It’s 1969, and a gentleman named Fred Rogers is dipping his feet into a wading pool. Beside him sits an African American gentleman, Francois Clemmons. They make light conversation before using the same towel to dry off their feet. What makes the event noteworthy is the venue in which it took place. Fred Rogers was hosting a children’s television show, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, and their conversation was broadcast nationwide. It symbolized a step forward in race relations during a time when African Americans were still informally banned from many public pools. Mr. Roger’s television programming, which ran for over 30 years, was one of the few that sought to instill in children a belief that all races were created equal.
Since learning about Mr. Roger’s broadcasting, I’ve been drawn to the man. He was thoughtful and preached love and kindness to his adolescent viewers. A 15-minute viewing of his television show was enough to understand the environment he sought to create for children. Yet, he also was keenly aware of the society that surrounded him. This society had deep-rooted prejudices and inequalities.
For this reason, he was cautious with the content he ran on his platform. If his programming became too progressive, he risked societal backlash. In short, he knew society would cancel his show. For this reason, Mr. Rogers asked Mr. Clemmons to keep his homosexuality a secret. America wasn’t ready for a conversation about sexuality on a children’s television show.
Even so, society slowly marched forward. Finally, we legalized same-sex marriage roughly 45 years after that episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Same-sex couples prevailed, and Mr. Clemmons now lives in a world where he is free to marry whoever he pleases.
Today, we see the fight shifting away from rights for same-sex couples and towards the rights of transgender individuals. The battle for gay marriage has now become the fight for pronouns. The same people now fight for societal acceptance of individuals who don’t conform to gender roles. This, I would argue, is a good thing. People should be able to live as the gender of their choosing, for there is no harm in gender role nonconformity. Research shows overwhelmingly positive health outcomes in patients who undergo sex reassignment surgery. Gender-affirming care, in the form of the hormone and GRNH blockers, is good healthcare from an economical and ethical perspective.
Unfortunately, good healthcare doesn’t always translate into policies embraced by the public. At the state level, our governor is enacting laws to restrict conversations about sexuality in schools. States are passing laws limiting transgender sports participation. As more restrictive laws move into place, more and more Americans feel that a person’s gender must strictly match their sex assigned at birth. More concerningly, a majority of people say society has already done enough for transgender individuals. As we push forward with the he/him/his email signatures, we step backward where it counts: in public opinion and in the laws meant to protect the transgender community.
The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe V. Wade makes this story more interesting. Will same-sex marriage fall next? What other rights that we take for granted will soon disappear? I suppose only time will tell.
This draws me back to Fred Rogers. Over 50 years ago, he made a concerted effort not to talk about sexuality because he realized that other social issues must come first. He read the room ever so perfectly. Perhaps it’s time for us to do the same.