Bert and Ernie, gay or not? Either way, you're right

Commentary: A Sesame Street writer says the inseparable Muppets were a loving couple, while the show says they were just best buddies. Ultimately, it's up to you.

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Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
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Muppets Ernie and Bert are friends and roommates on the long-running children's TV show, Sesame Street. 

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

If you grew up watching Bert and Ernie on PBS' long-running kids series Sesame Street, you already know the Muppet men are good friends.  

But the question is "how good"?

Are they just best buddies and roommates who like to hang out, get each other thoughtful gifts and debate pigeons and rubber duckies? Or is there something romantic going on?

The question isn't new. But this week, it resurfaced when former Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman revealed in an interview with LGBTQ site Queerty that yes, the beloved duo is indeed in a homosexual relationship.

"I remember one time that a column from the San Francisco Chronicle, a preschooler in the city turned to mom and asked 'are Bert & Ernie lovers?' And that, coming from a preschooler was fun," Saltzman said. "That got passed around, and everyone had their chuckle and went back to it. And 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, who is gay, told Queerty he always thought of himself as Ernie and his partner Arnie Glassman as Bert.

As news spread that the former Sesame Street writer finally said what many of us already suspected, the Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, tweeted an official statement Tuesday saying the pair are just a pair of good ol' pals.

"They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves," the statement said. "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."

While Sesame Street may have intended Bert and Ernie to be straight, as adults we view their relationship with a real-world filter that probably says more about us than the puppets.

LGBTQ representation on children's shows is important, so why not add some LGBTQ characters to the Muppet roster? Muppets may be mere puppets, but Sesame Street has used them to tackle real-world issues, like the very adult topic of HIV.

Kami the Muppet starred in Takalani Sesame, the South African co-production of Sesame Street, and was created in 2002 specifically to teach kids about HIV. In fact, Kami was introduced and promoted as the world's first HIV-positive Muppet.

Muppet designer Ed Christie spoke with the Archive of American Television about Kami the monster Muppet.

"When we include monsters in any of our shows, it defuses specific categories," Christie said. "It doesn't allow it to be categorized, because the monster is very abstract. You interpret it one way or you interpret it another way. Everyone brings their own experience to that character and what they get out of it.

"I think developing the HIV character as a monster allows you to not put a human stigma on it," Christie added. "She's adorable… and she's got a positive attitude, but because she's a monster, it allows you to be more accepting of this character and what her message is. People buy into it. They just love them, because they bring their own experience with it."

And maybe that's the bigger picture here. Bert and Ernie's relationship is what you make of it. If you want the Muppets just to be best friends and roommates who met by chance when Bert moved out of his parents' home to Sesame Street -- that's fine.

But if you're a kid curious about the gay community, this could be a great tool for a parent or teacher to explain what LGBTQ means and how it could relate to Bert and Ernie's relationship.

Everyone just wants to feel like they belong. Who are we to deny them?

Watch this: Jim Henson exhibit 'Imagination Unlimited' is a trip down Muppet memory lane

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