On Sunday, the LGBTQ website Queerty ran an interview with Mark Saltzman, a former Sesame Street writer who has had a truly fascinating life and has a lot of great stories to tell—about the show, about being a gay man in the 80s, and about his open secret of a relationship with film editor Arnold Glassman. It's a great read, but people are mostly focused on this bit:
In the writer’s room, you’re all adults. Were you thinking of Bert & Ernie as a gay couple? Did that question ever come up?
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. And 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. The other thing was, more than one person referred to Arnie & I as “Bert & Ernie.”
A couple days after the interview was posted, it was speeding around the internet, with dozens of entertainment sites declaring that Saltzman had said Bert and Ernie were gay. Soon the official Sesame Street Twitter account weighed in to say, basically: No they're not.
But though even Queerty tried to spin the interview as the "answer" to the "question" of whether Bert and Ernie were a gay couple in its headline, Saltzman didn't really say what everyone says he said. He drew on his own relationship to write the characters, and like many people he privately thought of Bert and Ernie as gay, but that's all he was commenting on—how he thought of them, not what they actually were in the scripts and on the screen. (Twitter got this right when it compiled a "moment" called "Sesame Street writer says he thinks of Bert and Ernie as a gay couple.")
Obviously Bert and Ernie have become gay icons of a sort over the years, but they weren't intended as gay characters, and to assert that they really are gay actually gives Sesame Street—an extremely progressive, inclusive show in many ways—more credit than it deserves. Elsewhere in the interview Saltzman describes trying to get his bosses to include gay storylines during the AIDS crisis. "I can remember pitching to the education department, the gatekeepers of the curriculum, gay content, just to get it off my conscience," he says. "And I can remember being stonewalled in a way that it made me think it was a lost cause." Later on in the interview, he adds: "And because it was always diversity, diversity, it’s a shame [_Sesame Steet_] wasn’t leading the charge."
Maybe Sesame Street should have made Bert and Ernie gay at some point. But the show didn't—instead, it has decided to make them nonsexual dude buddies. Legendary puppeteer Frank Oz, who created Bert, offered a pretty tone-deaf defense of this choice on Twitter:
That tweet sparked a backlash from people who thought that Oz was minimizing the experiences of gay people and ignoring what Bert and Ernie have actually meant to viewers. Thanks in part to Saltzman's writing, Bert and Ernie have played a role, however subtle in helping spread acceptance of same-sex relationships. At the same time, they were never actually gay, at least as much as puppets on a TV show can "actually" be anything.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.