Franois Clemmons: Hi from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
Let's turn it on his toys from the advocate magazine and in partnership with glad this is lgbtq and A. I'm Jeffrey Masters and today. I'm talking to Francois Clemens. Who is best known for his role on? Mister Rogers neighborhood. Francois Played Officer Clemens and got a new memoir of the same name. But I soak compelling Francois is not the singular mission of his life was not to be a celebrity or to be on TV. His singular mission was to be a professional singer and from nineteen sixty eight and nineteen ninety-three when he was on what would go on to become one of the most influential TV shows of all time. That fact never changed throughout the filming the show. He Sang at the Lincoln Center with the Metropolitan Opera. He sang across the country. Mr Rogers and he even won a grammy. So today you'll hear US talk about all that with the seventy five year old Francois Clemens and yes he does even sing for US France while also mentioned his sister's suicide at one point ahead up there and then just to note. This is the first episode of our brand new season which is being produced in partnership with glad. So pit subscribe and on spotify wherever you're listening and enjoy there has been so much written about Mister Rogers telling you that if you wanted to stay on the TV show. You could not be out of the closet. Did that make you adjust how you were behaving and presenting in private even in your personal life? Yes because I felt people first of all they show the photograph to friend so I felt an obligation not to be caught in those compromising situations because you see the first time someone told him I had gone to a club down in Pittsburgh called the play pin so I went there with a buddy of mine. We were dancing sweating and I go home. That was the extent of it but evidently somebody took it upon themselves to tell him that the other I've seen there and I felt violated adult man. Who in the world is telling him what? I'm doing what I do when I'm not on the show is my business and yet you ultimately agreed to stay in the closet. If you're GONNA stay on the show that was an emotional slash spiritual decision. I began to feel that I was therefore reason. Not just a happenstance. Once you have this inner feeling that I was at a meeting with destiny that I could not be casual and I couldn't deny what I knew I wasn't going to. I thought about what? What would it be like if you don't hold up your end of the bargain if you don't sacrifice in a way that has honored brings honor so? I really had a sense of obligation and commitment responsibility. Those words they haunted me. And when you say you had a responsibility who or what was that responsibility to the responsibility was to have a good face for white people who are watching this show. People were a little different in how they felt about my being on that show but white people would say all. That's terrible. Mr Rogers was so kind to you and you are gay person. You were caught in that alley that boxed up the back of the truck or somewhere and that's a disgrace. That's what I felt. I could not allowed to happen. We were there any out. Gay Black People in the media at that time No there weren't a lot. No you know who led the band the the European rock singers George and another one who just died. I was that David Bowie. Yes yes yes. Yes yes now. You're asking me specifically about black people. None of these guys are named or black. And I ask that because I didn't know if you ever considered not taking Mr Rogers advice and becoming out because there were so few media the I'm I'm a front runner. I do not care what they think. I'm speaking of my personal opinion. I've been blessed with strength and I will take care of myself. I don't care what they think but I love the man who did Fred Rogers and it would have been very very painful for him to have to go through that whole episode so I sat and I thought about it and I said you can do this you can and you will. I hadn't had love from father and it was so unconditional so bountiful that I sent. I can't give that up. I've never had it now. I've got it and I'm not going to throw it away. I'm not gonNA treat it lightly and casually. I love this man. He's treating me in a way that makes me feel whole makes me feel like a person that I'm wanted and needed and cherished in that community. They became my family all of them. So coming out you would have lost the show. You also would have lost. Your family would have been everything. It would have been a terrible loss. I had pulled in so tight with my stepfather. Beat me up. I said you know their relatives and I can't trust them. I began to allow myself to be feeling to be hillman when Mr Rogers asked you to stay in the closet. If he wanted to be on the show he also suggested that you get married. Would you have gotten married to your ex wife? Had he not suggested yes because he wasn't the only one I think who was advising me. She was my best friend so we hung up all the time all the time. An hour on the telephone was nothing for us and I didn't feel at that time that I was courting her as a lover rather than just simply expressing the this is my friend. I prefer her overall. You guys and you did have a few gay friends who knew you were gay. What was their reaction to you getting married. Oh they were surprised this what. What are you getting married for and I said well. That's my destiny. I think that's my life. I do have a lot of affection for her. And maybe that'll turn into erotic attraction it never did and when I was making love to her I was thinking about my boyfriend or somebody and so it became apparent to me that I had made a serious mistake because she was a very very nice person and she was deserving of a better relationship. And that's what I basically said to her. You know I can't give you can't be the husband that you need a want. I just can't yeah. I felt like a failure I had tried to do something and I was really down in the in the mouth say. I was so depressed that I had tried something big and I had bit off more than I could chew. Did Fred Rogers ever meet any of the menu had relationships with Oh later on he did and I have to tell you. He didn't have anything against gay people. I don't know how to share with you but I didn't have very many relationships with people. I've never lived with anyone except my former wife. I've always lived along not by choice. I think there were only two people that I had very quiet. Demure relationships with that lasted for fifteen years. Each were they quite because you felt that you couldn't come out of the closet fully. Yes in fact one of the sediment don't dress up tonight so they won't recognize you. You won't get any attention and just the two of us can go to this restaurant and this movie and be very quiet loving and cuddly sweet and when did you come out publicly. Maybe about ninety. When I started the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble. I felt very today I was I was holding a big bundle of life. I decided I'm coming out. I don't care who knows it. I'M NOT GONNA hide it. And so from then on people s not very many. I told him yes. I had a young sister who committed suicide and I found the body so that was another terrible thing and because of that she loved nightclub music and dancing and moving around and she played a mean piano for young lady as a tribute to her as. Okay I'M GONNA put together a nightclub and I dedicated to her a friend of mine arranged for me to get several nights at the bushes and it was a huge success. People came from everywhere. Say Oh my God. We didn't know you could sing this pop music Francois Memories but my heart wasn't in it after a short period maybe six months a year I said why are you doing this. I mean it's interesting that you never had a goal to be on TV. The singular focus of your life has to be a singer and you and you did that in your accomplish why is it. The redrawn always to black spirituals. It seems like that is a type of music. The most connection with a first of all. I have been brutalized as a kid so I carried a certain sat wound. I really did consoling constellation was when I was saying sometimes. I feel like a motherless job I meant that I feel like a motherless child sometimes I feel like a motherless child are long who from Holo Nov who roam whole who? Something happens when I go there and I didn't know it then but I know now. I have access to the ancestors. I'm a different person. Fred said it to me. Also he said Francois is hers using that constant Europe. Very very different person when you come off stage and you're onstage. Something else is going on but you have this almost effervescent personality. Almost bubbly not quite. I'm not a but I'm a different person and I know it and I know that you are spiritual person. Do you still consider yourself to be religious religious? No in the sense that I don't deal with anybody's dogma. I'm not Presbyterian or Lutheran Methodist Episcopal Baptists. None of that casually forget it. They were the hardest people against me when I was young. And since that is if you're gay you're going to hell the bombing nation. You're cursed so I wasn't gonNA lay down and die and so I moved on and I began to find people who did approve and who did nurture and stroke me for the person that I am and Fred. Rogers was one on the behind the scenes. You'll never find the kind of person never and He kind of took me under his wing. When Dr King got assassinated he came to my house. I was living into ghetto in the bourgeoisie. The bourgeois ghetto on my porch. I could look down over the a hills and I could see smoke. It was on fire and Fred and John. Live the organised. They were concerned so they they called me. Said get your bags together. We're coming over there and get you honestly. I stood there. I thought WHO AM I. My father never did. My stepfather. Never did my uncles never did well. Why are they these men doing something? Because they're concerned about my welfare. I went home with him. I felt very comforted and very protected. That's the word I'm looking for. I felt protected. I didn't always feel protected as a kid during that period of time was when Fred finally said to me I understand. You've been through something pretty raggedy Francois and you survived it here. You are with us and we want you to be happy. Nobody has said that to me before and said if you need something you something you ask me for asking me. I'm going to be there for you the way you describe your relationship. It sounds like calling him. Your friend is not big enough word that he was father. Brother everything. You very perceptive my friend and I thank you for lending this situation. You're inside because you know there are people who put a little niche nuance. That it was sexual. It was not sexual at all. It was spiritual. It was emotional. He supported me in a way that I had never had. I didn't have money came from the wrong side of the tracks and I was trying to struggle. Get my way through Grad school going to sink and he came along offered me a job that gave me some money and I accepted the generous offer that had been given to me the program and now this personal relationship with Fred and it wasn't just one way and so he would say friends. What does it feel like to go to bed Frey? And it's very difficult to put something like that into words. I knew that my parents didn't have any money. Nobody was eating in that that night and she had said tomorrow. We'll we'll try again but I don't have anything else for you. That's what we sometimes talked about. We talked about what it felt like to be beaten by your parents and so he would say you had very difficult lie Francois. Why aren't you acting wild and crazy and angry and I said to him very honestly. You're part of it. You're one of the reasons. I don't act crazy but I am wounded and I know it so he cannot talk to. You said maybe you should go see a psychiatrist. I wasn't going to go see a psychologist because in the ghetto. If you're going to see a psychiatrist that means you're crazy and I'm not crazy. That's what I said. I didn't quite understand the word wound but I did after he and I chatted called epic Columbia University and I was able to just unburden the pain of being beaten by my stepfather and being rejected by my mother. I used ask why. So Am I a mistake Daniel as on the program? Nobody is a mistake lady. Aber Lynn tells him you're here for a reason you may have to figure it out. They may take time. But you're no mistake Francois and so my heart began to lighten up. Ease UP TAKING. Take it easy man. Don't be so hard on yourself. What I found is I carry that reservoir. Sometimes I open. I opened it up big at it but it doesn't control me anymore. You know with the the violence and abuse that you winter as a kid. A lot of it was shocking. And I just want her with you. You said now about not letting control you anymore. How long did it take to be able to say that Twenty eight twenty seven twenty eight years old. Because I was living in New York I just moved there for a little while. Separated from my wife so there were things that had been stirred up. I had to address. You can't pretend I was miserable. I was walking down the street crying. So that will never do one has to have the courage and the strength to look at whatever. The problem is the name it call it. What it is because that's how you get your power back and it's how you grow and you are strong. I'm a very strong person. Not because I'm mean or making somebody do something but I make a decision and then I get on with it. You know you move to New York City in your late twenties. You actually moved in nineteen sixty nine the year of stonewall and I just wonder at that time. What did you hear about what happened at Stonewall Lord have mercy? I moved August and it had just happened a month two before so I snuck down to the village. I didn't tell my wife where I was going or anybody and I went down to the village and I saw the building they swept and cleaned it. So almost pristine. You couldn't tell what the violence had gone off but the spirit of that violence was down there. I wasn't the only one there were tourist. Come down to look and see this Little Club. This little note nowhere. Nobody stonewall club and see this is why they were fighting the police and the gay people as they say. You know one minute. You're over there and apart sucking my Dick and now you're over. Hit Me what you stick. What's going on? This is not right. Something is wrong in this picture and it was true. 'cause I to go onto the village as they've what you. Since I was married I went down there and looked around. Let me tell you what I thought was. These guys must be crazy because society is going to squelch them. They're not going to get with thereafter and I was wrong so even back then at that time it was being talked about as a massive deal. It was a massive deal. I have to tell you I was the boy who didn't want to be office clements because the police were very brutal and they shot like boys in the back they strung up the judge. The mortician the lawyers. Everybody was against you so I knew about police brutality. I really felt such pride I you know. I said I'm alive to see this. I lived I was not old but I've lived to see gave people standing up standing tall and saying you cannot push me any more pushed enough and I saw change. That's amazing I have one more question for you and it's about gender you write really movingly female opera roles and you say those are the roles that your soul is then you wrote this quote it was in those moments that I truly felt like a woman I felt tricked into my masculine body and existence. I wrestled with my sense of having been misplaced mis configured to me that sounds like someone who is questioning their gender and. I just wonder if that is something that you still think about an experience today. Well yes I do. Think about it because we have so many trans coming out and making known they are trends when it comes to myself and my understanding my creativity. That's really what this femininity star. Over the years I've communicated with a Guardian Angel and several guides. I think of it as a gift. And IT'S BEAUTIFUL. What they're saying is mournful painful music of loss and suffering. I'm a better listener than appear. I think you seem like a good listener. What I said that I thought you seemed like a good listener. I used to think I was good looking but I said I said good listener a listener. Look well you know what I learned from Fred. I've watched him. I felt a little bit like I was on the outer circle. He was in the middle of the hurricane. But I was out there a lot of times. People were not paying me any attention but I was paying them attention. I didn't want to disturb Fred. He creates a world. And it's wonderful. This compassionate is empathetic. I would watch and I'd say I'm going to be like that one day. I want to give in that deep meaningful way. So I asked him what was house he does. What's going on? Who told me about the sacred space between him and the camera sacred space and he explained to me that feeling that he has for people when he's doing his television program opens up another channel and that communication is very sacred to him. And he won't let anybody broach or interrupt and I watched them yeah. I'm GonNa do that when I'm on stage. I'm going directly into the soul of the heart of that woman or that man. I was at the Metropolitan for seven seasons. You know what they asked me to think American Negro spirituals. At first I was insulted. My goodness I paid a fortune to get through over to get through Carnegie Mellon and. Why can't I sing? La boheme locked. Ravi Arte or Lizzy the more you know. One of those wonderful lyric tenor. Arias and stuff and he said No. Please do this. Maestro stressful Maestro John Goodman said to me when you sing spirituals Francois you connect pain that we feel to we were in Auschwitz together. Were in the the the the death camps in Poland and Austria. And we can't talk about that. Is Americans stay up here? They pretend they're you know they're still having a good time. We were being killed. Our families are mothers anymore and said you know what that's like when you sing motherless child swing-low-sweet-chariot you know what we're feeling. We know what you're feeling and so would you please do that for me so I never again asked why I was singing in the sweet by and by or amazing grace or Dr King's favorite song is precious? Lord take my hand and I mean I'd look up a new crime. I think that's such an amazing place to leave at. You've been so generous with your time. Thank you so much of course. I'll be generous Anna. That's our show Francois Clemens of memoirs called Officer Clemens. It's outright now hand. If you enjoy the interview please hit subscribe and if you already are belt. Feel free to tweet about us. Posted in story. Write an article text. Every scoop shot that you're in helping. Us SPREAD THE WORD. One of the biggest ways you can help us grow. Thank you so much for that. I'm on twitter at Jeff. Masters won the shows on twitter. Lgbtq pod those are both ways to connect if you WANNA recommend guests. Lgbt CUNA is used by the advocate magazine in partnership with glad. Come check out. All of our mazing work at advocate dot com glad dot org. We'll see next week.