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Richie Jackson on 'Gay Like Me' — His Guide Book for His Gay Son

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 3, 2020

When Richie Jackson's 15-year old son Jackson came out to him, he saw a red flag. Not because his son is gay — hardly. Jackson had been carrying his gay card for decades. No, because his son said it wasn't a big deal. Because for Jackson, it is, especially because soon after his son came out, Donald Trump and Mike Pence were elected, setting up a dynamic in which LGBTQ gains during the Obama administration were to be pushed back. "The America you think you're part of," he told his son, "is a mirage."

This prompted Jackson to write "Gay Like Me," a slim volume that acts as both an autobiographical sketch of how he found his LGBTQ identity and an advice manual on how to be gay in Trump's America. "Being gay and being political have always been inextricably linked for me," Jackson writes.

"In some ways, this is a small and focused book: a particular message, delivered as an urgent plea to a son about to embark upon adulthood," writes Chloe Schama in a profile in Vogue, "But it can also be seen as part of a larger genre of work that is asking profound questions about how a community handles a legacy of suffering."

Jackson is an alumnus of NYU Tisch School of the Arts, which he attended in the 1980s prior to his career as a successful theater, television and film producer. He most recently produced the Tony Award-nominated Harvey Fierstein's" Torch Song" on Broadway. He executive produced Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" (Emmy and Golden Globe nominee for "Best Comedy Series") for seven seasons and co-executive produced the film "Shortbus," written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell.

Married to theater producer Jordan Roth, the couple lives in New York City with their two sons. They were honored with The Trevor Project's 2016 Trevor Hero Award.

EDGE spoke to Jackson about the conversation that prompted him writing the book, why being gay is a big deal, and the advice he'd give parents of LGBTQ children.

Big deal

EDGE: What inspired you to write this book?

Richie Jackson: My husband, Jordan (Roth), and I have two children and when our oldest son was 15 years old, he told us he was gay. I was elated. I wanted him to be gay. And then he said, "Daddy, being gay is not a big deal. My generation doesn't think it's a big deal." I thought, "Oh no, being gay is a really big deal." I didn't want him to grow up being someone who grows up diminishing it. Being gay is a gift, so I started to think about what I needed to share with him and what it means to be a gay man — then Donald Trump was elected. He and Mike Pence are more of an imminent threat to our son and his generation. They have declared war against the LGBTQ community. So, now I had to warn him and what it takes to be a gay man in America. That was the urgency of writing the book.

EDGE: In your book you write, "Everything good that has happened to me is because I am gay." Please explain?

Richie Jackson: Everything good that I have is because I am gay. My marriage and my children. My husband, Jordan Roth, would have not fallen in love with me if I have scrubbed off my gayness. The way that I look at the world, my empathy, my points of view, my creativity, my hunger, and my potential are all because I am gay. They are all things that I value and have made my life rich.

Growing up gay

EDGE: What was your "growing up gay" experience like?

Richie Jackson: I grew up on Long Island. It was a very Jewish neighborhood and the public school I went to was pretty much entirely Jewish. Everyone felt very similar to me. So being gay made me feel special and lucky. It wasn't until the fourth grade when my gym teacher called me a faggot and that is when I realized that there were other people who thought it was wrong. I tried to come out a couple of times in high school. So, I waited to come out when I got to NYU and I went there especially so I could be gay.

EDGE: If you weren't a parent, do you think you would have written this book?

Richie Jackson: No one has asked this question before, so thanks. I'm 54 years old and I think all of us who are elders in the community have a responsibility to our younger LGBTQ kids. We must help them come along and parenting is a covenant. When you parent, you send your children out into the world and the covenant with other adults is that when we are not with our children, the other adults will have to take care of them. That goes for anywhere they are. With our LGBTQ kids, that covenant is broken — sometimes by the parents, the government, religion, or by our schools. I believe that the LGBTQ elders need to take our youth and build community around them. Lift them up and help them discover their potential. I would have written this book regardless of being a parent or not. The urgency came because my child was leaving the home to go off to college.

Gay is a gift

EDGE: Given the political climate that we live in, would you rather not have gay children?

Richie Jackson: Definitely not! I understand growing up in a difficult time of being gay. I came to New York in 1983 right at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Right now, there are a lot of people who are trying to diminish us, demean us, and trying to dismantle our rights. Unfortunately, that is the way that many Americans treat us and they see us as less than human. But that does not change the fact that being gay is a gift. I am thrilled that he is gay, and I celebrate it every day.

EDGE: Do you think that you would have parented your son differently if he was straight?

Richie Jackson: I don't think we would have. Jordan and I have a very simple way of parenting — we let our children lead us. Our job is to make the runway of life longer for them, so that they can expand their interests and ideas. We raise them to have good self-esteem and be resilient. I believe there is only one important lesson when it comes to parenting: You parent the child you have, not the child you thought you would have.

EDGE: What does your son think of the book and all the attention?

Richie Jackson: What is so special about him is that he is very private. He is very private in a family of very public people. When I told him that I had an idea for a book, and I would like your permission to tell our story he said yes immediately because he understood the value to other people. It really is the book that I needed when I was young, the book that he needed and the book that our straight friends need to understand us.

What advice?

EDGE: What advice would you give to (gay or straight) parents of gay children?

Richie Jackson: It goes back to that covenant I was talking about. I talk about it in the book the way that I learned how to gain good gay self-esteem, so I shared it with my son so he could do it. I would say to parents of gay kids is teach them their history. It is not learned in school, because the LGBTQ community has been erased. As a way of empowering them, show them that they are not alone, but they are part of a long continuum of extraordinary gay people that have come before them. Could you image what a young gay person could do if they had the knowledge of their gay elders? Also, introduce them to the arts. I learned how to be gay by reading Edmund White. You also have to help them learn about Sex Ed and how to care for themselves.

EDGE: When reflecting on your book, what has surprised you most about yourself?

Richie Jackson: I think what surprised me was when people at the publishing house read the book and started commenting on how brave I was. I got nervous because, did I write something I shouldn't have? I wrote it at 5am with a pencil and paper and I just lulled myself into this idea that no one was going to read it. I am surprised that I was fearless enough to be vulnerable and didn't edit out, smooth over or soften the edges on anything.

EDGE: What do you hope that readers take away from Gay Like Me?

Richie Jackson: That being gay is a gift and a blessing.

To learn more about and/or to order "Gay Like Me," visit this website.