If you've ever contemplated explaining your belief system to someone who disagrees with you, look no further than Frank Oz changing his opinion about Bert and Ernie for proof that it can actually be worth it. The actor and producer helped create the iconic Sesame Street characters alongside Jim Henson, and voiced Bert for an impressive three decades.
And up until now, Oz has been resistant to any suggestion that the relationship between the two Muppets was anything more than platonic. After the nature of Bert and Ernie's relationship was thrown back into the spotlight recently by Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman's assertion that they were, in fact, a gay couple, Oz dismissed the idea that the two had a romantic relationship. "It seems Mr. Mark Saltzman was asked if Bert & Ernie are gay. It's fine that he feels they are. They're not, of course," he tweeted on Sept. 18.
Of course, some of Oz's almost 85,000 followers weren't satisfied with that response, and they weren't shy about challenging the voice actor's statement. "Why are they not?," asked @SpillmanThom, adding, "Not arguing...just wondering.. [Saltzman] said he wrote from that POV..." And while Oz's initial response was short — "I created Bert. I know what and who he is." — the conversation continued.
Oz kept seeking out more opinions and input. "Help me to understand this," he asked of @nerdtypething, continuing, "I'm not being sarcastic. I'm really trying to understand."
In response to a different user, @MikeyPanik, who encouraged him to allow fans to identify Bert and Ernie as gay characters, Oz questioned, "But why accept being defined as only one aspect of oneself??," At which point @logainne stepped in. "Please think about why you haven't had to think about your own sexual orientation as something that needs to be validated," he wrote, a comment that the Star Wars actor seemed to think long and hard about. Oz responded:
"You're right. I have not had to think about my own sexual orientation as something that needs to be validated. Thank you for writing that. It must hurt. I'm so sorry. I just hate to have people seen as only one way when, straight or gay, we have so many more layers in us."
Oz stepped away from the conversation at that point, pledging to come back again, and leaving his followers with a hint at what he'd be thinking about in the meantime. "Although it doesn't matter to me if someone is gay or viewed as gay," Oz wrote, "I learned it does matter to a great many people who feel they are not represented enough."
And 10 days later, when the producer returned to the topic, it was clear his perspective had evolved substantially. As Oz wrote on Sep. 27:
"A last thought: If Jim and I had created B & E as gay characters they would be inauthentic coming from two straight men. However, I have now learned that many view them as representative of a loving gay relationship. And that’s pretty wonderful. Thanks for helping me understand."
It seems that Oz has finally reached the conclusion that there isn't a universal truth about these two beloved puppets. Bert and Ernie can mean one thing to some people and something entirely different to a group of others. They were designed to bring love, laughter, and learning into the world, and that's exactly what they're doing, gay or straight. And if they're still fostering these kinds of heartfelt, eye-opening conversations almost 50 years later, then that goal has been more than achieved.