SpongeBob SquarePants officially becomes a member of LGBTQI+ community
Cartoon star SpongeBob SquarePants has become a member of the LGBTQI+ community.
The popular cartoon character's status as an LGBTQI+ icon has been confirmed by Nickelodeon, with the TV network posting an image of SpongeBob, transgender actor Michael Cohen and Korra from "The Legend of Korra", who is bisexual, on Twitter.
The tweet read: "Celebrating #Pride with the LGBTQ+ community and their allies this month and every month (sic)"
The announcement prompted "Spongebob is gay" to start trending on Twitter - although Nickelodeon didn't specifically confirm the character's sexuality.
Speculation about SpongeBob's sexual identity has been swirling for years, but in 2005, Stephen Hillenburg - the show's creator, who died in November 2018 - revealed he never intended for SpongeBob or his best friend, Patrick Starfish, "to be gay".
He explained at the time: "I consider them to be almost asexual. We're just trying to be funny and this has nothing to do with the show."
Hillenburg also insisted the popular cartoon series preaches a message of "tolerance".
He said: "I do think that the attitude of the show is about tolerance. Everybody is different, and the show embraces that.
"No one is shut out."
Nickelodeon turned off the comments to the post except for people followed by the network.
One Twitter user wrote: "Announcing Spongebob being gay then turning comments off cause it ain't no debate>>>
"Nickelodeon SNAPPED (sic)"
Another person said on the micro-blogging platform: "y'all are shocked spongebob gay? he's been hinting at it for years. (sic)"
"SpongeBob SquarePants" first aired in 1999 and is now the fifth-longest-running American animated series in history.
The money-spinning cartoon - which was turned into a Broadway show in 2017 - has won a host of accolades over the years, including four Emmy Awards and two BAFTA Children's Awards.