If Ernie and Bert Were Gay, It Would Be Okay


Breda O’Brien’s column in last week’s Irish Times criticised the ‘shipping’ of Ernie and Bert, saying that speculation about fictional characters being gay couples hurts straight male friendships. Way to put the cart before the horse, Breda, says Brian Finnegan.


t’s not  often I laugh out loud when I read Breda O’Brien’s column in The Irish Times, but this month I found myself doing just that, in sheer disbelief. You may remember Breda was generously compensated by RTÉ after Brendan O’Connor asked Rory O’Neill to name homophobes on The Saturday Night Show earlier this year. O’Neill never mentioned Breda by name, but she felt her reputation was impugned because he did mention The Iona Institute, an organisation she is associated with. Breda used the space afforded to her by The Irish Times to air her opinion on the controversy that arose when a bakery in Northern Ireland refused to write a pro-gay marriage slogan on a cake, on religious grounds

The cake featured the Sesame Street characters Ernie and Bert, a pair of bachelor muppets that live together and have often inspired speculation that they might actually be a gay couple. Of course, objects made out of felt and foam don’t actually have a sexual orientation and most of us enjoy speculating about Ernie and Bert’s relationship as a bit of fun. Not Breda: she doesn’t think the suggestion that Ernie and Bert might be gay is funny at all, at all.

Nor does she find any fun in the playful homoeroticism in the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Doctor Watson, as portrayed by the BBC series, Sherlock. Bringing her knowledge of youth culture to bear on the topic – introducing IT readers to an unusual use of the word ‘shipping’ – Breda lamented such speculation on romantic relationships between fictional characters, telling us that poor, disenfranchised straight men are suffering as a result.

“Relentless shipping of every relationship makes friendship more difficult, particularly for men”, she opined, before indulging in a bit of speculation of her own about how this might lead to a straight man hiding his suicidal thoughts from another straight man because men have become so terribly afraid of sharing emotionally with each other.

I stopped laughing at that point, because the underlying message was clear: the speculation that men might be gay leads to some of them taking their lives, and whose fault is that? It’s those bloody gays, of course – like the ones who are insisting on cakes with Ernie and Bert and gay slogans on top, or the ones who co-write the scripts for Sherlock.

Some years ago, as part of a series of articles for another magazine, I went on a one-day retreat called ‘Men Exploring Masculinity’. What came up during the round-room discussions was that the men present were indeed fearful of being perceived as gay and didn’t bond emotionally with other men because of this. I remember one participant saying he didn’t want to push a shopping trolley around a supermarket, in case people thought he was gay. Food shopping is women’s work in his world and men doing women’s work are apt to be perceived as poofters.

Being the only gay man among them, I tried to put them straight (as it were) by telling them that in the long run it’s not so bad being perceived as gay. I also asked them why they cared so much what people thought in the first place.

Without fail, each of the men there, aged between 25 and 67, related their fears back to their schooldays, when they were either bullied for being perceived to be gay themselves, or witnessed other gay-identified boys being bullied. They all said that atmosphere of bullying was still pervasive in their grown-up lives, that ‘gay’ was in constant use to denigrate other men for the slightest infractions to the group consensus of masculinity. This begs a question about the link between anti-gay bullying and misogyny, but I’ll leave that for another time. I want to put the horse back before the cart here, in response to Breda’s reversal of the argument.

The reason straight men are afraid of being perceived as gay is because of the historic denigration of homosexuality, a situation that still plays out in schoolyards and sports grounds, workplaces and social spaces. It’s because of the relentlessly enforced hypersexual stereotype that is attached to gay men, and a deep fear and disgust about the sexual passivity that is assumed to go with this. It is because we have been told that gay people are “intrinsically disordered” and that gay couples are not valid or valuable parents. It is because of the deeply embedded lie that gay men are predatory and attracted to young boys. It is because of the lie that gay men are weak, ineffectual and unmanly.

Who creates a social norm in which a straight man would rather keep his suicidal feelings to himself than confide in another man, in case he might be identified as gay? It’s certainly not gay people doing it. The 40,000 LGBT people who marched through Dublin for this year’s Pride were hardly there to tell the world they thought being gay is bad, or that they feel bad for being gay. It must be other people enforcing these negative messages, in subtle and not so subtle ways. But who on earth could it be?

The truth is that if Ernie and Bert were represented as a gay couple, it would help straight men discard the notion that being gay is weak and less than ‘male’; it would help them form close emotional relationships with each other without the fear of being identified as gay, because they wouldn’t give a shit one way or the other. If we educate our children from Sesame Street onwards that gay people are normal, equally valuable and just as deserving of respect as everyone else, eventually anti-gay propaganda will be a thing of the past. If, on the other hand, some continue to use their privileged positions in the media to argue against equal rights for gay people, anti-gay inequality will continue. And as Breda points out, it’s not just gay people suffering because of it.

Follow Brian Finnegan on Twitter here.


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