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Some 'Sesame Street' viewers sense a gay-friendly vibe

Sesame Workshop says it's not out to appeal to a gay audience but with such recent actions as a 'True Blood' parody, inviting openly gay guests like Wanda Sykes, and an interesting tweet by Bert, some are feeling the love.

October 24, 2010|By Melissa Maerz, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New York — Bert and Ernie are not gay. In their 31 years on "Sesame Street," they've never marched in a Pride parade or plastered a rainbow sticker on Oscar the Grouch's trash can. Sesame Workshop has always contended that they're just friends who happen to live together and sleep side by side in well-tailored pajamas.

And yet, because of a comment on "Sesame Street's" Twitter account, some are claiming that Bert is officially out of the closet.

On June 11, the mono-browed Muppet tweeted about the premiere of the recent "A-Team" remake. ( "Sesame Street" plans to air a parody of the movie in November.) "Ever notice how similar my hair is to Mr. T's?" Bert asked, name-checking the original "A-Team" star. "The only difference is mine is a little more 'mo,' a little less 'hawk.'"

Reading "mo" as slang for homosexual, gay bloggers rejoiced. To some, it seemed as if "Sesame Street" was aiming sly in-jokes directly at them, right under the noses of unsuspecting straight viewers. Ed Kennedy of the gay pop culture site AfterElton.com noted that the tweet came during a week when many cities were hosting Gay Pride celebrations. "The people at Sesame Street are way too clever for their own good," he wrote.

Now some people are wondering: Is "Sesame Street" brought to you by the letters G-A-Y?

In its own subtle, perhaps unintentional way, the show's latest season feels more LGBT-friendly than ever. Lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes appeared on the show in October, following in the tradition of openly gay guest stars such as Neil Patrick Harris, who played ( cough, cough) "the shoe fairy" a few seasons back. A parody of "True Blood" — the HBO vampire drama that features several gay characters and draws many gay fans — aired in September. Recently, the Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am appeared on the show to sing "What I Am," a song about accepting who you really are, prompting much online debate about its underlying message. "Did Will.i.am just sing the next gay pride anthem on Sesame Street?" one commenter on AfterElton.com asked.

Ellen Lewis, Sesame Workshop's vice president of Corporate Communications, said that "Sesame Street" is not consciously trying to appeal to gay viewers. "We've always reached out to a variety of actors and athletes and celebrities to appear on the show, and our programming has always appealed to adults as much as children," she says. "Honestly, the idea that anyone would interpret [this season] that way never crossed our minds."

Pop star Katy Perry, the straight singer who's reached gay icon status with hits like "I Kissed a Girl" and "UR So Gay," was also scheduled to appear on "Sesame Street" this season. But when parents saw a YouTube clip of her playing dress-up with Elmo, they complained about her low-cut costume. Perry's skit has since been axed, but Michael Jensen, editor in chief at AfterElton.com, believes that's a good thing. "The fact that more people have objected to Katy Perry's cleavage than they have to the 'True Blood' spoof shows how far we've come in this gay rights movement," he said.

For Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), "Sesame Street" is simply reflecting its changing audience. "As more and more loving and committed gay and lesbian couples begin families, it's important that their children see representations of their families on their favorite shows," he says. "'Sesame Street' has a long history of teaching children about diversity and acceptance, and I don't expect that our community will be left out of that education."

Indeed, same-sex parents have become more visible both on and off screen. For the first time in history, the 2010 census includes data from same-sex marriages, unions and partnerships. There are currently 1 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parents raising about 2 million children in the U.S., according to figures analyzed by UCLA's Williams Institute.

"This is the first generation where it's not unusual for gay men in their 20s to think, 'I'm going to get married and have kids,'" says Jensen. "That's a huge change from 20 years ago." Though Jensen acknowledges that many Americans still oppose gay marriage, he notes: "You have two dads on 'Glee,' and you have Cameron and Mitchell on 'Modern Family,' and both of those shows are hits." Same-sex parenting, he suggests, has become "a zeitgeisty thing."

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