Forty-four years ago tonight, a group of gay men and lesbians—drag queens, stone cold butch women, and everyone else just looking for a safe space to have a drink and have some fun—had finally had it. When police once again busted into Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn, its patrons fought back: throwing coins at the cops in an arch take on payola; throwing shade at those who’d subjected them to years of harassment, entrapment, and prosecution; and, eventually, throwing bricks. This moment of furious, creative chaos is credited with sparking the modern G/L/B/T movement, which reached a moment of triumph in this week’s Supreme Court marriage rulings.
A few months after what became known as the Stonewall Riots, America met a couple of puppets named Bert and Ernie. The skit starts with Ernie naked in a tub, asking Bert to drop in the soap. It’s played straight, sort of; the major joke is that Ernie calls the tub Rosie because his bathing leaves a ring around it. But the innuendo’s there, if you look for it. Generations saw that subtext, treasured it, and remembered it.
That’s why next week’s New Yorker cover is so moving. There’s no indication that Jim Henson and the Children’s Television Workshop intended Bert and Ernie to be anything edgier than a cloth-covered Odd Couple. Sesame Workshop declined to comment on the provocative image, directing media inquiries to a 2011 statement posted to Facebook, in which they assert the couple “are best friends…created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves.” Gay or not, these two male characters bickered, cherished, and relied upon each other without resorting to macho hysterics or no-homo protesting. That’s pretty revolutionary, and worthy of being role models.
Over the decades, as gays and lesbians in popular culture look less like monsters and more like actual humans, Bert and Ernie have mostly stayed the same. It’s the world that’s changed around them. Modern viewers don’t have to think they’re gay, but if you don’t like gays it must be hard to like them. It must be hard for a noisy few, different from the Stonewall cops in degree but not kind, to maintain the pretense that, if Bert and Ernie did actually love each other, all of western civilization is somehow threatened. But the world’s changed around him, too: in ever-more parts of this country, Ernie doesn’t need to only put a ring around Rosie. He can follow his heart and put a ring on Bert’s hand.