The Pulse

October 18, 2019

Why Some Are Convinced Mr. Rogers Was Bisexual — And Why It Matters If He Was

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It’s a good time to remember that many people consider Mr. Rogers to be a bisexual icon. That’s because the new movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood —based on the life of Fred Rogers from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood — comes out this November. 

Rogers made headlines earlier this year in March after a viral tweet highlighted that he once mentioned being attracted to both women and men.

While discussing the idea of sexuality as a spectrum with his openly gay friend Dr. William Hirsch, Rogers apparently commented: “Well, you know, I must be right smack in the middle. Because I have found women attractive, and I have found men attractive.”

The quote comes from The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, a 2018 biography of the popular children’s TV presenter written by Maxwell King.

If Rogers really was bisexual, that’d be an incredible example of bisexual representation in the media. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was one of the longest-running shows in television history that millions of people across the country grew up watching and learning from. To have a beloved icon like Rogers openly share that he’s attracted to both women and men sets a powerful precedent for normalizing bisexuality.

Although it’s not clear when the above conversation took place, for a national celebrity like Rogers to openly discuss his potential bisexuality back then was pretty revolutionary. The show debuted in 1968, peaked in popularity in the late ‘90s, and continued airing on PBS for several years after Rogers passed away in 2003. To this day, there’s still such a lack of bi visibility in popular culture, with so few openly bisexual role models both on screens and among our public figures. Having someone as well-known as Rogers bring awareness to bisexuality is invaluable. 

Was Mr. Rogers actually bisexual?

Snopes reports Rogers never used the word “bisexual” to describe himself, nor did he ever publicly identify with any queer identity. His sexuality also wasn’t discussed anywhere else in the book outside this section, and other biographical materials on Rogers show no other evidence of his bisexuality.

While alive, rumors did abound that he might be gay, usually fueled mostly by his soft, kind demeanor. Though, people often incorrectly make assumptions about a person’s sexual orientation based solely on their behavior or gender presentation. In the same passage, King also mentions that Rogers’ “longtime associate” Eliot Daley described him as having an androgynous energy. “He wasn’t a very masculine person, he wasn’t a very feminine person; he was androgynous,” Daley told King.

King also notes that Rogers told the New York Times in a 1975 interview, “I’m not John Wayne, so consequently, for some people I’m not the model for the man in the house.”

None of these descriptions tell us anything about Rogers’ sexual orientation (that is, what gender or genders he’s attracted to) but rather his gender expression (how he expresses his own gender). François Clemmons, another one of Rogers’ openly gay close friends and a Mr. Rogers Neighborhood co-star, also tried to address the rumors around Rogers’ sexual orientation in the 2018 biographical documentary Won’t You be My Neighbor, though he also seemed to reference Rogers’ presentation as evidence: 

“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.”

What we do know is that Rogers was married to his wife Joanne Rogers for more than 50 years, of which King writes: “There was no double life. And without exception, close associates concluded that Fred Rogers was absolutely faithful to his marriage vows.”

None of that is to say Rogers couldn’t have been bisexual anyway — being married to a woman doesn’t make a bi man any less bi. Bisexuality simply means you’re attracted to at least two genders; it doesn’t mean you need to be acting on all those attractions. Even if he’d never been intimate with anyone of any other gender, he still may have been bi.

That said, bisexuality is an identity — meaning it’s about how a person identifies themselves, not how other people label them.

If Rogers himself never identified with the bisexual label, we shouldn’t simply assign it to him posthumously, even if he did once mention being attracted to both women and men.

“When talking about bisexuality, it is sometimes useful to distinguish between behavior, attraction, and identity,” the Bisexual Resource Center explains. “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, communal, or political.”

That means we might not ever know if Mr. Rogers was actually bisexual, unless someone digs up old recordings or diary entries where he openly embraces the label.

But whether or not he identified as bi specifically, it’s definitely worth celebrating seeing a famous TV personality describe himself as being attracted to more than one gender. Bisexual folks deserve to see people who are like them represented in popular culture. 

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Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor whose work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, Vice and many others. Right now she's facilitating relationship wellness education as the sex and relationships editor at mindbodygreen, and she also pens a monthly sex column called “Sex IRL” at HelloGiggles. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram to keep up with her latest reporting and other steamy escapades: @kellyagonsalves

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