been waiting since forever for a monumental moment of representation, like this should’ve been. If, time and time again, young viewers have proven that they can empathize with and make sense of the world’s many diverse identities, lived experiences and narratives, what makes us believe that they can’t accept the fact that two people who love each other can claim the same gender or share the same sex—whether they be their classmates’ parents, their teachers’ partners, or just puppets?
Araya Baker is a counselor educator, suicidologist, and policy analyst. Baker has published commentary and public scholarship in The New York Times, The Washington Post's