Who knew that sweet little Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street would cause such a fuss — and in Northern Ireland of all places!
A Christian-run bakery in Newtonabbey is potentially facing legal action after refusing to produce a cake with a picture of Bert and Ernie on the top with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage.” Ashers Baking Company refused the request, saying the cake went against the directors’ religious beliefs. Currently gay marriage is legal on the mainland, but not in Northern Ireland.
In response to this, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has now written to the firm stating that they are in breach of the law, illegally discriminating on grounds of sexual orientation against the man who placed the order.
I was born and bred in the province, so I am not surprised that religious beliefs have caused a ruckus once again, but what perplexes me is what Bert and Ernie have to do with all this.
It turns out that the 45-year-old puppets have been outed as gay icons, despite Sesame Street insisting that they are just good friends. In 2011, following a campaign to get Bert and Ernie married, Sesame Street posted on their Facebook page:
“Bert and Ernie are best friends. 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 puppets and do not have a sexual orientation.”
Commenters immediately argued that Miss Piggy has chased Kermit for years and even made a point not to eat his frogs legs. These rumors began to circulate as early as 1994, when Rev. Joseph Chambers, a Pentecostal minister from Charlotte, N.C., decided they were a gay couple:
“They’re two grown men sharing a house and a bedroom! They share clothes. They eat and cook together. They vacation together and have effeminate characteristics. In one show Bert teaches Ernie how to sew. In another, they tend plants together. If this isn’t meant to represent a homosexual union, I can’t imagine what it’s supposed to represent.”
Shortly after this hit the news, the show stopped all the joint baths and photos together for Bert and Ernie. But still the rumors persisted, culminating in The New Yorker celebrating the Supreme Court’s historic rulings on gay marriage in 2013 by titling the cover “Bert and Ernie’s Moment of Joy.” It featured the two characters snuggling together on the couch as they watched the landmark Supreme Court rulings on TV.
Yet Bert and Ernie, for all intents and purposes, remain in the closet. Isn’t it time they came out?
What is so wrong with having openly gay characters in kids’ shows? I’m not suggesting for a single second that we show anything that could be construed as having sexual connotations. I’m merely keen to portray an assortment of families — to show our kids that not everyone has a nuclear family, and that as different as many families may be, they’re all normal.
The South African version of Sesame Street, Takalani Sesame, successfully introduced an HIV-positive character called Kami. For an area where AIDS is an epidemic, this idea was considered crucial in order to reduce the stigma surrounding the disease. Their website states, “While normalizing the face of HIV/AIDS, Kami provides a life-affirming antidote to the stigma that accompanies the disease. She also helps kids learn basic facts about how it is — and isn’t — transmitted, and models healthy ways to deal with grief and loss.”
For me, the key word here is “normalizing.” The more kids are exposed to families made up of two dads, or two moms, or step-parents, or care-givers, or grandparents acting as parents, or whatever the family setup might be, the more likely they are to understand the dynamics and not show prejudice towards those in a different family situation than their own. As a parent, I feel it is my duty to educate my kids so they don’t make judgements toward people based on their religion, sexual orientation, or color.
But the main reason why I hope Bert and Ernie are gay? Because they’re happy. They’ve had a longer, more successful relationship than many heterosexual couples on screen. They aren’t volatile or violent or have many girlfriends (I’m looking at you Count von Count); they love to sing and have fun and they genuinely care about each other.
J.K. Rowling already outed her Hogwart’s headmaster Albus Dumbeldore as being gay. She told an audience at a New York book tour in 2007 that, “Dumbledore is gay,” and that he was smitten with rival Gellert Grindelwald, who he had beat in a battle between good and bad wizards. Bravo, Rowling, for adding another character our kids can learn from.
Children’s books and television shows should be about alternative families, about accepting others and not judging those who are “different” from us. However, I respect Bert and Ernie for living their lives as they do and not succumbing to the pressure to come out. Why? Because they’ve already showed what a great gay relationship can be; they just don’t need to label it. Maybe, in a kids’ show, neither do we. After all, Bert and Ernie will still be doing what they do (fingers crossed) in another 45 years. Who cares what we think? It really doesn’t matter to them.
Photo credit: Twitter