When I saw the headline, my first reaction was a sense of relief: ‘Sesame Street pair Bert and Ernie “will not marry”’ it read. Now that’s what I call a Silly Season news story. Now we can stop talking about Broken Britain™ for a bit and relax with some proper August frivolousness.
‘Bert and Ernie have lived together for more than 40 years,’ the ‘news’ ‘story’ continued and ‘campaigners say the best friends should marry as a way to encourage tolerance of gay people.’
Hmmm, well that’s going a bit far. I mean, I am terrifically keen on encouraging the tolerance of gay people too, but I’d squirm a little at the thought of marrying my best friend for the cause. Quite apart from the fact that I suspect she leaves the top off the toothpaste, it would certainly cause a little comment in The Village.
But hold on, there’s a democratic element here, isn’t there? ‘Nearly 7,000 have signed the petition, with more than 3,000 joining a Bert and Ernie Get Married Facebook page.’ A PETITION? Wow, well if so many people think it’s a good idea, then who’s to argue? Bert, Ernie, sort out your matching buttonholes right now and get down that aisle.*
Bert and Ernie were, coincidentally, born in the same year as me – 1969 – and I would guess that, like me, they cannot fail to have noticed that tolerance of gay people has been one of the massive social changes in our lifetimes. I am not naïve enough to think that prejudice has disappeared, or that there are no areas of difficulty for gay men and women living their lives in the UK. But my observation is that things have changed, and for the better. When I started teaching a few years ago, I was amazed and delighted to come across teenagers who were comfortable enough to be out in the classroom. This is something that, in my experience, would have been unthinkable in my own school in the 1980s.
Individual minds have also been changed. The father of a friend of mine remarked to me not so long ago, ‘Well you know X is gay. That’s up to him, of course. None of our business.’ I managed, through sheer force of will, not to stare at him with open-mouthed astonishment and yell, ‘THAT’S NOT WHAT YOU SAID IN 1985!!!’ Times move on, and we should all be allowed the freedom to change our minds.
But this is where I think those petition makers may have a tiny, weeny point. Why have minds been changed? It’s a complex question, but the media representation of homosexuality has made a difference. In the 1970s, homosexuality was a joke, a subject for mockery. But the portrayal of gay characters, and relationships, on TV and film has, I think, gone some way towards changing individual attitudes. From Brookside, Eastenders and Coronation Street, through to Shameless and Skins – these portrayals of ‘normal’ gay characters do, I think, filter through. They make us, in general, more accepting of gay people we meet, meaning that we are more likely to meet openly gay people. Tolerance and acceptance leads to more openness. And these personal experiences will, sooner or later, over time, drive out the ugly stereotypes based on ignorance and prejudice.
So, will I be signing the petition? No, I don’t think so. First of all, I remain – most of the time at least – within spitting distance of reality and, as a statement from makers of Sesame Street puts it, “Bert and Ernie are puppets and do not have a sexual orientation.” Ah, good point.
Moreover, I think it’s a little presumptuous to make the assumption that two men/puppets living together or who are good friends are therefore gay. Also, it’s going a bit far to turn the right to civil partnership into an obligation to get married. As Dolly Parton puts it, “Sure, why can’t gays get married? They should suffer like the rest of us do.” Tell that joke to a married person, and see how long they laugh, and how guilty they look.
And anyway, where will it all end? If Bert and Ernie are forced to marry for the sake of improving gay tolerance, then who’s next? The Wiggles have some serious questions to answer. Rod, Jane and Freddie – set to become poster boys/girls for the Society for Greater Understanding of the Menage a Trois (after a long tussle with the Dungaree Appreciation Society). Mr Benn – new spokesman for the It’s My Party And I’ll Dress Up As a Knight If I Want To Party? And come to think of it, what exactly are Dougal and Brian up to over there behind the Magic Roundabout?
Anyway. Boing! Time for bed.
*Not a euphemism. SORRY I apologise. What can I say? I have the spirit of Carry On in my soul.