Mark Saltzman made the controversial statements in a Sept. 16 interview with the LGBTQ news outlet Queerty. The Emmy-winning writer, credited with having worked on 31 episodes of “Sesame Street” that aired from 1985 through 1998, told Queerty that his real-life relationship with partner Arnold “Arnie” Glassman inspired “the Bert and Ernie dynamic,” and, as such, he viewed the iconic characters as “a loving couple.”
Saltzman’s quotes, of course, made global headlines and prompted countless think pieces about whether or not children’s programming should dip into the, um, private lives of puppets. If the uproar seemed particularly intense, that’s because people have speculated numerous times since their 1969 “Sesame Street” debut that Bert and Ernie are gay. They were even depicted as a couple on the cover of the New Yorker in 2013 in an issue commemorating that year’s Supreme Court ruling that declared the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, unconstitutional.
Would giving LGBTQ kids the chance to see themselves represented, even in a small, benign way on a TV show, make a difference?
By Tuesday night, however, Saltzman backtracked a bit, telling The New York Times that his comments had been misinterpreted. Though he reaffirmed that his relationship with Glassman informed many of his “Sesame Street” scripts, he said he never intended Bert and Ernie to be seen as definitively gay.
“As a writer, you just bring what you know into your work,” he said. “Somehow, in the uproar, that turned into Bert and Ernie being gay. There is a difference.”
Though Saltzman hopes “Sesame Street” will eventually feature LGBTQ characters in its increasingly diverse mix, he says they should be portrayed by human actors as opposed to puppets. As for Bert and Ernie, he sees them simply as “two guys who love each other. That’s who they are.”
Saltzman’s latest remarks came after “Sesame Street” addressed the controversy with a pair of statements, both issued Tuesday.
“As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends,” the first statement read. “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.”
A second statement elaborated further:
Frank Oz, who performed regularly as Bert from 1969 through 2001, questioned whether or not having the characters identify as gay would “really matter” in a tweet on Tuesday.
After engaging with a number of dissenting voices on Twitter, the actor, director and puppeteer said he “learned something profound.”
Oz’s acknowledgment of the controversy as a teachable moment, of course, raises some important questions: What if “Sesame Street” had stood by Saltzman’s initial comments? What if a children’s program known for championing diversity had allowed two of its most beloved characters to identify as gay?
An estimated 34 percent of LGBTQ kids face bullying in school, and they are nearly three times as susceptible to suicidal behavior as their heterosexual-identifying peers. Would giving them the chance to see themselves represented, even in a small, benign way on a TV show, make a difference?
For now, we’ll have to look beyond “Sesame Street” for the answers.