Multiple generations of Americans grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the long-running children’s television show (1968-2001) hosted by the cardigan-wearing Fred McFeely Rogers, who died in 2003.
Rogers’ soft voice, gentle demeanor, and unrelenting kindness prompted curiosity and speculation about his private life throughout his career. Rumors about Mr. Rogers ran the gamut, from claims that he had an earlier career as a Marine sniper or Navy SEAL (he did not serve in the military in any capacity), to the accusation that he was a convicted child molester (no criminal record of any kind has come to light), to rumblings that despite a half-century-long marriage to the same woman, he was actually gay (contrary to all available evidence).
A new biography published in 2018 (The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, by Maxwell King) reaffirmed that Fred Rogers was exactly who he seemed to be in nearly every respect, even as the book inspired a whole new round of speculation about his sexuality. Shortly after its publication, social media networks lit up with the revelation that Mr. Rogers was, supposedly, bisexual:
Anyway, wildest thing that’s happened to me lately is when I went to talk to my grandmother and she was like “did you know Mr. Rogers was bisexual?” and my gay ass, gay of the family, Miss Family Homosexual had to be like “he was WHAT?”
— ProblemsofaBookNerd (@CeceEwing_) March 3, 2019
Today I learned Mr. Rogers was bisexual and that made me very happy.
— DaisyFM ✒︎ (@peprally) March 7, 2019
Mr. Rogers is the Bisexual Icon we never knew we needed! I can just imagine how he’d respond to this hubbub about his sexuality: “If it makes you feel loved. And it makes you feel accepted. Then you & I can be just who we are, just the way we are.” #bihero https://t.co/qkWwBRK23I
— Lorelei Erisis (@Erisis) March 6, 2019
The only evidence cited to support that claim was the following passage from The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers:
Rogers himself was often labeled “a sissy,” or gay, in a derogatory sense. But 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.”
In a 1975 interview for the New York Times, Rogers noted drolly: “I’m not John Wayne, so consequently, for some people I’m not the model for the man in the house.”
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.”
Michael Horton, the voice of Neighborhood puppets and a close Rogers-family friend for decades, notes that he is always asked first about Fred Rogers: “Was he really like that?”
“I say, ‘Do you mean, was he a nice, kind person off-camera, the way he comes across?’ The answer is always yes.”
Then the follow up: “People don’t say to me, ‘Was he gay,’ but ‘Isn’t he gay?’ To me, that’s very revealing in a way, because of how presumptuous people can be. In other words, ‘Isn’t he gay?’ sort of leads you to think that maybe Fred had a double life or something.”
There was no double life. And without exception, close associates concluded that Fred Rogers was absolutely faithful to his marriage vows.
Significantly, this was the only passage in the entire book in which Rogers’ sexual orientation was discussed, and the key piece of evidence was a quote two sentences long.
We have no reason to doubt the veracity of the source, Dr. William Hirsch, who is described elsewhere in the book as having been a close family friend (so close, in fact, that Hirsch was at Rogers’ bedside when the latter was dying of cancer). Still, the fact that Rogers is being celebrated as a “bisexual icon” on the basis of a single, isolated remark ought to give us pause. He never publicly identified himself as bisexual, (and, for all we know, might object to being so labeled if he were still alive). What’s more, a survey of other biographical materials on Rogers yields no corroborative evidence.
Rogers’ sexuality was briefly discussed in the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, but the discussion centered on rumors that he was gay. One of the people interviewed on the subject was another close friend and associate, François Clemmons, who played a recurring role on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and was himself (at the time of the interview) openly gay. Responding to the scuttlebutt about Rogers’ sexual orientation, Clemmons said: “First of all, no, he’s not gay. I tell everyone who asks me, ‘No, he’s not gay.’ … I spent enough time with him that if there was a gay vibe I would have picked it up. Nope, not as far as I know.”
As USA Today reported, the consensus among Rogers’ friends and acquaintances who were interviewed for the documentary was that he was heterosexual, despite people’s suspicions to the contrary. His wife Joanne addressed the question this way:
The whispers, of course, bothered Joanne, who described herself and her husband this way: “It was really a very, very good friendship. I’ve heard people say that men and women can’t be friends and lovers. We really were friends, and I know we were lovers.”
“I think Fred had that feminine sensibility,” she said. “All the men I’ve chosen to have as friends over the years seem to have that, and I think it’s a wonderful quality if you can find that in the person you’re going to live with.”
None of this undermines the believability of the claim that Rogers privately acknowledged being attracted to both men and women, of course, but it does highlight the pitfalls of applying posthumous labels to people, especially on the basis such slight evidence. What are the criteria for judging whether someone falls into the category of “bisexual”? When we looked to the Bisexual Resource Center for help defining the term, we encountered at least as many questions as answers:
Is the concept of bisexuality meaningful across cultures, and does it always have the same meaning? Some cultures may not use the word bisexual+, and even in those that do, many people may be unfamiliar with or misunderstand it. Does bisexuality encompass people whose physical, sexual, emotional, and romantic attractions change over time? If you are once bisexual+ are you always bisexual+? If you are in a long-term relationship, do you stop being bisexual+ and “become” gay or straight depending on the gender of your partner? And for each of these questions, who gets to decide? (The answer to that last question, if you are bisexual+, is YOU and YOU alone!)
When talking about bisexuality, it is sometimes useful to distinguish between behavior, attraction, and identity. Someone who has had sexual experience with or even just attractions to people of more than one gender can be described as bisexual+, but may not identify that way. Likewise, one can identify as bisexual+ regardless of sexual experience. Furthermore, identities can change over time or be used in different contexts, whether personal, community, or political. Definitions can change too.
The matter of identity seems crucial in Rogers’ case. He once confided to a friend that he had found both men and women attractive, but there’s no evidence he ever acted on the former. Is it valid under those circumstances to say he was “bisexual”? There’s no simple, true-or-false answer to that question. In any case, Mr. Rogers is no longer here to own or disown the label.