Now that New York has become the sixth state to legalize gay marriage, it was probably only a matter of time before people got to wondering when one of the state’s most famous and beloved pair of long-term partners would be tying the knot. The couple in question is Bert and Ernie, puppets and opposites-attract besties who reside on New York City’s (fictional) Sesame Street. A petition is currently circulating which asks PBS to “let” the pair make their alleged love legal.

Oh sure, the two may claim to be “just friends” on the show, but plenty of people over the years have wondered — some jokingly, some more seriously — if the relationship runs deeper than the show is willing to admit. Read more after the jump.

While this may be the first time some Sesame Street fans are hearing about this sorta-controversy, Bert and Ernie actually have a fairly long history of being interpreted as gay characters. This 2007 post on Snopes references instances of public speculation over the puppets’ orientation dating back to the ’90s. Here’s one especially amusing quote that the site attributes to North Carolina pastor Rev. Joseph Chambers:

Bert and Ernie are two grown men sharing a house and a bedroom. They share clothes, eat and cook together and have blatantly effeminate characteristics.

Here’s the text of the petition, started by Lair Scott:

We have started a petition to Sesame Street and PBS Kids asking them to allow Bert & Ernie to get married on the show. If done tastefully, this would greatly help put an end to the bullying and suicides of LGBT youth. Sesame street should recognize that there are LGBT relationships, families, and include them in their show.

Help us make a difference and teach tolerance and acceptance.

And here’s the Sesame Street Workshop’s diplomatic response to the matter:

Bert and Ernie are best friends. 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.

Personally, I don’t think Bert and Ernie were ever intended to represent a gay couple, nor do I think the petitioners actually believe that the puppets were originally created with homoerotic undertones in mind. I’m also skeptical that anyone honestly believes Sesame Street will be doing a Very Special Episode anytime soon. I probably don’t need to explain that gay marriage is an extremely contentious issue, and I doubt that a relatively uncontroversial show like Sesame Street would jeopardize their viewership by taking a firm stance on a hot-button issue. After all, this is the same show that yanked Katy Perry’s appearance when some viewers protested that her top was too revealing.

That said, I can understand where the petitioners are coming from. There are still few positive representations of gay couples in pop culture, and even fewer of those are targeted at — or appropriate for — children. (It’s not like you’re going to take your five-year-old to The Kids are All Right.) It could potentially mean a lot to a young gay kid to see characters like him- or herself on screen as role models, or to kids of any kind to understand that homosexuality is OK. It’s highly unlikely that the petitioners will actually get what they ask for, but if seeing public interest in family-friendly gay characters inspires someone in Hollywood to actually create such characters, it’ll be a step in the right direction. Yes, the petition is a publicity stunt, but it’s a publicity stunt with a point.

For what it’s worth, Sesame Street has explained marriage in the past as “when two people get married,” an activity that involves hugging, kissing, helping each other, and being friends. Perhaps it’s not a blatant pro-gay statement, but I’d imagine that the usage of the term “people” rather than “a man and a woman” isn’t entirely accidental, either. Check it out for yourself:

Though the petition is new, the controversy is in some ways a familiar one. Bert and Ernie aren’t the only seemingly non-sexual children’s characters have attracted public attention for their possibly gay relationships. Back in the ’90s, Rev. Jerry Falwell denounced the Teletubbies because he interpreted Tinky Winky — the purple Teletubby with the triangular antenna — as a gay character. More recently, SpongeBob SquarePants and his starfish pal Patrick drew the ire of Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and others because the two characters occasionally hold hands and have promoted general diversity and tolerance in the past.

Discuss: Before you get all “OMG THEY’RE RUINING MY CHILDHOOD!!!!” in the comments, check out this drawing of Leonardo and Raphael of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles making out. With tongue. Okay, now your childhood is ruined.

In all seriousness, though — thoughts? Think there’s any chance PBS will ever consider letting Bert and Ernie get hitched? Do you think Bert and Ernie are gay? (Or bisexual, I suppose.)

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