LOS ANGELES - The popular children's program Sesame Street on Friday put to rest rumors that odd couple roommates Bert and Ernie are gay, saying the puppets are just "best friends" and would not marry.
"Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves," the public television program said in a statement.
"Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation."
The move came in response to a Facebook campaign launched by gay rights activist Lair Scott of the northern US state of Illinois asking that Bert and Ernie get married on the program to teach acceptance of gays and lesbians.
"We are not asking that Sesame Street do anything crude or disrespectful. Only that they allow Bert and Ernie to marry or even add a transgender character to the show," reads an online petition signed by some 7,600 people.
"It can be done in a tasteful way. Let us teach tolerance of those that are different," it said.
The Facebook page, "liked" by more than 5,000 people, has spawned an extensive online debate on the topic as well as less popular pages calling for the two characters not to tie the knot.
"Not that I want to out them if they don't want to be out, but if they are only hiding it for our benefit and want to openly live their puppet relationship, let's let them," one person commented on the online petition.
"You can't help who you love -- and you shouldn't have to."
Others disagreed. "Children at the age of four do not know what sexuality is. Do not pervert a perfectly good children's show. Marrying Bert and Ernie would be so wrong," another person wrote.
The popular show -- in which a cast of puppets, children and adults teach basic math, reading, reasoning and social skills -- has been on the air since 1969, with locally produced versions in more than a dozen countries.
Six US states -- Vermont, Connecticut, Iowa, New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire -- as well as the US capital Washington, have legalized gay marriage, but such unions are not recognized at the federal level.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll in March found that a majority of Americans favor the legalization of same-sex marriage, up more than 20 percent since 2004.