Richie Jackson on parenthood, politics and his new memoir

Thursday, April 16, 2020 - 4:57pm

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In his new memoir, Broadway and TV producer Richie Jackson is unapologetic and unabashed while still maintaining a level of gentleness throughout. “Gay Like Me” functions on multiple levels — primarily as a sending-off to his college-bound son, but also as the story of Jackson’s life, a love letter to his husband Jordan Roth, a guidebook for parents on raising a gay child and a political statement about Donald Trump and his America. Jackson makes it clear that being gay is an integral part of his life and that it intimately shapes him and his identity. In my conversation with him at his Manhattan office, he made this point early and eloquently. “Being gay is the best part about me, and it’s the most important part,” he said. About his son, he continued, “I want him to start to begin to think of the things I need to share with him about what it means to be a gay man.” 

The memoir starts with the birth of Jackson’s son through a surrogate. In this way, Jackson sets up a timeline for his son immediately and shows how his parents being gay was instantly important to his life, even before the moment of his conception. Jackson and his husband, Broadway producer Jordan Roth, along with Jackson’s ex-husband, Tony award-winning actor B.D. Wong, parented the son together. When he was 15, he came out to them, an experience that Jackson says was the impetus for the book. At that moment of coming out, his son said “Being gay is not a big deal.” Jackson vividly recalls the phrase “My generation doesn’t think it’s a big deal” from his son, a pivotal moment that laid bare the chasm between Jackson’s experiences as a gay man and his son’s.

To put it simply, as Jackson states in his book, “To live as fully gay as possible is how I am most alive.” After that conversation with his son, he realized the difference in the conception of being gay between his generation and his son’s. Jackson feels like this difference, while natural, means his son and others his age have not been fully exposed to the vast spectrum of the gay experience. “How naive of me...to let myself believe that the colorful lighting display illuminating our nation’s first house was our real country,” he writes. “We cannot rest on the glory of our being legally married.” But he also saw his son as unprepared for the world he was about to face, leaving the home of his gay parents and sphere of guaranteed LGBTQ+ acceptance. Granted, he was only going a few blocks away to NYU, but Jackson felt like the book was a necessary warning in a world that was not as accepting as our generation would like to think it is. Though he was afraid of “passing down trauma,” of “clipping your wings just as you are about to set off,” the memoir maintains a hopeful, if not urgent, tone. Jackson describes the experience through an anecdote: “When (my son) was 7 or 8, and we would swim in the ocean, we would talk about riptides. I was so scared about riptides. I kept telling him, you swim parallel to a riptide, you never swim into it. Not so with this riptide of hate.” Despite his son’s more blasé attitude, Jackson said, “It’s going to be harder for my son to come out in 2020, to come out into the world as a gay adult, than it was in 1983 when I came to New York to be a gay adult.”

That “riptide of hate,” headed by Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell, can be combatted — but Jackson thinks it requires a kind of politics that has become a taboo word. He began to chuckle knowingly when I brought up some people’s qualms with identity politics, mainly that they ignore a whole person in favor of cherry picking an aspect of identity. Jackson sees it differently. “Think about it, we all sit in our classrooms and learn history. But it’s only cis, white, straight men are ever taught they can go the distance in whatever way they want,” he said. “Women aren’t taught it, people of color aren’t taught it, LGBTQ kids aren’t.” For that reason alone, he says, identity politics are valid: simply to get those marginalized groups into positions of power to pave the way for others to come behind. Not only that, but the unique experience of a person from a marginalized group is in and of itself valuable. As Jackson put it, “When you are other, when you are different, when you are marginalized, you just have a different way of feeling and looking at the world, and you have this enormous well of empathy.” 

These statements are thrown into especially sharp relief when considering that Donald Trump was present at Jackson’s 2012 wedding to his now-husband, Jordan Roth. At the time, Trump was merely a New York businessman. Despite his repudiation for Trump’s policies, Jackson said his wedding “was the most beautiful day, so it’s very hard for me to want to change anything about it, because it was so perfect.” That, combined with the fact that it was a “very large wedding,” makes Trump’s presence more of a supporting detail rather than an earth-shattering event for Jackson. 

From systemic political change to systemic social change, Jackson sees so many places we can improve while still acknowledging how far we have come in terms of gay representation. First, he brings attention to the fact that the closet is still a painful reality for many gay people. To put it bluntly, as Jackson did in our interview, “the other thing we have to remember, and I think young people who come out so young might not appreciate so much, is that the closet is not a Four Seasons. It’s not a resort, it’s a prison.” This came up when I mentioned the Generation Z distaste for Pete Buttigieg, which Jackson took as an opportunity to highlight this. “Could he be fired in 28 states for being gay? Yes, he can. Would our adversaries think he’s gay enough to discriminate against? Yes, he’s gay enough to be discriminated against in all the ways that we are,” he said. “A gay person who lives in the closet for 31 years because of self-loathing, because of fear that the life they want for themselves is not possible, is as legitimate of a gay experience as these children that are coming out so young.”

Yes, it is true that there is much more gay representation in the media than there was when Jackson himself came out, but the book calls this a “false salve.” Because “the entire scaffolding of America is constructed for straight people,” the reality is that “the miracle of vulnerability hasn’t made us whole,” Jackson wrote. Representation is nice, he said in the interview, but it “hasn’t made us whole, it hasn’t made us safe.” Because of this heterosexual scaffolding around which our country is built, “Gay people have had to highlight our similarities with straight people in order to get what we want politically,” Jackson wrote. Being gay, then, often involves engaging in a “disgusting and tiresome act of substitution.” Substitution allows a gay person to imagine that they are living in a reality where they are represented. “We rehear each pronoun; we squint just enough to see two men,” Jackson describes it. However, “substitution is not an acceptable paradigm,” because “it places you firmly on the margin,” Jackson wrote. Not only is this unhealthy, but it demonstrates the dire need for more consistent and accurate representation in all aspects of life for marginalized people. 

“We have to sort of try to find our way in and pretend that a lyric might have said ‘him’ instead of ‘her,’ or however you identify,” said Jackson. “I don’t want to do substitution, I don’t think that’s very healthy, if your whole life you’re substituting in these straight movies and straight TV shows and straight love songs and pretending you fit somewhere.”

While the memoir is adamant in these political statements, it is also a story of pure love from a father to his son. The book is full of beautiful little pieces of advice, peppered throughout so as not to seem pretentious or forced. For example, when recalling the relationship with B.D. Wong from which his son came, Jackson writes, “I resisted calling it a failed relationship simply because it came to an end.” Another tidbit: “You can’t consider yourself successful if you aren’t helping someone else get where you are.” Ultimately, the most heartfelt and touching part of the book is the way it can be read as a parent, learning how to love your child in the way that will foster their identity. At the same time, it can also be read as the child, hearing the advice from a caring father that he wanted to hear when he was that age. Jackson tells his son, in the book, “You can’t one hundred percent claim your place, your spot, seek your life, if you don’t deem your very existence worthy.” But he also offers advice to parents, in the guise of his own journey: “The greatest form of resistance is parenting” and “raising children is the most hopeful act to change the world.” He emphasizes the importance of a role model for a child — but in the absence of that role model, he steps into the job easily. He is able to engage in the ultimate act of hope, by creating the very thing he needed when he was his son’s age. “It’s the book I so desperately needed when I was young, and so many of us are hungry for, a roadmap and a gentle but firm hand leading us into our gay adulthood,” he said. “It’s also the book our parents need to read to help us build our gay self-esteem and to understand how they can parent the child you have and not the child you thought you’d have, or you thought you wanted.”

“Gay Like Me” is a memoir that is also an advice book without trying to be, offering insight and solutions in narratives and anecdotes. His stance on homosexuality extends past LGBTQ+ readers. While most of the book is about his own intimate experience of being gay, he writes in a way that allows it to be interpreted and translated to fit a multitude of experiences. “By amplifying your otherness you unlock promise and potential,” he writes. About the book, he said, “It is a permission slip to take what you love about yourself and rely on it, have faith in it, invest in it and get everything out of it.” The memoir is a testament to hope and love, to the importance of parenting and positive role models, to working towards improving a situation while still appreciating what you have.