Why do we need to know if Bert and Ernie are gay?

I realize that sometimes we need a break from reality. With all the strife in the world making headline news 24 hours a day, not to mention President Donald Trump’s every tweet becoming a major event, we sometimes need to ponder something else.

I think we might be taking things a little too far, though, when we try to make children’s characters into adults.

The latest topics for debate is whether “Sesame Street” characters Bert and Ernie are more than just friends. It is a question that has gone on for years outside the circle of public debate, but a recent interview with a former “Sesame Street” writer has pushed rumors and innuendo to the forefront of morning shows and other news outlets.

The argument is that, despite having separate beds, having them in the same room means that they’re more than just roommates. Has no one looked at college dorms lately? Two, three or four people live in a room. It doesn’t mean that anything more than loud snoring and inane fights over who took the last pudding cup are rampant in that room.

Mark Saltzman, a writer for “Sesame Street” in the 1980s and 1990s, did an interview with Queerty and claimed that he saw Bert and Ernie as analogs of his relationship with another man. From there, it revived the speculation that the two characters might not be just trading friendly banter.

That prompted a quick response from the Sesame Workshop, which denied that Bert and Ernie are gay. On its Twitter page, the company stated: “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.”

Here’s my question: Why do we care? Why do we need to know if creations of fabric and imagination could secretly harbor feelings for one another? Why does it really matter if the puppets we rely on to teach our children about letters, numbers and other basic issues could be gay?

It’s not the first time that there was speculation that a character on a children’s television program might be gay. Rewind almost 20 years to when there was controversy over whether Tinky Winky, one of the Teletubbies, was a gay icon.

Jerry Falwell raised a ruckus in 1999 in his National Liberty Journal by pointing out that “he is purple, the gay pride colour, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle: the gay pride symbol.” The fact that Tinky Winky carried a red bag resembling a woman’s purse did not dissuade Falwell from viewing the fictional character as a symbol of homosexuality that could be a threat to Christianity.

That whole hullabaloo blew over, but what insanity. Claiming something has same-sex attractions just because it is of a certain color or has certain features is akin to when we used to condemn people as witches.

We’ve seen throughout history the harm caused by jumping to conclusions about someone. He’s associating with a gay person, so he must be gay. She’s in a conversation with an atheist, so that must mean she’s turned her back on God.

We deal with different people in all walks of life. Although some might influence our thoughts and actions, they don’t change who we are at our core. I’ve met vegetarians, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up meat. I interviewed an Amish man for a feature story, but I still embrace modern conveniences and technology. The only way we grow and mature is to learn—and sometimes that means venturing beyond our own comfort zones to seek that knowledge.

Besides, we’re dealing with a show that is dealing with children. How many of them are learning that sometimes men love other men and women love other women at age 2 or 3? They’re too busy learning that circles are round and that Elmo is very ticklish. The characters on “Sesame Street” act the same age as most of its viewership, and most young viewers aren’t wondering if they’re going to fall in love with a man or a woman when they grow up.

Let’s find other ways to escape from reality. Bert and Ernie aren’t gay. They’re puppets. Move on.

Lee Pulaski is the city editor for The Shawano Leader. Readers can contact him at lpulaski@newmedia-wi.com.