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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

Of course, gay adults have a long history of embracing children's shows. In recent years, "Teletubbies"' purse-toting Tinky Winky and the ever-ambiguous Spongebob Squarepants have been showing up on T-shirts and key chains in shops oriented toward gay customers. "Kids' shows all feature fabulous freaks — they're always about the odd ones and the underdogs," explains Dan Savage, author of "The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant." "All kids feel like they're odd underdogs, but gay kids feel it pretty acutely. Those characters speak to our fabulous inner children."

PBS might not be so eager to embrace that fabulous inner child. The network, which broadcasts "Sesame Street," came under fire in 2005 for an episode of the children's show "Postcards from Buster" that featured young people with lesbian parents. After some prominent conservatives protested — Bill O'Reilly of Fox News compared the episode to "a bigamy situation in Utah" — PBS President and CEO Pat Mitchell announced that she would leave the company as soon as her contract expired. (Mitchell contends that her decision was not a reaction to the "Buster" uproar.)

Three years earlier, Sesame Workshop sent a cease and desist letter to Los Angeles filmmaker Peter Spears, whose Sundance hit "Ernest & Bertram" recast Bert and Ernie as a gay couple. At the time, Lewis released a statement insisting that Bert and Ernie "do not portray a gay couple, and there are no plans for them to do so in the future. They are puppets, not humans."

And yet, last year, as the courts battled over gay marriage, many bloggers turned again to "Sesame Street," unearthing vintage clips on YouTube and presenting them as an argument for gay rights. In one frequently posted clip, Grover asks a little boy, "Do you know what marriage is?"

"A marriage is when two people get married," offers the boy.

In another clip, Grover asks a small child, "What kind of people can you love?"

The verdict? "Any kind."

"When I watched those clips, I noticed that Grover was always careful to talk about love and marriage without framing them in terms of gender," says Justin Libby, a software engineer who watches "Sesame Street" with his husband and their 3-year-old son Ander. After discovering the clips on the website BoingBoing, Libby played them for Ander, who was noticeably less excited about the clip than his dad. "He didn't really connect to it," Libby admits. "But maybe that's because, for him, it's not an issue. A family is just a family."

If "Sesame Street" isn't intentionally drawing in families with gay parents, then why are those families embracing it? For Carol-Lynne Parente, executive producer at "Sesame Street," the show has always appealed to people who aren't traditionally well represented on television. "It was originally designed to speak to inner-city kids," she says, "but what we found was that, even though 'Sesame Street' was designed to look like an inner-city neighborhood, everyone felt that it represented their own neighborhood."

Now many gay viewers believe the same thing. Savage, who grew up with the show, says he recently started watching again with his husband, Terry, and their 12-year-old son, DJ. "Basically we skipped the honest appreciation stage and went straight to the ironic appreciation stage," he admits. And yet, he seems genuinely excited about the idea that "Sesame Street" might be acknowledging families like his. "Gay people and gay couples exist," he says. "And people like us, gosh darn it, they really like us."

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