It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
With the launch of Twitch’s marathon of every episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, I feel like it’s appropriate to write a little bit about the experience of growing up watching Mister Roger’s Neighborhood as a gay kid and its profound impact on me as a person. Growing up, PBS was pretty much my only outlet to the rest of the world, and having people other than my parents and their close friends telling me things did more positive things for me that I wouldn’t realize until well into my adulthood.
Now, my parents cut the cable cord quite early. I was only about six or seven when they decided they had no business paying that much for television, and my options for cartoons boiled down to one option every day: the educational shows on PBS. I was not thrilled with this, since I was just starting to discover actual cartoons that were not PBS shows around this time, so being forced back to the channel I spent most of my time watching from the ages of three to four was quite discouraging in my world. I was six, I was over Sesame Street, Barney, and Mister Roger’s Neighborhood fucking dammit. I was ready for Rugrats, Rocko’s Modern Life, and Ren & Stimpy (and maybe occasionally Franklin or Brother Bear, because gosh darn, do I like these animal characters) my mother be damned.
Looking back though, this was probably a really good thing for my upbringing. Being the first-born of a family of six who are all very strong conservative Christians placed a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. Growing up, slowly coming to the realization that I’m gay in such a hostile environment did a lot of damage to my psyche as I hit my teenage years. Maybe I should have kept watching PBS as a teen because I would have gotten words of encouragement from Fred Rogers at the very least.
As a young kid, I never really felt violently unalike from anyone else around me. I really didn’t start thinking about sex till after I was 10, so during my early years all I knew about being gay was that I tended to really really like certain male characters in my movies and shows. (Who, also funnily enough happened to be animals…weird) I didn’t really know I had crushes on these characters, or that I was attracted to traits that are masculine, but I did know I really liked them and could watch the movies they showed up in over and over. I also knew that was not like other kids who tended to have those sorts of attachments to characters of the opposite gender. I was different, but not in a way that felt like I was wrong. That wouldn’t come until much later.
But feeling different in your group of friends does have an effect. At least it did on me. My parents have commented that when I was really young, pretty much all my core friends were girls and that they never quite understood that. Well, I know most of those girls also really liked the same characters in movies that I did, and they were much easier to relate to than boys and the things they liked. I felt that disconnect all throughout childhood, and finding someone that told me that it was okay to be different, that it was okay to be me. That was really important. Mr Rogers was that person for me.
Now, I don’t have any strong memories of eagerly watching Mr Rogers Neighborhood every day or anything, but I do remember watching it almost every day. I never left the room when it came on, I always watched it if it was on. I remember my favorite parts were when Mr Rogers talked to the camera directly, like he was talking to me. The bits in the Land of Make Believe were kind of weird and the puppets fairly scary, but there was always something comforting when Mr Rogers talked to me directly. When he sang, “I like you for being the you who you are” that felt good. When he talked about how I might feel different sometimes from other people, but that it was okay to be different because he still likes me, that felt really good. As a kid, you never really notice the positive effects of words like that, but I can fairly confidently say I was a pretty happy kid until the point I stopped watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood regularly.
Reflecting back, it’s almost amazing how Mr Rogers so subtly affected my emotions in a positive direction by literally just talking into a camera. To the point where I was never eager to watch the show, but simultaneously never wanted to change the channel either when it was on or about to come on. There might not be any correlation at all, truth be told, but I can’t help but feel that there was some effect on Mr Rogers telling me that he liked and accepted me for being me every single day. Especially in an environment where I was taught pretty early on about the sin of homosexuality and how awful people like that are.
My life became a dark hell after turning 10. Puberty hit, my hormones blossomed, and it became apparent to me quickly how wrong I was when compared to the ideals of Christianity. The pressures of being a perfect older sibling for my two sisters and brother, and a perfect son for my expectant parents weighed on me every day. Being gay tore me apart, I developed a self hatred for who I was. I was terrified of my family finding out, learning about the horrors of what families would do to people who came out to them. I love my parents, I did not want to break their hearts by revealing that I was someone they believed was damned to hell. I was terrified of being sent away. I lied to myself every day, pretending I wasn’t gay, and lived the life of an exemplary Christian boy. I memorized verses, I worked with kids, I was a model Christian student. My parents beamed at me every time we went to church because everyone at church would tell them how wonderful I was. Meanwhile, I’m dying on the inside feeling like the worst of humanity by carrying a lie for so long to all these people in my life.
By highschool, my self hatred had reached a boiling point and I had reached a desperation so great that I was using my laptop to look up straight porn to force myself to change my sexuality. My mother found out, and it broke her. And it broke me not being able to tell my parents why I would do that to them. They never fully had my trust after that incident and life at home became torture until I was able to escape at 23. Never telling them who I was because I valued my relationship with them that much, even though we barely even had one by the time I left.
Now, watching Mr Roger’s Neighborhood on Twitch, I realize that my life might have been a lot worse if I didn’t have Fred Rogers telling me that I was liked by someone for being who I was. And I know my story isn’t especially unique for many gay people in the United States and that he must have affected many LGBT children in his lifetime through his work. And I have nothing but the utmost respect and gratitude for him for what he chose to do with his life. A passion for children so great that he continued doing his show until 2001, a mere two years before he passed away. That’s an incredible legacy and it’s nothing short of humbling. The world lost someone truly special that day in 2003, and I don’t think the world has gotten better since. If anything, it feels like we’ve all proceeded in a negative direction without him to hold the hands of our children who have grown up decidedly lost and confused and hostile to the world around them.
I’m extremely glad that I had Mr Rogers as a child and I can only hope that PBS continues to strive to create programming for children just as powerful as his show. Hell, maybe they should just run reruns of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, that should work just fine. But they need our generation’s help to do that with the ever present threat of politics looming over them to slash their funding to oblivion. Watching this marathon has reminded me that it is actually important to donate to PBS if I want the kids who grow up watching TV to have positive programs to even watch. It was honestly the easiest money I’ve ever donated.