Mister Rogers and François Clemmons
November 15, 2022•905 words
I promised a friend that I would go deeper into the story of François Clemmons. Said friend had posted the well-known story of the Mister Rogers character Officer Clemmons, who—well, I'll just crib Wikipedia:
For 25 years, Clemmons performed the role of Officer Clemmons, a friendly neighborhood policeman, in the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe" on the children's television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. In the neighborhood itself, Clemmons ran a singing and dance studio located in the building diagonally across the street from Mister Rogers' house. He was one of the first African Americans to have a recurring role on a children's TV series, and his presentation—as both a beloved neighbor to Mister Rogers and as a respected authority figure—has been described as a ground-breaking message in race relations. For example, in 1969, when racially integrated community swimming pools were still controversial, Mr. Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to cool his feet with him in a small, plastic wading pool. Mr. Rogers lent Officer Clemmons a towel to dry his feet and then used the same towel to dry his own feet, breaking a well-known color barrier.
And that's a great story, to be sure. But there's more to François Clemmons.
The release of Won't You Be My Neighbor? in 2018 was the catalyst for a lot of interest in Mister Rogers. And then there was this article, which talked about how Fred Rogers had beocme "a bisexual icon", based on the book The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers:
In conversation with one of his friends, the openly gay Dr. William Hirsch, Fred Rogers himself concluded that if sexuality was measured on a scale of one to ten: “Well, you know, I must be right smack in the middle. Because I have found women attractive, and I have found men attractive.”
Of course, this quote got a lot of traction, but what I didn't see until I cracked the book was evidence that Fred Rogers could also have been what we might also call non-binary:
…as his longtime associate Eliot Daley put it: “Fred is one of the strongest people I have ever met in my life. So if they are saying he’s gay because . . . that’s a surrogate for saying he’s weak, that’s not right, because he’s incredibly strong.” He adds: “He wasn’t a very masculine person, he wasn’t a very feminine person; he was androgynous.”
Obviously, this was super interesting to nascent enby yours truly, and I hope to you too. But I promised more about the actor behind Officer Clemmons.
It's worth noting, right up front, that François Clemmons was actually a bit reluctant to take the role.
At first, Clemmons was reluctant to take the role as a police officer: “I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people. And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”
But the famous scene with François cooling off his feet with Fred Rogers in a pool, which happened just after the first anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., touched him in a way he didn't expect.
“He invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him,” Clemmons recalls. “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."
The scene—which the two revisited in 1993 in their last episode together—touched Clemmons in a way he hadn’t expected: “I think he [Fred Rogers] was making a very strong statement. That was his way. I still was not convinced that Officer Clemmons could have a positive influence in the Neighborhood and in the real-world neighborhood, but I think I was proven wrong.”
François would later try to get Fred Rogers to cast an interracial couple on the show, something he never managed.
“Fred was never hostile [to the idea]. . . . He just never did it.” Clemmons assumed that Rogers was concerned about alienating socially conservative viewers.
There was something else, though, too: François Clemmons, though he was married when he started out on the show, later came out as gay—just not on the show.
The same Fred Rogers who never put an interracial couple on, though he never had any problem with his gay colleague, also
…apparently encouraged Clemmons to focus on his singing career; Rogers evidently believed Clemmons would tank his career should he come out as a gay man in the late 1960s.
But, as quoted in The Good Neighbor, Michael Long wrote in The Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers:
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, stable gay relationship. And he always warmly welcomed Clemmons’s gay friends whenever they visited the television set in Pittsburgh.
It's funny—at the time, I had recently come out myself (just bisexual; the non-binariness would follow), and I was utterly devouring everything I could find on queer history.
And then I went reading about Mister Rogers, and found that—indeed, we are everywhere.