FOR years, speculation has raged over the exact nature of Bert and Ernie's extremely close relationship on long-running children's TV show Sesame Street.
• Just good pals: Bert and Ernie
However, programme makers have now quashed persistent rumours that the pair are gay lovers by revealing that they are simply good friends.
The characters - who live together, bathe together, share a bedroom and bicker a lot - have long fascinated more curious, adult viewers of the show for pre-schoolers.
Gay rights campaigners have been calling for the pair to tie the knot in New York state since same-sex marriage was legalised there last month.
Lair Scott, a gay rights campaigner from Illinois, has received growing support for a Bert and Ernie wedding in an online petition and on Facebook.
He said that such a storyline on the show would help teach children about equality and tolerance.
"We are not asking that Sesame Street do anything crude or disrespectful," he said. "Only that they allow Bert and Ernie to marry, or even add a transgender character to the show.
"It can be done in a tasteful way. Let us teach tolerance of those that are different."
But, in a written statement released yesterday, Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation behind Sesame Street, insisted the relationship was strictly Platonic.
"Bert and Ernie are best friends," it said. "They were created to teach pre-schoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves."
Sesame Street began 42 years ago and has become a staple of US culture. A 1996 survey found that 95 per cent of all American children had watched it by the time they turned three.
It is watched in more than 140 countries and averages 120 million viewers worldwide.
Rumours surrounding Bert and Ernie intensified last year after the show's Twitter account carried a message from Bert remarking on his new Mohawk haircut."The only difference is mine is a little more 'mo', a little less 'hawk,'" it read, prompting some to wonder whether it could be an oblique reference to the character's sexual orientation.
Sesame Street is known for tackling difficult and confusing social issues with child-friendly storylines, such as Elmo's mother losing her job in the recession and having to rein in spending on toys to make ends meet, and his father going off to war.
A Nigerian version of the show incorporated a Muppet with HIV.
Mr Scott and his supporters believe Bert and Ernie's lifestyles suggest homosexual tendencies that could be put to educational benefit, teaching children that "homophobia is not okay".
However, Sesame Workshop stated: "Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics … they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation."