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Mister Rogers Teaches About Sexuality and Acceptance From Beyond the Grave

When a quote in an old biography went viral, the titan of children's television suddenly became a queer icon. But life isn't that simple.

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Think twice about what you read on Twitter: We have no idea whether Fred Rogers was bisexual. After a quote from The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers went viral earlier this month, the children’s television legend, who had been married for 51 years when he died in 2003, was suddenly reintroduced as a queer icon. For fans, it was an interesting moment. The quote, a response to the idea that sexuality is a spectrum, was classic Fred Rogers, honest and open. “I must be right smack in the middle. Because I have found women attractive, and I have found men attractive,” he told his openly gay friend Dr. William Hirsch. But that’s a second-hand quote passed to a journalist years after the fact and presented with minimal context. So what’s the takeaway here?

There are actually a few. One, presumably, is that people from all kinds of backgrounds love Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and strongly identify with its creator. This makes sense. He’s one of only a few standing models of goodness. Another is that the way the man spoke — and the quote does sound right — was powerful. He did not triangulate or engage in rhetorical games. He was purposefully guileless. In our current media environment, he’s hard to understand precisely because of his lack of agenda. Fred Rogers was not up to anything — at least nothing secretive.

But the final lesson here is about sexuality and it’s an important one for parents to learn. Because although most people assume that bisexuality needs to be acted upon to be a sexual orientation, the truth is that anyone who is not entirely “monosexual” is technically bisexual. As marriage and family therapist Sara Stanizai, a board member of the Los Angeles Bisexual Task Force, explained to Fatherly, bisexuality does not need to be acted on to somehow become official (we don’t do that to straight virgins). It’s just part of who a person is. We are all, as Mister Rogers put it, special. We fall in categories and defy them. We are defined by what we do, but also by how we feel. We are all, in short, special — and in a very complicated way.

Fatherly spoke to Stanizai about how parents can learn a final lesson from the kindest man in the history of television.

Let’s talk about Fred Rogers. You’ve read the quote and seen the joy and horror on the internet. What do you make of it?

I mean, he didn’t say he was bi, but he said he was attracted to men and women. Some people with biphobia or homophobia may not want to accept it because they’re fans of his, but it’s pretty straight forward based on the quote that he fits the definition. And just imagine how many young queer kids, if they had known there was some very visible, very positive role model, would have been helped if they’d known.

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What does it actually mean to be bisexual and why do so many people get this wrong?

Basically, it’s anyone that’s non-monosexual. You could be partnered with the same person of the opposite gender for your entire life, but if you acknowledge that you could be with a person of the same gender, then you would fall into this category. It can be a sexual attraction or romantic attraction. When people hear the word ‘bi’, it makes them think they have to be equally attracted to men and women. That is not the case.  

It’s recognizing that you have the potential to be attracted to the same sex. Even if you never act on it, it’s the fact that it’s there.

Fred Rogers was a man and bisexuality seems to be uniquely challenging for men. Is that a fair assessment?

For bisexual men especially, it’s seen as just a pit-stop on the way to admitting their gay, and it’s often dismissed. It’s like if you’re a guy and you hook up with a guy, then you’re just gay. There’s no room for people’s actual identities to be fluid. Men have less of a chance to explore their sexuality. What’s hard for women is that bisexuality is treated like a party trick or like it’s for a man’s pleasure. For men, you can’t mention it and for women, it’s fetishized.

Are men mostly scared of being equated to women?

What’s the worst thing you can call a man? Whether it’s a bitch or a pussy, it’s all feminine words. The worst thing for a man to be is feminine in any way, and one definition of feminine is wanting to sleep with men.

Part of the reaction to the news about Fred Rogers seemed related to a lack of bisexual representation as well as the man’s beloved status. Is that fair?

The invisibility perpetuates itself. People don’t see a lot of bisexual representation or role models or celebrities, so people forget it’s a thing. Bisexuality is also often pathologized. People think there’s something wrong with the person. They’re confused or some sort of traumatic event happened and that’s why there’s this fluke attraction or behavior or something like that. 

People internalize those messages and eventually think, there must be something wrong with them. Or they question it, thinking, ‘I just feel this way because of my history or my mental health.’ It becomes something that’s wrong with you rather than just who you are.

That has to wear away at bisexual people over time. What are the consequences for them?

Bisexual people have the worst health outcomes. There’s a study out of the Williams Institute out of UCLA, that found the demographic that experiences the most domestic violence is bisexual women. When you’re not fully visible and fully out, your resources become fewer and fewer. That’s not to say that all bisexuals are these poor people who can’t take care of themselves, but when you look at these instances within the general population, they’re worse off.