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Gay Mister Rogers actor no longer bound by oath to children’s TV titan

François S. Clemmons shares abusive childhood, closeted career in new memoir

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François Clemmons, gay news, Washington Blade
François Clemmons (Photo by Vincent Jones; courtesy Clemmons)

‘Officer Clemmons: A Memoir’

By François S. Clemmons

Catapult

May 5

$26

288 pages

In our polarized era, few people are loved by everyone from millennials to boomers. Yet, it’s a safe bet that even Darth Vader has a soft spot for Fred Rogers, creator and host of the children’s TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran on PBS from 1968-2001. (Rogers died in 2003.)

François S. Clemmons, the black, gay opera singer and actor, played Officer Clemmons, one of the “neighbors” on the show. He was the first African-American to have a recurring role on a children’s TV show.

The moment in 1969 when Mister Rogers, a white man, invited Officer Clemmons, a black man, to dunk his feet in a wading pool with him is etched in our DNA. In the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it was a quiet, but radical, stand against racism.

Officer Clemmons: A Memoir,” released in early May, is Clemmons’ honest, engaging account of his life. In it, Clemmons reflects on his experience as an abused child, encounters with racism, struggle with his sexuality, professional success and friendship with Rogers. The book is filled with warmth and love — for Rogers, music, his friends, colleagues, family and children. Yet, Clemmons doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties he’s endured or the hard truths he’s learned.

The memoir begins with a letter that Clemmons writes to Rogers years after his death. Over the decades, Clemmons writes, fans have asked him questions ranging from “How’d you meet him? to “How did you get out of the television?”

These questions were one reason Clemmons wrote the memoir. Yet, there was another compelling reason. He’d read bios of Rogers, but after reading these accounts, he writes, “I concluded that … none of the other publications were authored by a black, gay, ordained person of the theater who had worked intimately with you (Rogers) for over 30 years.”

His friendship with Roger and his work with the “Neighborhood” were vitally important to him. Yet Clemmons’ life has encompassed far more than being a “neighbor.” Born in 1945 in Blackwater, Miss., he earned a degree in music from Oberlin College and a master’s from Carnegie Mellon University. Clemmons won a Grammy Award for his recording of “Porgy and Bess” and founded the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble. From 1997-2013, he was the Alexander Twilight artist in residence and director of the Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir at Middlebury College.

As a child in a racist Southern town, Clemmons watched as his father abused his mother.

“My dreams conjured up the dangerous kitchen knife that my mother used in her fight against my daddy,” Clemmons writes.

To get away from her abusive husband, Clemmons’ mother moved the family to Youngstown, Ohio. Because he was black, his high school guidance counselors discouraged him from applying to Oberlin.

“I learned about racial segregation well above the Mason-Dixon Line,” he writes.

In Youngstown, his mother remarried. His stepfather abused Clemmons. Clemmons realized he was gay.

“My family was a traditional Baptist, God-fearing one,” Clemmons writes, “And even before I understood what homosexuality meant, it was drilled into my brain that these (gay) men were wrong in the eyes of God.” 

At Oberlin, Clemmons embraced his sexuality forming friendships and relationships with queer men both out and closeted. With his school choir, he sang in the Soviet Union. He was inspired when he met Martin Luther King Jr. when King spoke at Oberlin.

Rogers met Clemmons when he heard him sing at a church. Clemmons began appearing on Rogers’ show when he was a grad student at Carnegie Mellon. Rogers loved Clemmons as a friend and respected his talent. Yet, he was a product of his time. “If you’re gay, it doesn’t matter to me at all,” Rogers told Clemmons, “but if you’re going to be on the show … you can’t be out as gay.” 

Clemmons stayed in the closet so he could continue to work with Rogers. He tried hetero marriage (it didn’t work out). Despite having to hide his sexuality, Clemmons treasured his friendship with Rogers, his spiritual father and mentor.

If you’re looking for hope, inspiration and grit, “Officer Clemmons: A Memoir” is the book for you. 

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Books

Six books not to miss this fall

Memoirs, love stories, and ballroom await

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‘Unprotected: A Memoir’ by Billy Porter is out next month. (Book cover image courtesy Abrams Press)

Staying inside and curling up always seems like a great idea but in the fall, it almost feels urgent, doesn’t it? The great news is that there are a lot of good reads slated this fall for the LGBTQ reader.

Not your normal coming-of-age tale, “A Tale of Two Omars” by Omar Sharif, Jr. is the story of the author’s youth during the Arab Spring in 2010. But that’s only the launching point for the rest of the story: Sharif, the grandson of the great actor Omar Sharif, writes of his grandfather and the rest of his scattered family, and visiting them on various continents. He also writes of danger: a job he took that wasn’t the kind of work he thought it was, and the threats he received for speaking out about his homosexuality in homophobic Egypt. It’s a thrilling book, salted with memoir and you’ll love it. (October)

If you’re obsessed with the most recent incarnation of “Cinderella,” then you’ll likewise want to have “Unprotected: A Memoir” by Billy Porter on your shelf. This is a story in the author’s own words, about growing up Black and gay, raised by parents who hope to change the latter, and seizing the strength to stay use your talents and stay the course. (October)

Who doesn’t want it all?  In the memoir “Greedy: Notes from a Bi-Sexual Who Wants Too Much” by Jen Winston, the author humorously examines what it means to be bisexual, why coming out as bi is fraught with landmines; dating, pronouns, sex, and more. Yes, you can have it (almost) all. (October)

Nightlife in Seoul is the backdrop for “Love in the Big City” by Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur. It’s the story of a young gay man and his best female friend, and the fun they have exploring the clubs and bars in Seoul. As with many friendships, they both change and he is left to look for the love of his life alone. Fun, sassy, and poignant, this was a big best-selling debut novel in Korea. (November)

If something on the light side appeals to you, look for “The Coldest Touch” by Isabel Sterling. It’s a novel about a young woman who knows how someone will die, just by touching them. Understandably, she’d love to lose that power, until a young vampire is sent to help her, and they fall in love. Can the two thwart the danger in their town that’s coming from another, more sinister, paranormal figure? This is a book for young adults, but grown-up readers who love vampire stories will love biting into it.  (December)

And finally, for the reader with creativity and movement in their bones, “And the Category Is…: Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community” by Ricky Tucker is what you’ll want this fall. Go into an “underground subculture” for Black and Latinx trans and queer people, where marginalized LGBTQ individuals find acceptance, family, and help. With its roots in Harlem more than a century ago, you might not think you know much about ballroom, but you’ll be surprised… (December). Season’s readings!

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Books

Sullivan’s new book a cornucopia of wit, provocation

‘Out on a Limb’ offers queer cultural history with a point of view

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(Cover image courtesy of Avid Reader Press)

‘Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021′
By Andrew Sullivan
c.2021, Avid Reader Press
$35/576 pages

Gay writer and political commentator Andrew Sullivan’s first day in journalism began on a Sunday afternoon in 1984 in London at the Daily Telegraph.  The paper was housed on the “original Fleet Street,” Sullivan writes, “the place Evelyn Waugh had made eternal in his satirical novel Scoop.”

The editor that day, “a high Tory intellectual,” was completely blind, chain-smoked and “wore a patch over one eye, like a pirate,” Sullivan writes.

He was told to write an editorial on a topic he knew nothing about. Using, “all the skills my Oxford training in extemporaneous bullshitting had given me,” Sullivan writes, he wrote the piece.

Sullivan, who was instrumental in bolstering support for mainstream equality and for dismantling “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military, hasn’t stopped writing since.

Sullivan’s writing is as colorful as the Fleet Street editor with the eye patch.

I’m a blind lesbian. Reading “Out on a Limb” (on Audible and Kindle), there were times when I rolled my blind eyes.

At other moments, I marveled at Sullivan’s bravery and compassion.

But, whether I disagreed with or applauded Sullivan, I couldn’t stop reading him.

I’m betting this will be the case with you.

An Irish Catholic gay man, Sullivan is one of our most provocative and fascinating writers.

The essays in “Out on a Limb” cover everything from the death of Princess Diana to AIDS to “Brokeback Mountain” to Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality.

Sullivan, a self-described small-c conservative who was one of the first to bring Barack Obama to the attention of the mainstream press, has angered many.

“I have been criticized for abandoning the right,” he writes, “and for criticizing the left.”

Sullivan’s voted for, among others, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in Britain, and Ronald Reagan, Obama and Joe Biden in America.

The causes he has supported over 40 years include: marriage equality, the legalization of recreational drugs, welfare reform and, as he writes, “a very expansive concept of free speech.”

If you didn’t disagree with Sullivan on anything, you wouldn’t be human.

But, if you didn’t agree with him on some things, you wouldn’t have a heart or a brain.

The essays in “Out on a Limb,” are a time capsule of Sullivan’s career from his time with The New Republic (where he was the youngest editor in the magazine’s history) to his current perch with “The Weekly Dish.”

The collection shows how Sullivan’s views have evolved over the years. Sullivan, who with “The Dish,” was a blogging pioneer, is a refreshingly honest writer.

Some writers never want to cop to a mistake. This isn’t true with Sullivan, who says he was wrong about supporting the Iraq war.

It’s hard to remember how brave it was for Sullivan in 1989 to pen the essay “Here Comes the Groom: A Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” for The New Republic.

Then, when sodomy laws were on the books in many states, it was courageous to be out as Sullivan was.

Marriage equality wasn’t on the horizon – let alone on a magazine cover.

Sullivan writes movingly about seeing the AIDS quilt in 1992 on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

The collection includes some controversial pieces such as “When Plagues End: Notes on the Twilight of an Epidemic.”

It’s true that for many AIDS is no longer a deadly plague.

But AIDS is still a death sentence for many who don’t have health insurance or access to care.

Sullivan’s essays on gender and campus life such as “The He Hormone” or “We All Live on Campus Now” made me want to throw the book across the room.

I wish Sullivan hadn’t published a symposium on Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book “The Bell Curve” in The New Republic. (The book says there is a connection between race and intelligence.)

But I was moved by the essay “Dear Ta-Nehisi,” in which Sullivan explains why he felt compelled to air writing of, as he writes, “sometimes painful topics.”

“Out on a Limb” is a cornucopia of wit, queer cultural history and provocation. Enjoy the feast.  

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Books

‘All In’ a riveting biography of Billie Jean King

A fascinating story of a living, larger-than-life legend

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‘All In: An Autobiography’
By Billie Jean King with Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers
c.2020, Alfred A. Knopf
$30/482 pages

I know nothing about tennis except that I love Hitchcock’s thriller “Strangers on a Train,” in which a charming, sociopathic murderer enlivens the game.

There are no murders in “All In,” Billie Jean King’s memoir, co-authored with journalists Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers. But King’s candid autobiography is as exciting, as suspenseful, as a Hitchcock flick.

“All In” is a fab read not only for tennis aficionados and readers interested in LGBTQ history and women’s history but for anyone who enjoys a fascinating story of a living, larger-than-life, but very human, down-to-earth legend.

Some athletes, even the most acclaimed ones, are mainly known to sports fans.

Their achievements are important, sometimes record-setting, in their sports. But these sports figures aren’t cultural icons.

This isn’t the case with King. Like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, King, who was born in 1943, is iconic.
You likely remember where you were in 1973 when, along with 90 million other riveted viewers, you watched King beat self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.”

If you weren’t born then, you’ve surely heard how excited your mom or grandma were to see male chauvinism taken down. Then, when women often had difficulty obtaining a credit card, let alone fighting workplace discrimination, beating the pants off Riggs was no small matter.

King, a feminist and lesbian, is believed to be the first woman athlete activist.

In 2009, King received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work for LGBTQ and women’s rights and equality.

Then there is King’s stunning record in tennis. She was the top United States tennis player – winning 39 Grand Slams and 20 Wimbledon titles.

Often, the memoirs of famous people are bland, unrevealing. They are as exciting as Velveeta.

“All In” is a feast of flavors. Most memoirs, no matter how good, have some dull stretches.

This isn’t so with “All In.” From the get-go, it grabs you by the lapels.

The memoir is so revealing that, as you read it, you feel as if you’re reliving King’s life. King tells us about the people she loves.

Her family, like most people at the time, were homophobic when she was growing up. Yet King loved and respected her parents. They taught her, among many things, to “respect and never underestimate” her opponents, she writes.

Her brother Randy Moffitt, who was a pitcher in Major League Baseball has given her, King writes, “a lifetime of support.”

King writes of her love for Ilana Kloss. The couple, who have been together for 40 years, were married in a private ceremony in 2018. David Dinkins, the former New York City Mayor officiated the wedding.

“To Ilana, my love, my partner, to the moon and back,” King writes in the memoir’s dedication.
It took decades for King to become open and unashamed about her sexuality.

She grew up in a working class family in Long Beach, Calif. Her father was a firefighter. It was a timwhen women were expected to get married (to men) and have children.

Middle-class and upper-class women, even if they’d been to college, weren’t supposed to want to work.
The idea that you could be a gay tennis player wouldn’t have been on the horizon when King began playing the game as a kid.

King married Larry King (not the broadcaster) in 1965. Though they divorced, they are still close friends.
Some of the most gut-wrenching moments of “All In” are where King writes of being outed in the 1980s by a former female lover who filed a palimony suit. Though the former lover didn’t win in court, the outing nearly derailed King’s career.

King writes movingly about how, after much therapy and self-reflection, she became comfortable about her sexuality.

She tells us how she dealt with an eating disorder and other health problems. Above all, King challenges us to work for social change. She dedicates the memoir “to everyone who continues to fight for equality, inclusion, and freedom.”

Who wouldn’t be “All In” with that?

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