Richie Jackson (Nathan Johnson)
Award-winning Broadway, television and film producer Richie Jackson is one of the most notable figures in the world of entertainment. He's known for his powerful, bold, and sensational work that breaks boundaries and has you re-think landscapes. Most recently, he produced the Tony Award-nominated Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song on Broadway. He has also executive produced Showtime's Nurse Jackie for seven season as well as many other projects in the television and film world. He is married to theater owner and President of Jujamcyn Theater's Jordan Roth.
Richie Jackson talked exclusively with RyeTheNewsGuy.com ahead of the release of his new book Gay Like Me: A Father Writes To His Son. He talks about the inspiration for writing the book, why we must embrace our gayness, coming to New York during the AIDS crisis, as well as a many other deep and thoughtful topics. He is bold, honest, and kind, with a personality that wants to share his warmth and experience with other LGBTQ+ people.
To purchase Gay Like Me: A Father Writes To His Son click here.
Where did the original idea come from to write “Gay Like Me”?
So, our son came out when he was 15, and I was elated. I wanted him to be gay. I had hoped he'd be gay; it was my greatest wish. And I started to think about all the things I sort of needed to tell him as he was getting ready to be a gay adult. And as I was thinking about it, we've kept him so safe that he wasn’t aware of what it takes to be a gay man in America. And then in 2016, Donald Trump was elected and I thought, "oh I really need to warn him about the riptide of hate that is coming at us right now.” Also the real impetus was when he came out he said to us being gay is not a big deal, my generation doesn't think it's a big deal.
And I thought "Oh no, I have to help him understand what a big deal being gay is, what a gift it is," because I believe it's the best thing about me; it's the most important thing about me. It's been the blessing of my life. Everything good in my life that I have is because I'm gay. I thought if he diminishes his gayness, if he thinks it's not a big deal, if he makes it just matter of fact, then he's not going to be able to take advantage of the full gift that it is. Ultimately, when you make your gayness smaller and diminish it, you break your own heart. So that was the impetus for the book — to sort of help him understand the gift that it is.
Well, it's a great book and I loved reading it. It's very poignant and powerful. What’s the biggest lesson you want your son to take away from this book?
I think the biggest lesson is that gay people are chosen. We have been made to feel by our government, certain religions, or by bullies that we are a defect or that we're worthless. But it is in fact the opposite. We are special and there are only 4.5% LGBTQ people in America and that means 96% of the people are the same-- and we get to be different. We get to look at things differently. We get to feel differently, love differently, crave differently, create differently. And I think my biggest lesson to him, the message I want him to have is that it's an incredible, powerful thing that he has been given being gay. And I wanted him to take full advantage of it.
It's very important. With that being said and him being so young, how do we continue to teach this new generation of gay youth about where we came from, our gay history, where our roots really began. How do we teach this to them?
I grew up on Long Island and went to a public school. There was no gay history taught when I was growing up and no inclusive gay sex ed as well. Even today, less than 7% of LGBTQ people are getting an inclusive education. So, you know, it's really in my mind that it’s state sanctioned child abuse that we just completely erase LGBTQ people in the classroom. One of the things that's important about learning gay history is it gives you confidence as a gay person, it places you in a continuum of these marvels that came before, that blaze the trail for all of us, and now you get to be in that continuum. I had to do it and I think most of us have to do it because we're not getting that education in our schools.
I had to seek it out myself. It's easier now because of social media and what I say in the book is what I tell my son— follow the Instagram account, LGBTQ History because it is this incredible account where they are constantly sharing photos and information about gay history and gay heroes and from the entire LGBTQ community. My recommendation for young people is seek it out— not because it's like you should know your history, but, like medicine, it will make you feel better to know you are part of a very long history of extraordinary people.
Cover art for Gay Like Me by Richie Jackson.
Truly extraordinary people. What’s been the biggest lesson you've learned about yourself from writing this book?
What I've learned is that everything that I really prioritize— being a parent and being in love and making those just the central elements of my life and the only ambitions I ever had, really for me ended up to be where I found my happiness, all my potential, my creativity is all in parenting and in being in love. And through writing the book I had to deal with all the mistakes I've made over the years and all the traps I fell into as a young gay person. But you know, it's all a marathon, not a sprint.
Exactly. You're so open and candid about your life and growing up and the mistakes you made and how you learned. I think it’s important for any LGBTQ person to realize that it's constantly a learning game— you're going to make mistakes and its okay to fail but stay true to you.
I think it’s really important to have faith in your gayness and to rely on it and invest in it. Because for me, all my answers were there. The mistakes I've made were in not fulfilling my potential or losing sight of my potential at certain points in my life. And certainly I didn't understand enough when I was young (and this is where not learning about sex comes in) I didn't understand how dangerous it was to be vulnerable when you're being physical with someone because you could take on their hurt and their trauma. That's what I did and I haven't shaken a lot of my trauma from when I was younger.
In the book you mention about coming to New York in 1983 right at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. That had to be quite difficult, especially being in college and seeing all these men around you loosing people, or loosing people you knew to this terrible disease. Did you know what was going on at the time— did you know that this was AIDS?
It was just beginning as I got to NYU, so we were aware of it. I had read a pamphlet about safe sex just as I was beginning to be physical with men. I remember going on dates and the safe sex rules back then said things like don't shave before a date, don't floss before a date. Nobody knew whether or not a kiss or a freshly shaved cheek could, um, transmit the disease. So I was really terrified just seeking out companionship.
Yeah, I cant even imagine what that was like, it had to be so tough. I'm sorry you had to experience that, and live in fear. We've come so far today but there is still work that needs to be done.
I think about young gay people, I wouldn't know how to be a gay man who didn't know someone who died of AIDS. It's hard for me to understand that gay experience cause mine is so wrapped up in AIDS and loss.
Something you talk about in this book is gay men doing better. In one chapter you talk about today with social media and gay men with this internalized homophobia and racism. And this whole "masc for masc" and "no fems" that we as gay men see on the online dating world. How do we as a gay community to do better and not be so hurtful?
I think we have to understand that we all rise and fall together and we'll all thrive together. LGBTQ is such a cumbersome thing to say, but we don't have just one word to cover it all. I don't love the word queer cause for so many years it was a slur tossed at me. But LGBTQ is important because it, in our initialism is our strength. It is the most powerful thing about us. If we demean each other we're basically doing the work of our adversaries.The way to bolster our entire community is to understand that none of us are safe and none of us are liberated until we all are. I think the most important thing to do is to take care of each other because when the government's coming after one of us, one of our groups, they're not going to stop with the most vulnerable. They're gonna send you down the line to try to get all of us. I think all of the straight acting and the "masc for masc" and all of that is— we all need to look inside ourselves and see where does that really come from?
That is not sexual interest. That's an internalized homophobia, internalized racism. It really takes looking at, looking at ourselves, when we see that and do that.I hope that we can continue to get better as a community with that because that is harmful and toxic for people to read, see, and feel-- I don't know why it makes anybody powerful.We are constantly being diminished. Why would it make you feel more powerful to diminish someone else?
Richie Jackson and husband Jordan Roth (RichieJacksonGayLikeMe.com)
Exactly. Well what do you want people who live in places like the Midwest, or the South or area's where being gay is not as widely accepted, what do you want them to take away from this book? If they’re struggling to come out to their parents, or their parents are struggling to understand—what do you want them to take away from reading this?
I think what I would like parents to take away is you really have a choice when you think or discover that your child might be gay. You can be their first trauma, their first obstacle, or you can help raise them with gay self-esteem. And in my book I lay out for them how they can help their child through gay history, literature, art, and culture. You can help raise your child to understand not only who they are, but how special they are. And I would say to the parents, if you choose that path, your life with your child will be more magical and more interesting and exciting than you ever imagined.
And if a young person who is struggling with coming out or just beginning of that process reads my book, I hope that they get that I think they are worthy and that they are beautiful and that there is a life of exuberance and potential and love waiting for them.I think through my book they can sort of help build up their own gay self-esteem and understand the community to which they are now a part of and what a thrilling, beautiful community of people It is.
For the young gay person I want it to be a permission slip. “Gay Like Me” is a permission slip to say, invest in your gayness and here's the permission you need to exploit every aspect of who you are in the best, most noble way to find your gay destiny. For parents it's a permission slip for them to give to their kids.
That's a really, really good thing. Finishing up is there anything that you would like to say that I haven't touched on? Anything you'd like to leave us with?
The only other thing would be I think about is for the people who aren't gay if you read the book you'll see it's permission for them too—to take what they know is their favorite thing about themselves, their most special aspect and to have permission to put it center. Because I think all of us make ourselves sort of smaller and smaller. But what I believe in is the pursuit of happiness. We hear about it in history class, that declaration of that pursuit of happiness. But that's not just some laissez-faire thing—it is a dare to live. And if you dare to live, you will find an extraordinary path.