I'm gay, and I love puppets. I especially love the Muppets. On my yet-to-be completed web site, I cite the late great Jim Henson as one of the people who still inspire me, for his ability to harness the incredible power of humor to educate with childlike sweetness and grown-up wit. He was one of those people whose never-ending imagination kindled my own before I even realized how or why. He and his team created worlds as rich and consistent as Rowling's Hogwarts, without Imax, 3-D or CGI.
My love of the Muppets, of Henson, and Ernie and Bert, started the same place where so many discovered them: Sesame Street. As a kid, it was a daily highlight: one part silly, one part lesson, whether I knew it or not. Not even my TV-hating Dad could fully disapprove. Lucky, since his almost daily, "You kids need to get outside more" fell on deaf ears when Sesame Street was on.
Sesame Street was a place where everybody (real or not-so) had familiar traits, but without anything sinister, evil, or unhappy. The Count was no Team Edward member. And while there were plenty of monsters, they hung around the cookie jar and never, ever lived under the bed.
The show never talked down to kids, and the lessons were clear, sweet and innocent. Learn your numbers, learn your letters, get to know your neighbors (even the grumpy ones), don't make fun of someone's imaginary friend, treat animals with respect. It was also the first place I saw kids of different color, from around the world, and the first place this Miami suburbanite learned words like "stoop" and "stickball" and "hydrant."
You'd think I'd be a natural candidate to endorse, like and share the new New Yorker cover, where Bert and Ernie cozy up on a couch to celebrate the end of DOMA and Prop 8. But, dear neighbors, you'd be wrong.
The world of Bert, Ernie, Big Bird and Cookie Monster (even of Maria and Ruben) was never sugar-sweet, patronizing or naïve. Oscar lived in a garbage pail. Big Bird forgot things. Grover lost his temper (and taught us all how silly it really is to do so). Ernie and Bert debated why a mashed-up banana with ice cubes and gravy was a poor substitute for chocolate ice cream, in one of the first games of compare and contrast I remember.
At the time, my two most prized possessions were life-size Bert and Ernie hand puppets. And while I did indeed spend an inordinate amount of time with my G.I. Joe out of uniform, (out of curiosity and some funny tingling I couldn't quite understand or explain), I never made Bert and Ernie do anything other than do what I saw them do on TV... bicker in the way longtime friends, yes, perhaps even couples do. As a true GIT (Gay In Training), I even had them lipsynch to their 45 records, and the three of us did a mean rendition of "Rubber Duckie" and "The People in Your Neighborhood." Snap.
And now, the New Yorker, in an attempt to get more political, edgy and relevant with its covers, is placing these two little puppets at the center of big controversy once again (there was that Change.org petition in the wake of New York's pro-marriage vote to have Sesame Street declare the boys more than roommates, and bring the puppets out of the closet).
A few things, first. I trust Sesame Street, implicitly, if they chose to out Ernie and Bert. They would know how to do it with grace and clarity, the same sweet way Grover explains marriage or "near and far." The issue would be woven easily and seamlessly into life on the Street. Which is how it should be woven in on ours.
Sesame Street has dealt with reality and Big Life Lessons before - even death. They addressed the loss of Mr. Hooper and did it without preaching, without treading on religious sanctity, without complication, and with the calm assurance with which we all hope we can teach our children. So it's not that I don't trust the good folks at the Children's Television Workshop. I do.
My main issue with involving Ernie and Bert in the marriage debate is that the discussion is still heated and ugly, even post Dump-DOMA Day. I am witness to lots of discussion threads where horrible things are said (even by "grown ups"), hateful words are used too easily, and the feeling is far more battleground than playground. This is not a place I think Muppets should be.
So many of us, too, are quick to find fault with Conservative claims that the Teletubbies or SpongeBob are part of an evil pastel-colored plot, an animated army of the Gay Agenda trying to brainwash our kids into a life of circuit parties and shirtless, sweaty Pride parades. Well, if we think that's just plain silly, aren't we doing a bit of the same thing, forcing identity roles (even positive, un-paranoid ones) onto, um, puppets? It seems a bit hypocritical to me to do so.
Plus, if reality hits Sesame Street, are we ready for the consequences? Cookie Monster is a binge eater and possibly suffers from Juvenile Diabetes. (And before you go all ballistic on me, no, I am not comparing sexual identity with a behavior or a disease.) Big Bird sees things and probably is safer back in the canary cage. And don't even start on the frog-pig love. (Dose of reality: There are many who say, with straight face and conviction, that marriage equality opens the door to an endorsement of bestiality. I am not making that up.)
If you don't think, even among proponents, that there aren't jokes circulating about which is the top and which is the bottom in the Bert and Ernie relationship, then you live in a bigger fantasy world than the street of Sesame. I don't like it. Plus, as one Sesame Street insider told me, "They don't even exist below the waist."
If reality's what you want, head to Jersey Shore or DVR 16 and Pregnant. Let the Avenue Q puppets parody what "real life" (worry, breakups, hangovers and let downs) would do to Sesame Street. Hell, I have no issue with Avenue Q's "If You Were Gay" or its own publicized wedding of Rod and Nickie. It's part of their schtick (and it's funny as hell).
So, like for many couples, I think it's just too soon to make anything more of Ernie and Bert's relationship than it is. I'm sure (I hope?) the time will come, in my lifetime, where same-sex marriage is a non-issue, where it just is. SCOTUS got us one big step closer, for sure, that last week in June. And while some may (plausibly) argue that a coming out on Sesame Street would pave the way for that understanding to happen faster, I think it's still too ugly an issue, right now, to make its way onto a street where time has been kind and life's lessons are still innocent and easy. There aren't many places like that left out there, in case you haven't noticed.
To be crystal clear, I think "loss of innocence" is not about "discovery of shame," and I am not equating same-sex realitionships with anything shameful, wrong or even naughty. If Gay human characters were introduced to Sesame Street, this would all sit better with me. But let's leave the lovely, simple, innocent fantasy of the not-so-human side of the Street out of the equation.
Let the lessons be taught by real-world couples who live with dignity, out of love, and with the occasional marriage license. Let the lesson be taught because our neighbors live life honestly, in the open. This is our fight, this is our opportunity. Do we really want to hand the job over to, well, hand puppets?
There are some places I hope are never touched by reality, and Sesame Street is high on that list. While we can't seem to keep the church out of our State, it would be nice to keep politics, for now, off of Sesame Street.
Let Ernie and Bert have their peace. Let them simply go on sharing a funny little room with wallpaper and twin beds, where they drift off to sleep in pajamas and night caps (the flannel kind), and never age a day. Give the world around them a chance to grow up. Our kids grow up too fast, already.
I will say I feel a little bit different about the New Yorker cover than I did when that petition to get these longtime companions to tie the knot was circulating. The New Yorker is an editorial endeavor, satire and parody are both in its toolbox, and it's aimed at adults, and generally erudite ones at that. So this, I kinda get.
But my answer is still brought to you by the letters N and O. I'm not making the cover my profile pic or sharing any link, even out of good-natured fun. Call me Oscar. I've been called worse.
Maybe I'll totally change my mind in vun, two, three! years. For now, just tell me how to get to Sesame Street.
But Batman and Robin... that's another story. That's a wedding I'd happily attend. I may even start a petition.