"Wasn't he gay?" That's what people often ask me when they learn that I'm working on a book about Fred Rogers -- the beloved creator, writer, and host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. I've come to believe that the question, however intended, reveals just as much about the questioners as it does about Rogers.
Sure, the question makes complete sense if a lack of machismo means that a man is gay. After all, Fred Rogers was the opposite of macho. He showed no hint of physical brawn; his chin was weak, his muscles underdeveloped, and his face smooth. Nor was he aggressive. He talked softly and carried no stick; his spirit was gentle and tender, patient and trustworthy, and receptive and loving. A model of male softness and sensitivity, Rogers cut a striking figure on and off television.
But wait a second: Lots of gay men are tough guys -- muscular, aggressive, and downright rough. So the mere fact that Rogers was the opposite of macho really proves nothing about his sexual orientation.
The question is also reasonable if gay men prefer that their friends and social groups be gay or at least gay-friendly. After all, Fred Rogers knowingly hired gays to appear on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, even counting two of them, John Reardon and Francois Clemmons, among his closest personal friends. Rogers also attended a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh that remains well known for welcoming the LGBT community and supporting its full inclusion at all denominational levels.
But wait another second: Isn't it true that some gay men don't use sexual orientation as the major criterion when selecting their best friends, and that others even closely identify with institutions and movements that are historically and vehemently anti-gay, like the Catholic Church, conservative Protestant churches, and the Boy Scouts of America? If this is indeed true, Rogers' choice of friends and church also doesn't give us any firm evidence about his sexual orientation.
The nagging question is also understandable if we acknowledge that gay men of Rogers' generation (and discretion) often hid their gay sexuality by marrying women and having children, all the while engaging in gay sex on the sly. Rogers was married to one woman, Joanne, for almost all his adult life, and their relationship, by all accounts a loving and devoted one, resulted in the birth of two sons. But there's a significant point to add here: There's no publicly available evidence that Rogers ever engaged in gay sex.
OK, but don't we also have to concede that some (heterosexually married or single) gay men, for a wide variety of reasons, don't engage in gay sex? I can easily think of a famous name or two I'd rather not mention here. And if this is the case, we're still left unsure about Rogers' sexual orientation -- much, I suspect, as others are about, well, our orientations.
Everything becomes a bit more complicated when we consider that in the late 1960s Rogers encouraged Francois Clemmons, who played the role of Officer Clemmons, to remain in the closet, marry a woman, and focus on his singing career as ways to rein in and channel his gay sexual orientation. Rogers evidently believed Clemmons would tank his career had he come out as a gay man in the late 1960s.
But -- and this is a crucial point -- Rogers later revised his counsel to his younger friend. As countless gays came out more publicly following the Stonewall uprising, Rogers even urged Clemmons to enter into a long-term and stable gay relationship. And he always warmly welcomed Clemmons' gay friends whenever they visited the television set in Pittsburgh.
Nevertheless, Rogers was never a public advocate of gay rights, even in the post-Stonewall era, and he told colleagues that a public stance on the issue would alienate many of the viewers he wanted to reach with his message.
And what was that message?
"I like you just the way you are."
Unconditional acceptance, arguably the most positive and compassionate message that any gay child, youth, or adult could find anywhere on television during Rogers' tenure.
Perhaps it's this queer- and straight-friendly message that we would do well to recall as we wonder about Rogers' sexual orientation, revealing so many of our prejudices along the way, deep-seated prejudices about the lives of gays and straights and about our own uneasiness with sexual orientations and behaviors.
At last, perhaps we should turn the camera lens toward ourselves and assure Fred Rogers that we like him just as he was: the opposite of machismo, a loving husband and father, a close friend and employer of gays, a man who grew to support at least one friend's desire for an openly gay relationship and, above all else, a compassionate human being who assured each of us that, no matter who we are or what we do, we are always and everywhere lovable and capable of loving...
Just as they are.
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