Was Mr. Rogers Gay?

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Was Mr. Rogers Gay?

This past year, we've learned a lot about the life of children television personality Fred Rogers thanks to the documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" The film, which is coming to HBO this year, brings a lot of hidden aspects of the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood creator and host's life out into the spotlight. And it doesn't shy away from those rumors about his sexuality. 

While those closest to him insisted both during his life and after his death that he was indeed straight, many people still believed the soft-spoken host whose mission in life was to teach people to be kinder to one another, was homosexual. 

So, was Mr. Rogers gay? We have all the details on the rumors here. 

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1. The film addresses the rumor head-on. 

Morgan Neville, the 50-year-old Oscar-winning documentarian and brain behind "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" said that there was no way not to do a film about Fred Rogers and not address the rumors. 

"It was something people asked me a lot when they found out I was working on the film: [whispering] 'Was he gay?'" Neville said. "There’s no way to make a film and not address it head-on. I felt like you had to do that because I didn’t ever want people to come out of the film and feel like, 'Well, they never talked about that.' Or, 'They sidestepped that.' I wanted it to be as direct as possible. I felt like that was essential."

2. He wasn't as welcoming of gay rights as he was of racial tolerance. 

François Clemmons played Officer Clemmons on Rogers' show, which had one of the first black characters on children's TV. In an era when segregated schools were still common, this was a big deal, especially the scene when Rogers invited Clemmons to soak his feet with him in a plastic wading pool. 

“My being on the program was a statement for Fred,” Clemmons said. However, he did not get the same sense of welcoming when Rogers found out that Clemmons had been to a gay bar. Rogers apparently told Clemmons that he was not allowed to go back there and that he had to hide his sexuality. 

“If I came out publicly, he said, ‘You cannot be on the show anymore.’”

Rogers' wife, Joanne Rogers, said that the TV host eventually came around and that but “François came a little too soon.” And despite Rogers' initial reaction to Clemmons' sexuality, he says that Rogers was a "surrogate father" to him and was the first person to tell him that he loved him "just the way he was."

And for the record, Clemmons did not believe that Rogers was gay.  

“I spent enough time with him that I would’ve picked it up.”

3. He was asked once during an interview if he was gay. 

Tom Synder, famous for hosting a late night show back in the 1970s and 1980s asked Rogers point-blank during an on-camera interview if he was gay. The end of that clip and Rogers' answer isn't shown in the film.

"Are you square?" Synder asked him. 

Of that moment, Clemmons said why he believed so many people thought Rogers was gay. 

"He was a soft man. But our society is changing. Women are standing taller and men are leaning in that direction. I’m strongest when I’m feminine."

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4. Rogers suggested Clemmons should marry a woman. 

Clemmons at one point briefly married a woman to further shield any rumors that he was gay. And he did so at Rogers' and many others' suggestion. He and Carol Clemmons were married until 1974.

"He said, 'Sometimes people do get married and they settle down, they live a different life. You can’t go to the those [gay] clubs. . .That may not be the answer for you, Franc; you have to consider something else. What, I’m not sure. But that may not be the route for you.'"

He also couldn't wear an earring on the program, because Rogers said no. 

Clemmons also opened up on what he felt like he missed out on during those years he had to hide his sexuality. 

'Something romantic," he told Vanity Fair. "But I think I missed out on romance as a normal kid. I didn’t get to take my boyfriend to the prom, and college was the same basic experience, being in the closet. Then after that, you go to graduate school, which is where I was when I met Fred Rogers." 

"And I was not romantically involved with someone [of the same sex] who I loved deeply. I had infatuations with boys, and I was about 9 or 10 when I realized how incredibly satisfying, how comfortable and fulfilling, it was to spend time with my same sex. But I never had a romantic relationship."

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5. And it took him a while to have a real relationship with a man, even after the show ended. 

"I couldn’t find the François that could give them what they deserve. And [during the show], I could not handle people having an open discussion about the fact that François Clemmons is living with his lover."

"I did feel like I was risking [something], because people knew who I was. I had a full conversation with Fred about what it could possibly do to the program and to my role on the program, and I didn’t feel I wanted to risk it. You know, the articles that have talked about me, I don’t think they’ve taken into full account that societal norms were vastly different than what they are right now."

He said his sacrifice was a part of his destiny.​

6. He had many gay friends. 

Both Joanne Rogers and Clemmons say that Rogers had many gay friends.

"Yes, I knew a couple of them! I knew them very well. Not just casually, but very well. We haven’t mentioned their names because a couple of them have died, and also if they wanted to be more public, they would [have] said so or done so, and so I do it out of respect for them. Because there was a time when nobody came out."

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Emily Blackwood is a writer and editor living in California. She covers all things news, pop culture and true crime.