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Writer says Bert and Ernie are gay; Sesame Street says they're 'best friends'

Natasha Lindstrom
| Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, 5:21 p.m.
Bert (left) and Ernie are part of Jim Henson’s muppets appearing on Sesame Street.
Bert (left) and Ernie are part of Jim Henson’s muppets appearing on Sesame Street.

Sesame Street on Tuesday rejected a claim by a longtime writer for The Muppets that characters Bert and Ernie are gay, igniting an internet firestorm over the fictional pair’s sexual orientation as well as why it’s even being discussed.

“As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends,” Sesame Street said in a statement . “They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves.

“Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets do), they remain muppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”

Controversy erupted after LGBTQ blog Queerty published an interview with Mark Saltzman , who spent 15 years writing for The Muppets, in which Saltzman said he not only considered the characters of Bert and Ernie to be gay, but also to be modeled in many ways after his own romantic relationship with his gay partner, the late Arnold Glassman.

When asked whether Bert and Ernie, characters who are roommates in the iconic children’s TV show, are gay, Saltzman replied that he “always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.”

Saltzman said many people often referred to he and Glassman as “Bert and Ernie.” He likened his partner, who died in 2003, as more organized and disciplined like Bert, whereas he was the relationship’s “jokester” like Ernie.

“So it was the Bert and Ernie relationship, and I was already with Arnie when I came to Sesame Street. So I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple,” Saltzman said. “I wrote sketches … Arnie’s OCD would create friction with how chaotic I was. And that’s the Bert & Ernie dynamic.

“That’s what I had in my life, a Bert and Ernie relationship. How could it not permeate?” Saltzman said. “The things that would tick off Arnie would be the things that would tick off Bert. How could it not? I will say that I would never have said to the head writer, ‘Oh, I’m writing this, this is my partner and me.’”

Speculation has persisted over whether the pair of Muppets had represented a gay couple for decades.

Some have championed the pair for years as gay icons, with a Change.org online petition calling for Bert and Ernie to marry on screen in 2011, when gay marriage was legalized in New York.

A 2013 New Yorker cover depicted Bert and Ernie snuggling on a sofa while watching the Supreme Court decision clearing the way for legalized gay marriage nationwide.

As early as 1994, former Sesame Workshop CEO Gary Knell dismissed the buzz bluntly, “They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets. They don’t exist below the waist.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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