There’s something you should know about me before we start: I’ve always loved the Muppets and “Sesame Street” ― even well past the time I probably should have. The characters were my friends. I stayed home from middle school the day Jim Henson died because I could not hold it together. As a 43-year-old man, I have a portrait of Big Bird drawn by his performer, Caroll Spinney, in my living room. The New Yorker cover from 2015 that shows Bert and Ernie looking at the Supreme Court on TV after same-sex marriage became the law of the land is framed on my wall.
Growing up gay in the ’80s was hard. I knew who I was pretty early on. There wasn’t a big question for me. I mean, I was in “Evita” when I was 10. And while I had a single mom who did all she could to help me embrace who I was artistically, being gay was still not who you were supposed to be. The only images I saw of gay people were villains, ridiculous stereotypes or people living with HIV/AIDS. And so a young gay mind assumes that’s who they are destined to become. Because of that, taking my own life was an almost daily thought. Happily, things have changed.
I did not have visible or famous gay role models to look up to when I was young, but I did have “Sesame Street” and the Muppets. Those shows not only taught me important lessons, but in a strange way, I identified with those characters. I loved musicals and could sing every song from “Pippin,” which didn’t really help in the popularity department. I temporarily escaped from the loneliness I was experiencing in my own life with the help of my furry pals on TV who sang show tunes ALL. THE. TIME. and who loved one another and made each other laugh.
I always loved Ernie in particular. He was goofy and sweet and innocent, and he loved another guy ― whatever that meant at the time. In fact, all throughout high school, I carried around a little Ernie doll with me. If you were in any musicals with me back then, you almost certainly kissed Ernie’s nose for good luck before the curtain went up.
Suddenly, after loving these characters for as long as I can remember, I have been given the gift of experiencing them all over again through the eyes of my son. My husband and I worked for several years to make our dream of being fathers come true. Then, in December, we got a call we weren’t expecting. Out of the blue, with just 24 hours notice, we became dads to our beautiful 3-day-old son, Malcolm. The journey has been nothing short of magical, and we cannot wait to see how this little guy changes the world.
As an adult and as a father living in 2018, my expectations for children’s programming have changed. My son is growing up in a world where there is certainly more and better representation of families like his, but there’s almost nothing for younger people to see.
Our son is black/Latinx, and he started his life with being entrusted to two white male parents. Happily, we live in a city and neighborhood where there are lots of kids like him and we make sure to spend time with some families like our own. But when we turn on the TV, the only families like ours are on prime time ― not shows meant for him.
The world my son sees on television is full of families with a biological mother and father, a world that makes my son see himself as the “other.” There’s still almost no truly diverse (and especially LGBTQ) programming meant specifically for younger people. He’s likely still a little young to really put all of that together, but I’m hoping some courage from the Sesame Workshop and other producers of children’s television will change that.
This week, former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman said in an interview with Queerty, “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were [gay]. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.”
This, of course, set the internet on fire. The rumors that the felt roomies were more than just roomies have been flying for a generation. And the producers of the show have been forced to respond on a few occasions, mostly repeating the same statement: “…they remain puppets and do not have a sexual orientation.”
That doesn’t really make sense ― especially when you look at the show’s history and how it has handled other characters’ identities.
Some of you may remember the star of both “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show,” a little green fella known as Kermit the Frog. Kermit marries his longtime love, Miss Piggy, in 1984’s “Muppets Take Manhattan.” Oscar the Grouch had a girlfriend named Grundgetta. The Count is a regular lothario, with no fewer than three girlfriends over the years ― Countess von Backwards, Lady Two, and Countess von Dahling. And several straight-led families are represented in this “Sesame Street” song.
Romantic relationships are not foreign to “Sesame Street” or the Muppets. So why the defensiveness around this orange-and-yellow pair?
As they do every time someone comes out on television, the anti-gay critics have come out of the woodwork. And what their criticism all boils down to is that children are too young to understand these things. This is usually said by people who grew up in a straight, white, biological family, with parents who are still married after 40 years. But I can guarantee you that my son already understands the idea that he has two dads. And as soon as he can speak, he’s going to start pointing that out to everyone he sees (as several LGBTQ parents have warned us).
“It's extraordinarily disappointing that this beacon of light from my own childhood is making the conscious decision to ignore my very own family and son. It’s heartbreaking to think Sesame Workshop believes my life and my family is a bridge too far for children to comprehend.”
“Sesame Street” taught me far more than letters, numbers and the word “casa.” It taught me empathy and kindness. It taught me about helping out around the house, and being good to my siblings and friends. Please don’t ever tell me that children are too young to learn that every family is different, when I sat there and cried along with Big Bird when Mr. Hooper died. “Sesame Street” has always put children first and it has never spoken down to them. That’s why it’s been around so long.
It’s extraordinarily disappointing that this beacon of light from my own childhood is making the conscious decision to ignore my very own family and son. It’s heartbreaking to think Sesame Workshop believes my life and my family is a bridge too far for children to comprehend.
Frank Oz, one of the creators of the Muppets, replied to Bert and Ernie’s “outing” on Wednesday by saying: “Jim and I never created them to be gay.” I know it may seem strange to compare myself to a Muppet, but my parents didn’t create me to be gay either. They were disappointed. But that didn’t change the fact that I discovered who I was as I grew up ― and that kid was gay.
I sincerely hope Sesame Workshop and Oz let Bert and Ernie grow up, too ― not just for me, but for my son and all of the kids out there who may feel different because of who they are, who they discover themselves to be or because their family doesn’t look like other families.
Two gay Muppets who love and respect each other appearing on a kids show might sound like an absurd idea to many people, but no more absurd than a “weirdo” loving a chicken, or a frog marrying a pig. And in this case, those gay Muppets just might change ― or save ― someone’s life one day.