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I must have been out of town, figuratively, when angry protesters were denouncing Fred Rogers for “tolerating” gay people. That’s what one of the protest signs—in a scene from the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—accused Rogers of doing, “tolerating.”

I dislike that word and its derivatives when they are used to describe race relations or gender relations, if that’s the right term. To tolerate a class of people is to put up with them when we’d rather not. And this documentary reinforces the fact that tolerating people because they were black or gay or disabled or distinguished in some other way was precisely what Fred Rogers did not do. He accepted people as they were and, what’s more important, he taught children to do that by explicitly extending that courtesy to them.

Mr. Rogers, we learn in this presentation, was an overweight child who took some abuse from his peers. Having been belittled in that way, he made a career of promoting in the minds of children that, regardless of their individual circumstances, each one of them was of value—not in spite of but because of the fact that each one was unique.

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François Clemmons/PBS

I’m not sure it was made clear in the movie, but the demonstration scene seems to depict the followers of the crazed Kansas minister Fred Phelps making a nuisance of themselves during a memorial service in Mr. Rogers’ honor. Phelps hated everything about Rogers.

We learn in the documentary that Fred Rogers’ attitude toward gay people evolved in a way that was dramatized by his relationship with a prominent member of the cast of his television series. This was François Clemmons, who played a policeman in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for 25 years. This casting was groundbreaking in itself; Clemmons was one of the first black performers to have a recurring role on a children’s television show. And he was presented as an authority figure who was beloved in the neighborhood and a close friend of Mr. Rogers. The documentary includes a scene in which Mr. Rogers was cooling his feet in a plastic pool of water and invited Officer Clemmons to join him. When the camera zoomed in on the black feet and the white feet next to each other in that pool—at a time in our history when black swimmers were unwelcome in many pools—no words were necessary to convey the message.

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John Beale/Focus Features

Clemmons, who is a distinguished singer and university lecturer, is gay. He explains, without rancor, in the documentary that Fred Rogers—aware of the conservative mindset of corporate supporters and of the parents of many children who watched the show—advised him to stop visiting a gay nightclub and in general to keep his gender identity under wraps. Rogers went so far as to recommend that Clemmons marry—a step that Clemmons actually took with predictable results. But that was in the 1960s, and Clemmons, who says he regarded Rogers as his “surrogate father,” understood or, at least, rationalized the logic of the time—if Clemmons came out as gay, there would have been powerful pushback that Rogers was not prepared to resist.

Clemmons’ decision to continue on the show had to do with both his personal relationship with Rogers, which was deeply sympathetic and spiritual, and with Clemmons’ assessment of what was the best course for a gay performer at that moment in history. It’s easy to pass judgment on a person in that situation—as long as the person isn’t you. There is more to Clemmons’ story than this documentary could explore, but he talks about it in more detail in an article in Vanity Fair currently available at THIS LINK.

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Joanne Rogers/Getty Images – Frederick M. Brown

Fred Rogers’ wife, Joanne, says in the documentary that her husband eventually “came around” with respect to homosexuality; Clemmons, who is a prominent figure in the movie, certainly seems to be satisfied on that score.

I wasn’t aware that Phelps had aimed his vitriol at Mr. Rogers. Nor was I aware that other reactionary types had misconstrued Rogers’ message to children as suggesting that they need not struggle or even work in order to succeed—a bizarre interpretation of his assurance to children that “You are special” and “I love you as you are.”

This documentary has received nearly universal praise, but not only because it is a portrait of a beloved public figure and an important influence on two generations of children. The film is also praiseworthy because it presents Fred Rogers with no filter on the lens, as a man who had his doubts and disappointments—a radical whose radicalism knew its boundaries. Make no mistake: he was an extraordinary human being, but he wasn’t perfect, and we have no right to expect that of him. In fact, it was from Fred Rogers that we learned to love him just as he was.

 

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