July 26, 2013

Bert and Ernie: America's Same-Sex Couple

On the front cover of the July 8 & 15, 2013 issue of The New Yorker magazine, the artwork featured something that looked a lot like Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie, the famous, fuzzy Muppets.  The artwork caused some controversy, because it appeared that Bert's arm was wrapped around Ernie, and Ernie's head nestled against what appears to be Bert's shoulder against the glow of a black and white TV set as they watch the Supreme Court overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (a.k.a. "DOMA", a photo of the U.S. Supreme court justices is featured on their TV in The New Yorker magazine cover, depicted below) and allow the lower courts' ruling that California's Proposition 8 is unconstitutional to stand because the defenders lacked appropriate legal standing, restoring same-gender marriage to the biggest U.S. state.

The New Yorker's controversial cover (2013)
The New Yorker's cover, entitled "Moment Of Joy," was not officially licensed by Sesame Workshop, but it also took a great deal of creative license, because the image did not technically feature the puppets' faces, it was merely a shadowed outline of something that looked a lot like the back of their puppet heads (in orange and yellow felt).  Still, it seems unlikely there's very much legal basis to challenge the artwork based on the illusion of an "familar-looking" image.  Indeed, Generation Xers who enjoyed Topps Wacky Packages (I'll probably cover that in a different post) as kids learned that challenges to Wacky Packages did not stand up in court even if the parody stickers actually looked a lot like real products already on the market.

NBC's Today show featured a short clip on the cover, news of which can be seen at http://on.today.com/1alNgKK.

The cover was sourced from, of all places, the Internet.  Jack Hunter, the artist behind the cover, originally submitted his image, unsolicited, to Tumblr.  The New Yorker version was modified slightly (the original Tumblr image featured President Obama's image on the television, rather than the U.S. Supreme Court justices), but the net impact was much greater since it was published in a major magazine that sells millions of copies, coming out right on the heels of two Supreme Court rulings in same-sex marriage which overturned section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act ("DOMA") although it left untouched Section 2, which allows states to deny recognition to other states' marriages which is another lawsuit waiting to happen (indeed, as I write this, lawsuits filed by the ACLU have already been filed in Pennsylvania and Virginia), and another which allowed a lower court ruling which found California Proposition 8 (which outlawed same-gender marriage in that state) to be unconstitutional to stand.

The characters of Bert and Ernie (and most of the main Sesame Street characters) were created more than four decades ago by the late Jim Henson (see a related post I did featuring Mr. Henson at http://goo.gl/KYjpqH), who created both "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show".  The Bert and Ernie characters were screen-tested to a number of families in July 1969, (the year I was born), and later premiered on PBS stations starting on November 10, 1969.

Cover of "Love", a 1980 album
In recent years, the question of whether Bert and Ernie "are" or "are not" [a gay couple] has emerged, fueled by the fact that the two puppets share a bedroom, although they sleep in separate, single beds.  One has a curious obsession with his rubber ducky.  Neither has a girlfriend (by comparison, other Sesame Street characters including Oscar the Grouch, has a lady friend named Grundgetta, and the Count has the Countess), and they behave a little bit like television's "The Odd Couple".  Indeed, this sexual ambiguity was the basis for two characters in the Broadway musical "Avenue Q" in which two puppets, not too dissimilar to Bert and Ernie, discuss the possibility of one of them being gay.  A song entitled "If You Were Gay" is featured on the soundtrack, which can be listened to below, or downloaded from Amazon.com at http://amzn.to/148HElL:


Public speculation about their sexuality (or lack thereof) has existed for many years according to ABC News (see http://abcn.ws/1brSXZ4), which reported that in 1993, TV Guide had received dozens of letters railing against Sesame Street for "condoning a homosexual relationship", and shortly after, a North Carolina preacher began a failed campaign on his radio show to try and ban the puppets for their supposed "immorality".  In truth, the separate beds issue was true for other TV sitcoms prior to that same era.  In fact, the first live-action TV couple to regularly share a bed on television (who were not already married in real life), were Darrin and Samantha Stephens on "Bewitched", in the October 22, 1964 episode "Little Pitchers Have Big Fears".  Prior to that, TV couples generally were depicted as sleeping in separate, twin beds like Bert and Ernie (think of "I Love Lucy" as the best example).  However, many people, especially the Gen Xers who grew up when these characters were first created, do believe them to be one of the most famous gay couples in pop culture.  As adults raising their own children in 2013, many in the generation seem to believe Bert and Ernie are indeed gay, and the subject has become a topic of great interest as the nation struggles with the issues related to legal recognition of same-gender relationships.

As I write this in July 2013, thirteen U.S. states plus the District of Columbia officially license same-gender marriages (I would remind my readers that the U.S. began as thirteen colonies, but expanded to fifty states).On June 28, 2013, WNYC's "On the Media" radio show recently featured a segment which looked at same-gender marriage, particularly the messaging that both advocates and opponents have used in recent political battles and how messaging has evolved from both sides.  To listen, visit http://bit.ly/1S2k1m1.  Outside the U.S., Canada has permitted same-gender marriages nationwide since 2005, and a variety of other countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Argentina and Sweden all do the same, so the issue has emerged on a worldwide basis.  In 2013, legislation passed in Uruguay, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, which means the list of places around the world which permit it has grown considerably, with more to be added in 2014 based on different implementation schedules in different jurisdictions.

Legal recognition of these civil marriages remains controversial among some segments of the U.S. population, particularly for conservative religious groups, although most states that permit same-gender marriages also exempt religious organizations from any obligation of facilitating same-gender marriages if they prefer (civil servants are not exempt, so if these employees object, they've chosen the wrong career to work in!).  Nevertheless, societal change on the issue has occurred rapidly.

For example, when Gallup first polled the U.S. public about same-gender marriage in 1996, only 27% of Americans favored legal same-gender unions.  But in less than two decades, support for same-gender marriage rights has more than doubled.  A demographic landslide of youth voters who overwhelmingly favor marriage equality (and this group remains the least religiously-affiliated generation in history according to researchers at UC Berkeley and Duke University) and will soon dominate politics everywhere is really driving this change.

A majority of U.S. businesses were opposed to DOMA because they have historically handled the matter that an employee is either married or isn't, yet DOMA required a cumbersome and unnecessary human resources record-keeping in order to separate out legally married, same-gender couples from other married couples.  DOMA forced them create a third category which could not be recognized by Federal law, yet must be recognized under state laws, creating a government regulatory headache for a constituency that has historically supported the Republican party which put DOMA into law, and businesses didn't like DOMA.

Nationally, nearly 300 companies and business groups signed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the DOMA, saying it forced them to discriminate against legally-married gay employees and cost them money to comply.  Signers included Google Inc. and Apple Inc., Goldman Sachs Group, Walt Disney Co., General Mills Corp., Marriott, Nike and Pfizer.  A major swath of corporate America stood up to argue that treating married employees differently based on whether they are gay or straight was unfair to them and imposed an unnecessary a cost burden which harms U.S. economic interests.

"The federal law forced an employer to put its employees in two different castes," said Sabin Willett, a partner with the Boston law firm Bingham McCutchen, which wrote the brief.  "DOMA was bad for business."

Separately, a March 2013 survey of young voters undertaken by the College Republicans National Committee, found that the party should back off its opposition to same-gender marriage.  The survey found, perhaps not surprisingly, that most young voters believe that jobs and the economy are the most important issues.  But there is little appetite from this generation to see U.S. lawmakers crusade against same-gender marriage.  For example, among voters under age 30, many said they would not vote for a Republican candidate if they opposed same-gender marriage, even if they agreed with the candidate on a range of other issues.  About two out of five young voters (39%) said that a candidate’s opposition to same-gender marriage would make them less likely to vote for them.

A March 2013 article featured on the front cover of Time magazine entitled "How Gay Marriage Won" (see http://ti.me/14xRXOU) posited that a variety of factors have helped the gay and lesbian community go from protests at the Stonewall Inn in NYC to the altar in two generations.  Among the factors cited were the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s to genetic engineering taking place in labs at U.S. companies like Genentech (now Roche) and Monsanto, to test-tube babies, all with the encouragement of U.S. Federal lawmakers, really helped put same-gender marriage on the national agenda today.

Back to Bert and Ernie.

Sesame Workshop has officially denied that Bert and Ernie are anything more than friends.  For example, when the subject first emerged in 1993 as Generation X came of age, the Children's Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop) had to issue this press release:

"Bert and Ernie, who've been on Sesame Street for 25 years, do not portray a gay couple, and there are no plans for them to do so in the future. They are puppets, not humans. Like all the Muppets created for Sesame Street, they were designed to help educate preschoolers. Bert and Ernie are characters who help demonstrate to children that despite their differences, they can be good friends."

More recently, in 2007, Gary Knell, then-president of Sesame Workshop, hoped to put the issue to rest with the following statement:

"They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets.  They do not exist below the waist."

All of that may be true, but the official responses have hardly put the issue to rest.

Photo from a 2005 rally for same-sex marriage
The issue was revisited yet again in 2011, when the New York Daily News felt the issue was significant enough to address in an editorial, at which point, Sesame Workshop (which is based in New York) issued a slightly longer statement, stating:

"[Bert and Ernie] were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves," the statement said. "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."



The issue is likely to continue for at least a few more years, as part of DOMA still remains in effect, and different states treat such marriages differently, which may prove to be an economic differentiator (see http://bit.ly/12TmwNc for an interesting Marketplace.org story on the subject).

Indeed, there are already moves to legalize same-sex marriage (including reversing constitutional bans in at least a few) in states including Michigan, Oregon, New Jersey, Nevada and Hawaii in the name of economic development.  A June 2010 study conducted by UCLA's Williams Institute found that same-sex couples would spend between $4.2 and $9.5 million on their wedding celebrations, if allowed to marry in Hawaii, while out-of-state guests for those weddings would spend an additional $17.8 to $40.3 million dollars, all of which would in turn create up to 333 new jobs in Hawaii primarily in the events and travel industries.  However, with a ban, the dollars go elsewhere, especially to California.  The figures in the study are estimated based on a 4-year period).

The only difference today is that more and more U.S. voters might seem to agree with the logic of the Williams Institute and, if the elections in 2012 are any indication, will vote to legalize it.  Even conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh agrees.

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