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Author celebrates being gay in memoir to son

by Brian Bromberger

Richie Jackson holds a copy of his memoir, "Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son," at his February event at Manny's in San Francisco. Photo: Brian Bromberger
Richie Jackson holds a copy of his memoir, "Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son," at his February event at Manny's in San Francisco. Photo: Brian Bromberger  

Although there have been numerous books by straight parents writing about their gay children (and vice versa), up until now there has not been an advice memoir by a gay parent to his LGBTQ children.

That deficit has been remedied by Richie Jackson's book, "Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son" (HarperCollins). Jackson is an award-winning Broadway, television, and film producer who most recently produced the Tony-nominated "Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song" on Broadway. He was the executive producer of Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" for seven seasons and the co-executive producer of the John Cameron Mitchell film "Shortbus."

He and his husband, theater producer Jordan Roth, were honored with the Trevor Project's 2016 Trevor Hero Award. His goal was to be a father, so when his oldest son, Jackson Foo, whose biological father is Jackson's ex-partner, actor BD Wong, came out to him at age 15, he was both surprised and elated. He had wanted and hoped Foo would be gay, then Foo said to him, "Daddy, being gay is not a big deal. My generation doesn't think it's a big deal."

Jackson's book is a love letter response to his son's comment. It deals with many aspects of gay life: coming out, parenting, LGBTQ history, AIDS, sex, character versus online profile stats, and good citizenship.

This writer interviewed Jackson, 54, on stage February 5 at Manny's, the gay-owned cafe and event space in San Francisco's Mission district. (The event occurred about a month and a half before the novel coronavirus outbreak resulted in regional and then statewide shelter-in-place orders.) What follows are portions of the on-stage interview.

Jackson, as opposed to his son, believes being gay is a really big deal.

"It's the best and most important thing about me. I didn't want him to grow up to be one of these people who say, 'Gay doesn't define me,' or, 'I just happen to be gay,'" Jackson said. "If he made it matter-of-fact like that, he would diminish the gift that it is and break his own heart.

"And so I started to think about what I had to share with him about what it means to be a gay man. Then, Donald Trump was elected and he brought Mike Pence with him to Washington and they are more of an imminent threat to our son than ISIS and North Korea," the author added. "Now, I had to warn him about what it takes to be a gay man in America and that was the impetus for the book. For the title, I knew I wanted 'Gay' in big letters on the cover of the book and I said, 'No rainbows.' In junior high school I had read a book called 'Black Like Me.' Part of what I had hoped to do with this book is have straight people read it to understand us better, so I thought 'Gay Like Me' was fitting, it served a double purpose, my son is gay like me but doesn't see being gay like I do."

Last June, gay journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote an opinion article for New York magazine arguing that "a gay politics was necessary only so that we could eventually get beyond politics and live as our straight brothers and sisters do, with our sexual orientation being a nonissue in our wider lives," urging LGBTQ people to "just get on with our lives, without our sexual orientation getting in the way," believing this is "the sanest approach to being gay, seeing it as an integral but by no means exhaustive way of being human."

Jackson objected to Sullivan's stance. "When I read it, I thought, you're doing the work of our adversaries. That's exactly what anti-LGBTQ people want us to do. They want us to diminish it. They want us to put it in a little box," he said. "Just a few months ago, someone in my own family said to me, 'I think it's sad you make everything about being gay.' What he was really saying is, 'Make your gayness smaller, smaller, smaller' until he's comfortable with how gay I am. And I'm not doing that. I will not diminish myself for anyone and that is what I think Andrew is writing. He's saying he's going to diminish himself to assimilate. I have never wanted to be straight; I have never wanted to be anything other than what I was. I never cared whether straight people accepted me. That's not how I spend my life. This sounds like someone who has shame."

'Being gay is a gift'
He believes the reason the straight world tries to diminish LGBTQ people or demean their differences is because they recognize how powerful queer folks really are.

"I think being gay is a gift," Jackson said. "And when you are other, you get to see the world from a different point of view. We are just 4.5% of the population. That is not a defect, that's not worthless. We have been chosen to look at, think, and experience the world differently. It's a blessing and it's also powerful.

"Everything good that has happened to me is because I am gay," he added. "My husband would not have loved me if I had scrubbed off my gayness."

Jackson's coming out journey is key in how he views his understanding of gay identity today.

It was 1983 and he was in high school on Long Island, New York. His mom bought tickets for them to see "Torch Song Trilogy," featuring Fierstein.

"We didn't have the money to buy tickets at the box office," Jackson said. "We never bought full price tickets, ... so I said, 'What is it about?' She said, 'Homosexuality.'"

Fierstein's character was named Arnold.

"The character Arnold, that he played, was the very first gay man I ever came in contact with and it was extraordinary to see this gay man demanding to have the life he wanted," Jackson recalled.

And at the end of the play, the mother in the play says to Arnold, "If I knew you were going to be gay, I wouldn't have bothered."

"And my mother took me to dinner after this play and she said, 'You know, if you ever came home and said you were gay, I would never react like the mother in that play,'" Jackson said. "Nobody was talking to my Long Island mother in 1983 about gay people. She had no gay friends, no gay co-workers. It was her own humanity that had her take me to a Broadway play, to use the play as a crystal ball and show me a life that could be possible for me."

Jackson said he did not come out to her that night, but knew that when he did he would be safe.

"During my freshman year at New York University I went home for Passover and she said, 'when are you going to tell me you're gay?' So, she gave me about six months leeway. The part that I wasn't ready for is, she had not brought my father along on this knowledge and so I told her, 'I'll tell everybody, please don't tell anyone else in the family.' She immediately told my father and he did not react like she did. He said all the wrong stereotypical things: 'Gay men are lonely and sad.' 'It's just a phase.' 'Why did you choose this?'

"I was off kilter because I never had a fight with my parents. I was such a good kid and I had such a close relationship with them. The reason I always had believed that being gay is a gift from third grade on is because they never said a negative word about any human being in my home," Jackson said. "What I wished I had known then was in 1983 is that my dad's first reaction would not be his last. It was not good for several years and then I met BD, who I was in a 15-year relationship with. Then my father saw a [gay] couple at every family meal and celebration. All of a sudden his stereotypical idea of gay men was washed away because he saw a loving couple. He saw what real gay men were like."

Becoming a dad
Both Jackson's children were born through surrogacy.

"When we had Jackson [Foo] in 2000 we were pioneers, there were very few people who had done it. And paid surrogacy back in 2000 was not legal in New York and shamefully is not legal now," Jackson said. "So we had to leave our home state to find a carrier who would carry our baby. We had embryos made from BD's sperm and my sister donated her egg. We were expecting identical twins and they came three months premature. One of our babies died an hour after he was born. Jackson was very, very sick and he was born in Modesto, California. He had to be airlifted to UCSF for three months."

Jackson said that he and Wong broke up when Foo was 2. Levi, Jackson's son with Roth, was born in Virginia.

Jackson maintains that there are unique challenges that gay parents face, calling it a marathon, not a sprint.

"We never travel without our children's birth certificates for fear our parentage would be challenged at an airport or a hospital," he said. "There are also the little indignities, such as when you get the notice that the school or temple is having a blood drive and Jordan and I have to say, 'As much as we would love to participate...'"

(The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently reduced the number of months men who have sex with men have to remain celibate before donating blood from 12 to three.)

"So, we come out all the time as gay parents. We aren't always sure that when we come out that we're coming out in a situation where we're going to leave our child in a safe place."

Being the gay parent of a gay son gives Jackson a unique perspective on which to advise straight parents of an LGBTQ child.

"I would say to the parents of LGBTQ kids — or if you think you have one — is you can be their first obstacle, their first trauma, or you can help raise them with good gay self-esteem," he said.

In his book, he writes about how parents can teach their kids gay literature and about gay writers and artists.

"I learned how to be a gay man because I read Andrew Holleran's book 'Dancer From the Dance.' It's my favorite book. Edmund White, Alvin Ailey, and Robert Mapplethorpe, all these incredible artists made me understand that otherness is an extraordinary opportunity," he said.

Being gay in America
Jackson notes that in being gay in America, one is never fully at liberty to relax. One must be constantly on guard so as to keep oneself and one's family safe.

"Every gay person has to have double vision," he said. "In one view we keep our beautiful gayness and in the other a clear-eyed view of how America treats us. And you need to hold both those visions at the same time but do not let America's view seep into and poison your own gay view of yourself. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I realized our son had no gay guard — he had no knowledge that you have to always be on alert.

"I have not let my guard down in 36 years of being a gay adult," he added. "I always know who's around me, who can hear me. I always am aware of where it's safe to hold my husband's hand and when it's not, when it's safe to kiss him goodbye and when it's not. And so, I talk to my son about having to be on guard and always be aware of your safety. Part of that is when you can come out and when you shouldn't come out. As much as I believe I want to be out all the time and I want to make sure everybody knows I'm gay, I said to him, 'Your safety comes first.'"

Jackson and Roth married in 2012.

"A year after we were married a gay man was verbally assaulted two blocks from our home and shot to death," Jackson said. "My father-in-law, who walked my husband down the aisle, called us and said, 'Do not hold hands outside.' Friends of ours get called faggot every morning they walk their dog on 55th Street in New York City. So, my son is coming out into a world where there are rainbows everywhere and #LoveIsLove. This veneer of acceptability is masking a very real war that's going on."

Jackson maintains that it's harder to grow up gay today than when he was growing up, despite social and political progress.

"This is the big tension between my son and I, and why I wrote the book," he said. "I think it's going to be harder for him than it was for me in 1983 because in 1983 all our goals of what we wanted to achieve were a pipe dream. They were our adversaries' worst nightmare, but then we got so much of what we wanted, though not all of it.

"When the White House was lit up in rainbow colors, that's when the straight-lash came for us, because so many of our adversaries think that house belongs only to them," Jackson said, noting there are anti-LGBTQ bills in numerous state legislatures and action taken by the Trump administration to roll back rights.

Jackson talked about how young LGBTQ people can be out and see gay lives on social media.

"That's why my son let me write this book," he said. "I asked his permission and he understood immediately the benefit it could have on people. I do think that a lot of the gay male apps with the six-pack abs and everyone looks like they have tons of leisure time and muscles is unhealthy. I do not want my child to measure himself against that. And I also talk about in the book that it's not profile stats he should look at but character. The dad in me wants him to meet a nice guy who treats him well, appreciates how special he is, loves all of him, and likes his own parents."

Complacency
Jackson is not afraid to critique the current queer civil rights movement and to some extent blames the internet.

"I worry that social media is sort of lulling us into this complacency where we're not taking to the streets, because protests have become slapping a rainbow on an Instagram post or a tweet and not really disrupting things like we did in my generation," he observed. "We're too complacent because the movement thinks everything is so much better than it was. I don't think you can be gay without being angry and all the rainbows have cooled down our temperature and softened our edges. We should be in a rage how we are marginalized and at risk, we should all be in a rage that there is an epidemic of transgender people being murdered, we should be in a rage at the state-sanctioned, systematic child abuse of our LGBTQ youth."

This criticism undergirds Jackson's understanding of gay Pride. For him in his youth, gay Pride included angry marches with pink triangles, not rainbows.

"Pride to me is not a parade. Pride is how we live every day in order to make the young kids behind us safer to come out and join in. And Pride is for the people who can't come out, who aren't safe enough to come out, who live in countries they can't be out," Jackson said.

In his book, Jackson includes a "Parent's Prayer" he composed. During these dark, perilous days of COVID-19, a small section has particular relevance: "Be kind. Being kind is like warming up before singing or stretching before an athletic activity. Being kind opens you up to be ready for anything, and being kind to people makes them feel valued. When you are ready for anything, and valuing the people around you, the possibilities of what you can achieve are endless ... Care for and about yourself. Care for your friends and your family. Care for our community."

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