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For nearly 25 years, one of the most influential shows in American history featured a Black gay man.
Francois Clemmons was known by millions as Officer Clemmons on the long-running PBS program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, created by Fred Rogers, whom Clemmons describes as the "spiritual love of my life."
However, despite being socially progressive behind the scenes, Rogers was aware of the country's ignorance post-Stonewall when queer liberation was beginning to enter the mainstream narrative.
In his new memoir, Officer Clemmons, which comes out May 5, Clemmons writes that he was called into Rogers' office one day where the TV legend encouraged him to remain closeted for the sake of the show. He would also encourage Clemmons to marry a woman for the sake of maintaining the show's image.
"Franc, you have talents and gifts that set you apart and above the crowd," Clemmons remembers Rogers saying, according to People. "Someone has informed us that you were seen at the local gay bar downtown. Now, I want you to know, Franc, that if you're gay, it doesn't matter to me at all. Whatever you say and do is fine with me, but if you're going to be on the show as an important member of the Neighborhood, you can't be out as gay."
Clemmons, who was first introduced to Rogers by his wife Joanne, whom he met at church, told People, "I could have his friendship and fatherly love and relationship forever, but I could have the job only if I stayed in the closet."
"'You must do this Francois,' he told me, 'because it threatens my dream,'" he added. "'The world doesn't really want to know who you're sleeping with -- especially if it's a man. You can have it all if you can keep that part out of the limelight.'"
"I was destroyed," Clemmons explained. "The man who was killing me had also saved me. He was my executioner and deliverer. But, at the same time, I knew that he would know how to comfort me. I didn't have another mother or father to comfort me. I had no one to go and be a boy with. I was just vulnerable. He got in a few slaps, some tough love, a good spanking. But I was not kicked out of the family."
Eventually, Rogers offered up the idea for Clemmons to marry a woman as a way to continue hiding his identity from the public.
"Have you ever thought of getting married?" Clemmons remembers Fred asking him. "People do make some compromises in life."
"By the time I left his office, I had made up my mind to marry La-Tanya Mae Sheridan," Clemmons writes. "At the wedding reception, Fred and Joanne approached me and my new wife. It felt as if Fred and I were sealing some kind of secret bargain."
Clemmons and Sheridan divorced in 1974, People notes, after which he came out of the closet and began living proudly as a gay man.
"I forgive him," Clemmons explained. "More than that, I understand. I relied on the fact that this was his dream. He had worked so hard for it. I knew Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was his whole life."