Richie Jackson, GAY LIKE ME

Richie Jackson, GAY LIKE ME

Zibby Owens: I’m excited to be here today with Richie Jackson who’s the author of Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son. He is an award-winning Broadway, film, and TV producer whose most recent productions include Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song on Broadway and Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. He and his husband Jordan Roth were honored with The Trevor Project’s 2016 Trevor Hero Award. He currently lives in New York with Jordan and their two sons.

Hi, Richie. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Richie Jackson: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Lea Carpenter, she’s an author, my first guest. She has connected me with so many other authors, including you.

Richie: She’s the first person I told the idea for the book after I told my husband.

Zibby: No way.

Richie: Her immediate enthusiasm for the idea really gave me confidence to go and write it.

Zibby: Briefly describe the book, Gay Like Me.

Richie: I had finished producing a TV series for seven seasons. I had sat down to create a series. I wanted to do a series about the difference between being gay when I was a teenager and what it’s like to be gay now. I wrote plot outlines. I came up with characters. I thought it would be really funny if an older gay man found himself living with a twenty-something gay, and the hilarity ensues. Just as I was trying to figure out this show, our fifteen-year-old son told us he was gay. Everything I was trying to put in the pilot was happening at our dinner table. I thought, this is not a TV show. It’s my real life. He told us, “It’s no big deal. My generation thinks it’s not a big deal.” I thought, oh, I need to tell him what a big deal it is. Being gay is the best thing about me. It’s the most important thing about me. It’s been the blessing of my life. I wanted to share that with him so he wouldn’t undervalue what a gift it is. Then in 2016, Donald Trump was elected and declared war on gay people. I also had to warn him, what it takes to be a gay man in America right now. That was the impetus for the book.

Zibby: Wow. I have to know right away, what was it like when you gave your son this book?

Richie: I finished it right around the time he started college. I gave it to him just as his professor gave him Aristotle. I think he felt he’d better read Aristotle first because he had to do it for class.

Zibby: Wait, did you give it to him in this finished form? Did you give pages?

Richie: I haven’t given him pages. I asked him permission to write it. He said yes. I said, “I’m going to teach you how to be gay.” He said, “I know how to be gay, Dad.” As things would come up, I would talk about them. He didn’t see pages, but subjects or ideas I had, we would talk about. A lot like parenting lessons, you lay it at their feet and they pick them up when they’re ready for it. The book’s there for him. He’ll read when he wants to. Now he loves when I ask him to come somewhere with me. He’ll say, “It’s Gay Like Me, Dad, not Gay With Me.”

Zibby: That’s funny. He hasn’t read the whole thing cover to cover?

Richie: I don’t believe he has, no. I think he’ll start to read it as he starts to hear things. Even now he said to me, “When you say I don’t think it’s a big deal, it sounds like you’re saying I don’t care.” He’s already picking up what I’m talking about with the book. I said to him, “No, I don’t think that’s what people are getting when I say that. They think the visibility and the exposure that the gay community has now has made it so you can think of it as not a big deal. They don’t think you don’t care about it. They just think you’re living in a better time than I did when I was eighteen.” I don’t happen to believe that. I don’t agree with that. That’s where the tension in the book is.

Zibby: That’s so interesting. In the book you write this to your son, “My greatest wish for you was for you to be gay, for you to have a gay life, for us to have that central and key part of ourselves in common. Being gay is a gift. It’s freedom. It’s the gift of possibility.” I was wondering, would you have been disappointed to have had a straight son? Do you think your ability to connect with your child is related to a shared sexuality?

Richie: My son says I would’ve been disappointed if he was not gay. The real disappointment would’ve been if I wanted him to be nothing like me. How could I have parented with any self-esteem if every day I was praying, “Please don’t be like me. Please don’t be like me. Please don’t like me”? It is the blessing of my life to be gay. Why would I not want that for him? It more is I wanted him to have the gift I was given, not so much that we had to have that commonality so we’d have more in common. I just wanted him to be chosen like I had been. We all have expectations of our children when we’re expecting. That’s what expecting means. Your ideas of what your life will be coalesce instantaneously once you know you’re going to have a baby. My desire was for him to be gay. Of course we all know that the only parenting lesson there is — we can figure out the feeding and the sleep schedules and all of that. The only important parenting lesson is you parent the child you have, not the child you thought you’d have or you thought you wanted. I would’ve, obviously, parented and loved whatever child I had, but I did have a strong desire that he be given the gift that I have been given.

Zibby: That’s so interesting. Let’s go back to when you were talking about, how he thinks being gay isn’t a big deal and you are concerned about that. A lot of people — not a lot of people. Some people might argue that what activists have been trying to achieve is just what your son is saying, that there is no difference. Trying to get rid of some of the big differences among everybody, sexuality, religion, whatever, is what we’re striving for.

Richie: I don’t think we want to get rid of our differences. We celebrate our similarities, but we should revel in our differences. Everybody should be able to do that. The entire country, 4.5 percent of the people are LGBTQ. That’s not a defect. That’s not worthless. That’s chosen. We get to look at the world from a completely different point of view than most people. Why would you diminish that? Why would you say, “That’s just matter of fact,” or “I just happen to be gay,” or “Gay doesn’t define me”? To me, those are diminishments. When you diminish yourself, you break your heart. I write in the book that you’re going to love, it’s how you love. It’s how you create. It’s how you crave. It’s how you’re going to be governed. It’s how you’re politicked. It is a major part of who we are. I don’t want him to break his heart. I don’t want him to diminish himself because then he’s doing the job of our adversaries. They want him to do that.

Zibby: Not to keep jumping around here, but in this Playbill article you said about parenting, instead of saying it takes a village you said, “It takes a Greenwich Village,” which I loved. Tell me more about that. Do you think it takes something different to raise a gay child?

Richie: Partly, it takes a village for all of us. All of us have a covenant with all the other adults in the world. When we send our children out and we’re not with them, our covenant is somebody else will help take care of them. Somebody else, another adult will look after them if they are in trouble on a bus or in the park. We all have this covenant that makes us this community to help raise each other’s children and protect them. As gay parents, we have an added burden. We travel with his birth certificate everywhere so that nobody could question our parentage, either on an airport or god forbid, in a hospital. A couple that just had a baby in Michigan and brought the baby to a pediatrician, the pediatrician refused to treat the baby because it was a gay couple.

Zibby: That’s insane that this is still happening.

Richie: We do have that extra burden. Then we have to come out as a same-sex family the time our son has to come out as having gay parents. Even if he wasn’t gay, that is something he has to come out about to friends, to teachers. The community is important for all of us to remember, not just gay people. We have to protect our children. We have to take care of them. I take a big responsibility in that. When you have a playdate at your house or when you’re on the playground or anywhere where there are children, if their parents aren’t with them, you want them to know you’ll be there to help should something happen. How many parents in New York City have told their children when they go on the subway alone, who to go to if you need something? My friend said, “I always told the person to go to a cop.” I said, “I always told my son to go to a woman who looked she had a child or something.” I feel a big responsibility with other parents.

Zibby: Let’s talk about why you think being gay is a gift. There’s a lot in your book that shows some of the struggles that have come with it and some of the stuff you’ve had to put up with. Even from coming out to your own father, to things at school, there’s a lot of —

Richie: — Can I say some of the words I was called at school?

Zibby: Yes.

Richie: Look, it’s extremely challenging to be gay. It takes daily vigilance to protect yourself every single day as a gay person. I talk in the book about how every gay person has a gay guard. I have not in thirty-six of being a gay adult let down my guard. I always know who’s around me, who can hear me. I don’t kiss my husband goodbye on the street without making sure the coast is clear enough. I had a gym teacher when I was in fourth grade. He heard I was in chorus. He told all the boys to jump on the faggot. That was the first time I had heard that term, from my gym teacher. I had not thought anything wrong with it. I thought I was special. It is harrowing. It takes a lot of vigilance. It can be exhausting, that vigilance, but it’s still worth it. I don’t think that religions have stigmatized us. Our government has battled us time and time again. We have survived a plague. We are bullied as children. We disappoint our parents.

That all doesn’t happen against us because we’re just defects. It happens because all of those people trying to diminish us know that our power is in our gayness. That’s what I talk about in Gay Like Me. It is my creativity. It’s my worldview. It’s my empathy. It’s the way I love. Everything good in my life is because I am gay. I don’t think it’s just being gay. My book is a permission slip for anybody who knows there’s something inside of them that’s special and needs permission to hit the gas on it, who needs to be told, “Yes, make that central to your life. Invest in it. Have faith in it.” For me, it was my gayness. I did that. I never scrubbed it off. I never diminished it. I have the life that is the result of that.

Zibby: That’s really beautiful. That’s a great thing to say.

Richie: That’s why I do not want people to say, “Don’t make a big deal of it.” My happiness is because I’m gay. Everything good that I can celebrate, my children, my creativity, my husband, our life, all stems from that well of gayness. I’m not interested in making that smaller.

Zibby: Even though it comes with the struggle and the vigilance, you still want your son to have that as well because of all the benefits?

Richie: Absolutely. The struggle is the proof that it’s so worth it. I didn’t want to let him leave our house not understanding the struggle. We kind of kept it from him because we didn’t know he was gay when he was younger. We knew we had to make him feel safe and loved. I didn’t share with him, all the dangers that Jordan and I feel on a daily basis or that I went through as a young person or the plague that I experienced. I didn’t want to scare him. Then when he told us he was gay and he’s about to go off to college, I was like, there’s a lot he doesn’t know. There’s a lot he doesn’t understand on how to keep safe and alert as a gay man. That’s what I wanted to warn him about.

Zibby: You even put in this whole primer on all the acronyms of the different dating sites. I was literally sitting in my playroom with my little guys playing on the carpet nearby. I’m reading all these terms. I’m blushing. I feel like I shouldn’t be reading this with them so close by or something.

Richie: They’re so prevalent.

Zibby: I know. Good, now I know.

Richie: Knowledge is power.

Zibby: Knowledge is power. I am well-equipped now.

Richie: I was definitely more concerned about my parents reading the stuff about sex than I was my son. I’ve never wanted my son to think I was fully formed. I’ve always been clear on things I was challenged by, things I wasn’t good at, things I didn’t understand. I wanted him to feel loved and safe and that I was constant, but that I didn’t know everything and that I wasn’t good at everything. When it comes to sex, sex is tightrope. You have to be vulnerable. You have to protect yourself. I didn’t understand that when I was younger. I was deeply hurt by my first experiences. The only way to have warned him would be to be as specific as possible. Otherwise, it would’ve just sounded academic to him.

Zibby: It takes a lot of bravery. I don’t think I could write a book called Straight Like Me and detail my sexual experiences to my children. That makes me want to die thinking about doing that. I could never do that. I get embarrassed kissing my husband around my kids.

Richie: A lot of people who have read the book have said how brave I was. I ran home to Jordan. I said, “What did I write that I shouldn’t have written?” I wrote with pencil and paper. It felt very intimate when I was writing. I thought, did I forget other people were going to read this? Did I lull myself into this idea that it was just putting my heart on paper and nobody else would see it? My husband explained, he said, “I think they’re saying vulnerable.” I had one shot. He’s leaving home. I had this incredible opportunity to share everything I know, I’ve learned, everything I did wrong. All of it made sense all of a sudden. All of the things I went through that were so hard and so difficult and so demeaning and all the people who have tried to diminish me my whole life, all of it made sense in the moment that I though, oh, now I get to warn him as a gay man. I get to show him the potholes. I get to impart what I have learned. Everything I went through made sense now because I get to do this. I had to be as specific. It wouldn’t have worked not to be honest. Parenting doesn’t work if you’re not honest.

Zibby: I know. There’s something uncomfortable about talking about sex with your kids.

Richie: How about with strangers who are going to —

Zibby: — I would rather talk about sex with a stranger. I would rather write an article about it that I knew everyone in the world except my kids would read than write an article about myself for my kids. That’s what I’m saying is brave. It’s not brave in a bad way. I don’t think there’s anything you should’ve taken out. It’s just that parent/child ick-factor, something. I don’t know.

Richie: Nobody teaches gay people how to have sex. Less than seven percent of LGBTQ kids get inclusive sex ed. We’re literally erased in our classrooms. We’re basically being miseducated. We’re being taught to be straight. We go out into the world. We fumble. We make mistakes. Some of them could be really dangerous and deadly because nobody has taught us to protect ourselves or protect our mates. I had to tell him everything. The only way to do that would’ve been, “Here’s where I was hurt. Here are the places where I’m still in pain over those early assaults.”

Zibby: You wrote an article called “Be The Person Someone Can Come Out To,” which I also thought was really interesting. Obviously, a lot of people will be going through that. How can you be the type of parent who is ready for that and knows how to handle it the right way? What advice would you have there?

Richie: My first advice for a parent who might have a child who is gay is to read Gay Like Me. What I would say to them is congratulations. I’m thrilled for you. I’m thrilled for your child. Now you have a decision to make. You can be your child’s first assault, their first obstacle, or you could help raise them with gay self-esteem. I laid out in my book how I did it for myself because I was not educated. I learned gay history, not because it’s a responsibility, but because it helped place me in the group of extraordinary people. It made me feel less alone. Then I immersed myself in literature, in gay writers who taught me how to be gay and taught me the gift of otherness and how otherness can be used as a positive, and art and dance. By doing that, I learned who I was and how extraordinary it was. I would say for a parent of a young LGBTQ person, if you can do that for them, then you are going to have an extraordinary experience with your child that you never imagined. It takes one adult to help save an LGBTQ youth’s life.

Zibby: I have these statistics. Hold on, I wrote these down. Twenty-five percent of young people who didn’t have at least one accepting adult in their life reported attempting suicide in the past year.

Richie: Right. Forty percent didn’t if they had one accepting adult. The extraordinary thing about that figure is the adult does not have to be a parent. If all of us can watch our words, because words matter, and if we can make our young people around us feel seen and feel heard and not judged, that can save a life. It doesn’t have to be our own children.

Zibby: That’s very powerful.

Richie: It’s an extraordinary statistic.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Wait, did you really say that you wrote this book with pencil and paper? I think you slipped that in there.

Richie: I did. I had never written a book before. When I had the idea, I sat down with my computer. I said, this feels like work. It feels like email. I couldn’t do it. I had no process. I fumbled around at the beginning to find a process. Then when I took a pencil and paper, I found it flowed out more easily. I just felt more vulnerable. Speaking to not having time to read, my entire adult life I’ve carved out the first hour of my day to read since I was in college. Our firstborn son, when he was born, I started to wake an hour before he would get up to still preserve my hour of reading. I wanted that time to gently start my day. I wanted to start my days with words, immersed in creativity. I was doing that at five AM. By six AM, I had already done something for myself. I had gently moved into a new day through art and creativity and words. I’ve always done that. My evening bedtime is designed so that I can get up to read at five AM. Then when I started writing the book, that time became my writing time. At five AM with pencil and paper in my living room, I wrote the whole book.

Zibby: How long did that take?

Richie: It took about a year. I haven’t read any books. I not only didn’t have time, I couldn’t read other people’s. It was a strange experience. I had to give that up.

Zibby: What was selling the book process like?

Richie: I was probably very lucky. Lea Carpenter had taught me how to write a book proposal. I wrote the book proposal. Then she said, “Now you have to write a table of contents.” I wrote the table of contents. I had ten chapters and descriptions. The book changed since then. Then another friend of mine, Arianna Huffington, asked me what I was working on. What am I up to? I told her about the book. She said, “You have to meet my book agent.” I met her book agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh at William Morris. She read it. She immediately was enthusiastic about it, gave me excellent notes on how to improve it. Then she sent it out. Jonathan Burnham at Harper immediately responded and said, “I’m crazy for this. Could we meet?” He bought it while I was talking to him. I feel very blessed. Arianna Huffington, Lea Carpenter are guardian angels. It’s been extraordinary.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. You’re married to Jordan Roth who has his own success in the world and everything. What’s it like being successful yourself and them managing someone else — I know this is off topic now, but I’m just curious — managing a relationship when both of you are so successful in your own fields, with some overlap of course? How do you find time for each other?

Richie: One of the things we do well is really take good care of each other and invest a lot of time in taking good care of each other. We spend a lot of time together. We want what the other wants for themselves. His enthusiasm for the book is extraordinary. I know couples who don’t have that. In the book, I talk about how to love somebody. What Jordan and I do well is we love each other the way each of us need to be loved. By doing that, we’ve healed each other. It’s more like because of the love and because of the foundation of our relationship, each of feel emboldened to go and try to explore and expand. Our vows, we pledged to expand the canvas of our lives. It’s because we have that foundation of love that we each to get to try new things and experience things.

Zibby: I thought it was so interesting in — not to keep talking about Lea. Lea, I hope you’re listening. This is all about you now. Lea Carpenter’s essay in the November 2019 Town & Country which was called “For the Roth family, life is about the right to choose your own story,” she talked about how when all of you are considering different projects, you think, will it make people feel? Tell me a little more about that.

Richie: Maya Angelou says people won’t remember what you do or what you said. They’ll remember how you made them feel. That’s always been very moving to Jordan and I. My mother’s going to call me if it was supposed to be Jordan and me. She corrects me on that all the time. If I had written Gay Like Me without the thought of how I wanted people to feel, it would’ve been an academic book. I would’ve said being gay is the best part about me. They would’ve glossed over that. I had to have it have an emotional arch. I worked very hard on figuring out how to take the reader from the beginning and build a feeling so that they can open their mind. If you make people feel first, they may think differently or at least be open to a new idea. That’s why it’s important to make people feel. They’ll feel more connected. They’ll feel more alive. They’ll feel like they belong. They might just look at something differently.

Zibby: Now that you’ve finished this book, it’s being launched out into the world, what do you want to do next? Are you still going to do that pilot you mentioned at the beginning?

Richie: No, I think I’ve done it.

Zibby: This is it. This is crossing that off that list.

Richie: I have an idea for another book. I was taking notes on it. Meg Wolitzer said on your podcast, “Just write eighty pages. If you throw them out, it won’t ruin your life.” I’m taking her advice that I heard on your podcast. I’m just going to start writing and see if I can get eighty pages and then see if the idea has legs after that.

Zibby: I’m so glad that something from the podcast has helped you like this. She’s amazing. That’s fantastic.

Richie: She’s amazing.

Zibby: Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors? I know you’ve sprinkled a lot in throughout our conversation.

Richie: Since I’ve only written one book, I’m more in need of advice than actually to give any. I’ve always had this vague fantasy that I’d like to write a book since it’s my favorite way to get a story, much more than television and theater and film, which is funny because that’s where I’ve spent my career. I think what held me back is I always heard writers and writing teachers say write what you know. I thought, I don’t know enough to put in the book. I don’t know anything that well. Then I wrote what I loved. It poured out of me. I love being gay. I love being a parent. I love being in love. What I would say to an aspiring writer, write what you love because it will come out easier. Also, I wasn’t ready for how writing a book takes up occupancy in you. It’s all you think about. You’re constantly turning over phrases and words and ideas. I was carrying around a pencil and paper everywhere in case something came up. I had one by my bed and bolted up in the middle of the night. You have to love it because it’s going to live in you in a profound way for the period that you’re writing it.

Zibby: Excellent. Thank you, Richie.

Richie: This was so fun. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for sharing your story not just with your son, who I’m sure will appreciate it when he reads it, but for everybody and everybody’s son and all the different types of parenting there are and everything else.

Richie: Thank you for having me and for shedding a light on books. It’s really an extraordinary thing you’ve built, really beautiful.

Zibby: Thank you.

Richie Jackson, GAY LIKE ME