Understanding the Quiet Gay Activism of Mister Rogers
Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers, has been a force for good and kindness throughout the world even after his death in 2003. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister whose ministry was his television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Though evangelicals would sometimes write to him asking him to condemn homosexuality, Rogers never would, instead saying he — and God — loved everyone just as they were. But this wasn’t the extent of Mister Rogers’ gay activism. As it turns out, he’d been an ally since the 1960s.
Rogers intentionally hired gay people to work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Two members of the Neighborhood, John Reardon and Francois Clemmons, were both openly gay and among some of Rogers’ closest friends. Clemmons, as Officer Clemmons, first appeared in 1968 and was also the first black person to have a recurring role on children’s television.
One famous scene with Officer Clemmons aired in 1969. Mister Rogers sat outside, cooling his feet in a plastic tub. Clemmons comes by, and Rogers invites him to rest his feet in the water with him. Clemmons told NPR, “The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.”
Clemmons later compared the scene to the Bible passage in which Jesus washes Peter’s feet, saying, “The significance of Fred doing that for a black gay man is not lost. I felt unworthy, like Peter in the Bible. Why did he choose me?”
Clemmons and Rogers were life-long friends, though there was one sticking point. Rogers asked Clemmons not to come out publicly while he was on the show. But Clemmons says, “It was not a personal statement of how he felt about me. It had to do with the economics of the show.” In the book Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, Clemmons recalled Rogers saying:
Franc, we’ve come to love you here in the Neighborhood. You have talents and gifts that set you apart and above the crowd, and we want to ensure your place with us. Someone, we’re not able to say who, has informed us that you were seen at the local gay bar downtown with a buddy from school. Now I want you to know, Franc, that if you’re gay, it doesn’t matter to me at all. Whatever you say and do is fine with me, but if you’re going to be on the show, as an important member of the Neighborhood, you can’t be ‘out’ as gay. People must not know … Many of the wrong people will get the worst idea, and we don’t want them thinking and talking about you like that. If those people put up enough fuss, then I couldn’t have you on the program. It’s not an issue for me. I don’t think you’re less of a person. I don’t think you’re immoral.
Clemmons was devastated and started to uncontrollably sob. Rogers came around the desk and cradled him. But when Clemmons asked if that meant the end of their relationship, Rogers said:
Now wait just a minute, young man. Who says that our relationship has to come to an end? You need to decide just what it is you want in life, Franc. … Talent can give you so much in this life, but that ‘sexuality thing’ can take it all away. Faster than you can ever imagine. You can have it all if you can keep that part of it out of the limelight. Have you ever thought of getting married? People do make some compromises in life.”
Due to Rogers’ advice, he married a woman in 1968, but in 1974, Carol and Francois Clemmons divorced. Though Carol and Francois got along well and loved each other, it was still difficult. But Clemmons kept talking to Rogers, saying, “He was the one person I could talk to about being gay.”
It was through these discussions that Rogers realized he’d made a mistake. He later changed his advice, urging Clemmons to find a gay man he was happy with. He also stopped asking Clemmons to remain in the closet, though Rogers did reject Clemmons’ suggestion of having Officer Clemmons come out on the show.
While not a public advocate for gay rights — fearing making a statement at that time could alienate viewers — Rogers’ message of unconditional acceptance rang true for viewers of all genders, orientations and races. And he meant it. On Clemmons’ last appearance in the Neighborhood, Rogers wrapped up the episode with his standard closing lines:
You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.
Clemmons noticed that Rogers was looking directly at him this time. When the episode ended, Clemmons asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?” to which Rogers replied, “Yes, I have been talking to you for years. But you heard me today.”
Clemmons says, “It was like telling me I’m OK as a human being. That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had.”
Peaceful Neighbor also speaks to Rogers’ support of gay-friendly Pittsburgh church The Sixth Presbyterian Church. He made many gay friends there, including the radiologist who ultimately acted as Rogers’ medical advocate as Rogers died.
While Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood never had a gay character, which is truly a pity, Rogers clearly loved and embraced everyone. As he always said, “I like you just the way you are,” and his actions with everyone he met showed that he did indeed.
And Rogers’ closing lines were the truth: You make every day a special day just by being you. Embrace your special day, and do good in the world. As Rogers said, there are many different ways to show someone you love them. Go show that love today.
Featured image courtesy PBS