A petition launced on Facebook is trying to gather enough supporters to sway the producers of PBS’s Sesame Street to acknowledge that Bert & Ernie are in a committed, gay relationship. For those older than the preschool set, Bert & Ernie are a couple of Muppets who live in a garden apartment together on Sesame Street. They’re best friends – they’re sort of the Oscar & Felix for the under aged-5 group.
The goal of this petition is to remind young viewers that it’s okay and normal to be gay – exposing the kids to a pair of lovable characters who happen to be gay will lessen the chance of the audience to grow up and believe in anti-gay bigotry. At least that’s how the thinking goes.
Oh boy. Where to start. Well, the idea, or the germ of the idea is well-intentioned. It also springs from an important question: how do we teach tolerance for everyone as early as possible. Unfortunately, outing a pair of puppets made of felt isn’t the solution and in fact, the outcome will generate a backlash that wouldn’t be worth the questionable benefits.
Some will argue that Sesame Street is inhabited by lots of straight couples, and they’d be right: Gordon and Susan, Maria and Luis and there are countless “mom and dad” pairs of humans and monsters. But gays aren’t exactly invisible in the ‘hood. Sesame Street is almost as well-known for its guest-stars as it is for its educational value and lots of openly LGBT celebs have strolled down the street to teach some tykes to count or to sing with a monster or two: Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Harvey Fierstein, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Stipe, Wanda Sykes, among others. This sort of stealth-way of handling the possibly thorny issue of introducing LGBT visibility to kids is I think much more productive than the provocative step of actually making Bert & Ernie gay (and by the way, are Bert & Ernie even adults?)
This step will probably just give more ammo to conservatives to defunding PBS. Under President George W. Bush’s tenure, his secretary of education, Margaret Spellings demanded that producers of the children’s show Postcards from Buster return all the money they received from federal funds for an episode featuring a lesbian couple. Instead of complying, PBS decided not to distribute the episode to all its station, though some stations aired the episode with a televised Q&A afterwards. I don’t think if Sesame Street followed suit, that our current education secretary, Arne Duncan would do what Spellings did (Duncan has been enthusiastically supportive of LGBT issues), but we’re coming up to an election year, and the last thing we need is Michele Bachmann or Mitt Romney to sound the battle cry that homosexuals are trying to corrupt children’s television.
Diversity is a great thing and teaching diversity, including LGBT acceptance is fantastic, but unfortunately, it’s an issue that has to be handled very carefully. Making Bert & Ernie gay is not a thoughtful way of introducing inclusion and it could damage a show that’s done immeasurable good. We need to choose our battles, and be strategic about choosing our battle fields – Sesame Street shouldn’t be one of them.