This is hardly the first time that speculation about Bert and Ernie’s relationship has caused a stir. Some have traced the rumor back to a passage by the novelist and radio host Kurt Anderson in his 1980 book The Real Thing. In what Anderson later described as a “joke,” he wrote:

Bert and Ernie conduct themselves in the same loving, discreet way that millions of gay men, women and hand puppets do. They do their jobs well and live a splendidly settled life together in an impeccably decorated cabinet.

In 1990, a Pentecostal minister from North Carolina condemned the Muppets for their same-sex relationship on his conservative radio show for their cohabitation and being “blatantly effeminate,” according to the fact-checking website Snopes. And a 2013 New Yorker cover illustration called “Moment of Joy” depicted Bert and Ernie cuddled up in front of a TV screen, watching the news that the US Supreme Court had struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, clearing the way for same-sex marriage across the country.

Much of today’s coverage, however, misses another striking point that Saltzman made in his interview. The writer mentions that in his mind, the elephant-like puppet Snuffalupagus was closeted too. In the years in which only Big Bird could ever see Snuffalupagus, and all the grown-ups on the show assumed he was an imaginary friend, the character functioned as a metaphor for being in the closet, Saltzman said.

“Snuffalupagus, because he’s the sort of clinically depressed Muppet…you had characters that appealed to a gay audience,” he told Queerty. “And Snuffy, this depressed person nobody can see, that’s sort of Kafka! It’s sort of gay closeted too.”

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.