Community leader and author Eric Rofes was the first person to refer to me as “a gay Mr. Rogers.” It was in the mid-1980s, at a “roast” of Rofes, prior to his departure from Boston to Los Angeles.
I laughed with the others in the room, but was young enough to feel defensive, probably incorrectly imagining that he saw Mr. Rogers as effeminate, sexless, and wimpy, a man who wore tennis shoes, and cardigan sweaters knitted by his mother, and talked to pre-schoolers with hand puppets.
I wanted to be appraised by my peers as a writer and speaker, a leader of the city’s AIDS strategy, and, maybe as a masculine, attractive man, but not for my kindness. I wasn’t effeminate, sexless, or wimpy, I thought. Why would he say that? With more thought, I understood that he didn’t think of me poorly, and I came to gratefully embrace the comparison when I heard it. Mr. Rogers was a very kind man. I’m a kind man. Kindness is a most worthy attribute. Besides, I now wear tennis shoes, cardigan sweaters, and have puppets on my hands to entertain our young grandnieces and grandnephews.
As it turns out, Mr. Rogers was bisexual, telling a friend that he found women and men equally attractive. He was heterosexually married, with children, but I can imagine that if he had grown into adulthood a decade or two later, he would have been in a gay marriage.
Regardless of his sexuality, Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, was a very gentle, thoughtful, giving man who was dedicated to enabling children to feel safe and valued. It was Mr. Rogers’ extraordinary generosity of spirit that deeply moved a Congressional panel, and secured from them several million dollars for children’s public television.
I don’t know why some children seem to be innately kind, and others, in the same family, might need to work at it with more effort. I was one of the lucky ones who, as a child, naturally looked for opportunities to be nice to people, including strangers. Such effortless, and personally rewarding kindness, attracted the admiration of the nuns, the attention of the parish priest, and the appreciation of the parents of my young friends. It also attracted the attention of girls my age, but rarely other boys, whose approval I sought. I was seen by some boys my age as a “goodie two shoes,” because of my politeness, and my secret desire to live in harmony with God. That’s not to say I couldn’t behave in an awful way, which I did, on occasion, to my younger siblings. But when my head and heart worked together, I chose kindness.
I had a caustic, quick wit growing up that I used to protect myself, and to entertain others. By my senior year in college, though, I realized that I had hurt the feelings of, or shamed, others with my so-called humor. I was more like Don Rickles than Danny Kaye, whose names doubtfully resonate with you, unless you’re over 65. One man’s humor felt mean, and the other’s felt nice. So, I learned to focus, before I opened my mouth, on how my comment might affect the feelings of others. My goal was to have everyone feel safe and valued, at least when they were with me, or within my reach of influence.
Mr. Rogers said, “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self.” The key to the success of my 45 years as an educator on LGBT issues has been giving the reader, or member of my audience, my honest self. And, luckily for me, an important component of my honest self is kindness. My reputation grew as a messenger with whom everyone could feel safe and valued. Even those who came to my presentations to disrupt them were handled with care. I have always said that, “The messenger is the message.” If you’re there to eliminate fear so that people can become educable, you have to be non-threatening. I was the polite, Irish Catholic who dressed and behaved well, who quickly, by his behavior, established his credentials as a caring man, and whose personal story made them cry and laugh with me. They wanted me to succeed because I was a tender, sexually unavailable, non-aggressive, very kind man, just like Mr. Rogers.
We need, as a culture, to value kindness in children, as well as in adults. We need to go out of our way to affirm kind behaviors in girls and boys. Parents, neighbors, teachers, coaches, and camp counselors need to call out kindness as a value they cherish and reward. If television and radio advertisements insisted on kindness in their copy and speech, and if news programs were honored for giving as much time to reporting on kind behaviors as they do to reporting on horrible behaviors, then maybe young men like me wouldn’t feel defensive when someone compared them to Mr. Rogers, or to some other famous person who will always be remembered for their kindness.
Embrace your Mr. Rogers. It’s a game changer on your spiritual trek.
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