Are they gay?
It's the age-old (well, several-years-old) question intriguing fans of muppets Bert and Ernie. Today, Sesame Street weighed in on Facebook:
"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."
The controversy emerged most recently with an online petition suggesting Bert and Ernie be allowed to marry. Thousands of same-sex couples have been married in New York since gay marriage was legalized in the Empire State in July. So why not Bert and Ernie?
Chicago resident Lair Scott started the online petition at Change.org to pressure the Sesame Street Workshop to "Let Bert & Ernie get married on Sesame Street." The petition reads, "We are not asking Sesame Street to do anything crude or disrespectful…. It can be done in a tasteful way. Let us teach tolerance of those that are different." The petition has collected more than 1,600 signatures.
But are Bert and Ernie even gay, never mind ready for the ultimate commitment? Scott clearly thinks so. In an interview with ABC News.com, Scott said, "A lot of people have wondered about Bert and Ernie.... Living in the same bedroom and the same home would make anyone question their sexuality." His aim, he added, is to get 20,000 petitioners to encourage the Sesame Workshop to either marry Bert and Ernie or introduce a gay or lesbian character.
A few days before he posted the marriage petition, Scott had generated another, asking Sesame Workshop to "Out Bert and Ernie as Gay."
The characters were developed 40 years ago by Jim Henson, the creator of Sesame Street. The felt-based duo both wear stripes and have mops of black hair. But that's where the similarities end. Ernie has always played the lovable doofus to Bert's boring straight man. Bert likes pigeons, Ernie prefers rubber ducks.
For a couple of puppets geared toward preschoolers, the two have generated controversy over the years, centered primarily around their sexual orientation.
The rumor mill went into overdrive last year when Bert wrote on the Sesame Street twitter account that his haircut resembled Mr T's -- "the only difference is mine is a little more 'mo, a little less 'hawk." That was enough to convince many bloggers that the Sesame Workshop was secretly signaling Bert's sexual orientation.
But the folks on Sesame Street have always pushed back against the rumors.
In 2007, Sesame Workshop president and CEO Gary Knell wrote, "They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets…they do not exist below the waist."
Perhaps. As the Los Angeles Times noted today, Sharkey Violet responded skeptically to Sesame Street's Facebook pronouncement by writing, "Muppets do not have sexual orientation? So ... all along Miss Piggy was after Kermit for .... his frog legs for supper?"
That debate will no doubt occupy fans for some time. Meanwhile, the petitions continue, and Lair Scott now has some competition. There is now a "Leave Bert and Ernie alone" petition and a "Stop Pressuring PBS to make Bert and Ernie Gay" petition.
As of this writing, the number of people signing up for those petitions is climbing.