Baby comes early, Daddy comes out

By Fred Bernstein

Originally published on Advocate.com May 26 2003 11:00 PM ET

While rebounding
from the death of one child and the life-threatening
illness of another, B.D. Wong won’t be taking it one
day at a time. That “didn’t really work
for Mackenzie Phillips,” he writes in his hilarious
new memoir, Following Foo. “She ended up on
The E! True Hollywood Story.

Don’t
expect Wong to wind up on tabloid TV. Not that he
isn’t famous enough: This spring he ended a
five-season run on HBO’s Oz as the
idealistic priest Father Ray Mukada. In September
he’ll begin a third season on Law &
Order: Special Victims Unit,
in which he plays
forensic psychiatrist George Huang. He’s been in some
20 movies and over a dozen TV shows, including
Margaret Cho’s 1994 sitcom, All-American Girl.

What will keep
Wong out of the gossip columns is his “extremely
solid” 15-year relationship with Richie
Jackson, who is also his agent. Jackson is, in
Wong’s words, “a New York Jew who never steps
off the curb until the light turns green,”
which leaves B.D. “feeling like the Diane Keaton
character in a Woody Allen movie.”

Wong’s
other weapon against the tabloids is that he’s
extremely private. In the 1980s, Bradley Wong
abbreviated his first name so audiences
wouldn’t guess his gender. (He was then starring in
the Broadway hit M. Butterfly as a male
character living as a woman.) The ambiguity felt
right. Even now, during an interview in the family’s
Manhattan loft, Wong parries questions about his
sexuality, his religion, even his age. (He’s
40.)

But while
eschewing labels, he is deeply personal in Following
Foo.
Described on the book cover as “a true story
of intensive caring,” Foo grew out of
B.D. and Richie’s decision to start a family.
With B.D. donating sperm and Richie’s sister Sue
donating eggs, the couple impregnated a surrogate in
Modesto, Calif. Twenty-eight weeks later, during the
2000 Memorial Day weekend, the surrogate went into
labor. The two boys she was carrying suffered from
twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, in which only one
twin receives blood from the placenta; the other gets
it from his sibling. In this case, the donor twin,
Boaz Dov Wong, died shortly after birth. His brother,
Jackson Foo Wong, who weighed 2 pounds, 13 ounces, was
rushed to intensive care. It was during
Jackson’s three months of hospitalization that B.D.
(living first in a motel and then in his
parents’ house in San Francisco) began sending
long, touching, and often hilarious e-mail updates to
friends. One ditty about the wait for Jackson’s
first poop included this verse:

Would Thursday be
turds day? Would Friday, or Sat.?
Would “he bless” us on Sunday With
a skit about scat?

There were also
e-mails “from” Jackson, now age 3, who
describes B.D. as “dad with hair on top”
(Richie is balding) and notes that the actors on
Oz are “pretty sweet dudes” who only
“sodomize each other nonconsensually on
TV.”

The e-mails
(along with online photos) brought responses from hundreds
of friends, including Joel Grey (who revealed that he
had also lost an infant son), John Lithgow
(B.D.’s M. Butterfly costar), and
“Uncle Harvey” Fierstein. Eventually,
Wong compiled the e-mails—outgoing and
incoming—into the book, which will be published by
HarperCollins in June. The father of twin boys myself,
I caught up with B.D. in his Manhattan loft, where he
was buying rock-and-roll memorabilia on eBay while cooking
dinner for himself and Richie.

Jackson looks great. How’s he doing?
I don’t want to say too much. Let’s just
say I have no complaints about how Jackson is.

How does the loss of Boaz affect you?
Every once in a while, I’ll call Richie and say,
“I’m having a Boaz moment.” That
means I’m daydreaming, thinking about “what
if.” It’s not that painful; it’s
more wistful, more curious about the possibilities.
But Jackson is here because of what Boaz did for him. I will
always be grateful to Boaz for that gift.

Does Jackson know that his family is “different”?
I think that’s a pretty sophisticated
concept for a 3-year-old. When he’s old enough
to understand, we’ll tell him everything.

Do you encounter hostility to your two-father family?
In New York it’s a total nonissue. Like
when we registered him for preschool—no one
cared.

How do gay people react to your being a father?
Once, I was walking across the street in Chelsea with
the stroller, and I was about to pass this
guy—he was in a leather jacket, with a goatee.
And I brushed against him, and he said, in the nastiest
voice, “Breeder.”

You are a breeder.
I know. I was kind of tickled.

How long have you considered yourself “out”?
How long have you been in my apartment? [He checks
his watch.
] This is it, baby.

So you haven’t really been out until this interview?
There are degrees of out. I never lied to anyone. I just
didn’t go on the record. I was cagey.

Because?
Because I went into this business knowing I faced a
fairly long list of limitations. Being Asian-American
was one. Adding the fact that you’re gay is
career suicide. At least that’s how it felt.

Have you considered yourself gay since adolescence?
I’m not comfortable being totally definitive
about that. Yeah, I guess so. Anything else would fall
into the category of confusion or fear.

How old are you?
I’m not telling you. I mean, what do I have left
after a Q&A in The Advocate? Let me hold on
to something.

What religion are you?
I’m exploring.

What’s your favorite part of being a parent?
I consider myself very verbal, so I love being
able to reason with Jackson, to explain things to
him.

[Richie walks
into the room and tells B.D., “Jackson pooped in
the potty. And he actually flushed it.”
Then Jackson walks into the room, looking
wistfully in the direction of the toilet and saying,
“Poop come back. Poop come
back.”
]

When did you come out to your family?
When I met Richie. That gave me a reason and the spine
to do it. It’s like with this book; I have a
reason for coming out in this book. God gave me
something—Jackson—in exchange.

You make it sound like there’s a price to coming out.
Some days I think, You’re never going to work
again. I think there’s real reason to worry, as
anyone reading this magazine can understand. The book,
for me, means I’m calling into question the whole
career thing. But that’s OK. Part of what this
book is about is letting the path go where it
goes.

If you’re worried about your career, why did you
decide to write the book?
A lot of people said the e-mails ought to be a book. So
I showed them to a literary agent. I didn’t set
out to write a book. This was an organic situation
that led to a highly creative process. But now
there’s this thing you can get at Amazon. And
if you’ve ever had a remotely similar
experience, it might make you feel better. That’s
incredible. But I don’t want to make this too
serious. It could be a lot of fun for me; it could
open doors. It’s like what John Cameron Mitchell,
who’s a friend of mine, says when people ask
him why he wrote Hedwig and the Angry Inch: “I
couldn’t do another Matlock.

And yet you’ve had many great roles.
Not as many as I’d like.

So you’re not as successful as you’d like
to be?

Every once in a while, when you’re at low
ebb, you say to yourself, Why can’t I have
that? Why can’t that be me? Like Adrien Brody
[accepting his Best Actor award at this year’s
Oscar ceremony]. With that one speech, he’s a
household name.

You’d like to be more famous?
I’m already more famous than I want to be. And
yet at the same time, fame feeds your potential as a
creative person. You’re in a vacuum if you
don’t have a certain amount of fame.

Meaning?
Meaning you cannot be not famous and say to
people, “Read my book.” They
don’t go together.

Have you always loved children?
Always. And yet 10 years ago I might not have been able
to have Jackson. There’s the whole surrogacy
thing and the gay acceptance thing. And 10 years ago I
wouldn’t have been able to write this book.
It’s about discovering the magical power of
electronic communication. I never could have written
letters to 1,000 people and received the love that I got
back.

The e-mails really helped you through it?
Yes, because they were supportive responses and also
because they were diversions from the daily
grind.

Did any of your friends object to seeing their e-mails in print?
One actor wrote a beautiful e-mail with his
boyfriend that said, “We hope that we’ll
be able to become parents too someday.” And then he
wouldn’t sign the release form for the book.
The only possible reason is that he isn’t out.
It really freaked me out and disgusted me. Then I was
affronted—like, “My book’s not good
enough for you?”—and then I wondered,
Ten years ago, would I have been that person? I don’t
know.

How does Richie’s sister, who was your egg donor,
feel about your publishing the story?
You ask that like she might have a bad reaction. I
can’t imagine that happening. She volunteered.
She’s not the kind of person who would pull
back now.

And Shauna, the surrogate?
She’s very proud of her contribution. She has
started an agency where she matches surrogates to
parents.

There was a time when people thought surrogacy was kind
of scary. First, everyone was worried that the
surrogate would decide to keep the child.
We had that fear. And then we went to Growing
Generations [a surrogacy firm that works with gay
couples] and they explained that if anyone changes
their mind, it’s the parents. They only use women who
already have children, who know exactly what they’re
getting into.

The other fear people had is that surrogacy exploited
women, who were selling their bodies for money.
I would never go into a contract with a surrogate who
was penniless. Shauna did it because she wanted to
have a baby for someone who could not have a baby
otherwise. It’s the most altruistic thing you can do.
Shauna said, “I’m so happy when
I’m pregnant; I feel so wonderful.” We took
her to the mall; we bought her maternity clothes. We
treated her like a queen—the Queen of
Modesto.

In the book you touch on your visit to a sperm bank near
Chicago. Can you tell us more?
Well, I got there, and there was one skinny little man
there, and he takes me to a room. And I’m
carrying a bag full of videotapes. But there’s
no VCR.

And?
And [declining to answer] I have to save
something for Jay Leno.

There’s also a scene in the book when
you’re afraid that one of the medical teams
caring for Jackson is abandoning him, and you offer to
tell them about your “cross-dressing
phase” to keep them interested.
Boy, you really read the book.

So can you tell me about your cross-dressing phase?
I’ll tell you about my cross-dressing
days if my son is in peril, in a compromised medical
state. But he’s not, so I don’t have to tell
you.

Do you miss Oz?
I do. Oz was great. The character was
Asian because I’m Asian. Tom [Fontana, the
show’s creator] said, “I want you to be the
priest.” Not “I want you to be the first
Asian-American priest on TV.” It was the first
time somebody came to me and said, “I’ll write
a part for you.”

You don’t like being the first Asian-American this
or that?
I have a fear of labels. If someone labels me, I have to
respond—do I acknowledge it, reject it, deny
it, live up to it, and defy it? Labels can affect your
ability to be yourself. If you’re not careful, like I
wasn’t when I was young, that can take a toll on you.
You find yourself conforming to everyone else’s
ideas of who you are.

So you let other people’s expectations define you?
Yes. And as a result, I have issues with what it means
to be myself. I’ve made great strides.
It’s an ongoing challenge, and it’s aligned
with wanting to be a parent and presenting the best of
yourself to your child. I’d better figure out
who I am before Jackson gets too old and says, “Who
the hell are you? Who am I supposed to be if you
don’t know who you are?”

But you have had roles that weren’t
“written Asian,” right?

I get very, very close to a lot of
nontraditionally cast roles. And then they chicken out
at the end, or they go with the other guy for whatever
reason. In Shakespeare, I’m only allowed to play
Ariel, in The Tempest, because he’s a
spirit, not a human being.

What human being in Shakespeare would you like to play?
Iago.

Could you bring something to the role because
you’re Asian-American?
No. I cannot. It’s about the literature, about
illuminating the text.

You played Linus in the Broadway revival of
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

It was a really big deal for Charles Schulz to sign off
on that. He did not draw a diverse group of kids. But
I think in 1999 he recognized that the world is a
diverse place, and being so literal on the stage would
send not such a great message. I really related to Linus,
and I never took liberties with the essence of who
that person was.

In 1990, Jonathan Pryce, the British actor, was slated to
play a Eurasian character in the Broadway musical
Miss Saigon. You wrote a letter
denouncing the casting as “dangerously
wrong” and arguing on behalf of
Asian-American actors, “We may never get to do
the work we dream of if a Caucasian actor with
taped eyelids hops on the Concorde.” That
led to a bitter struggle with the producer of the show.
What do you think about the controversy now?
It was a triumph on the part of the Asian-American
community. Until we protested, Jonathan Pryce was
going to wear yellow makeup. [Pryce was dropped from
the show in 1992.] When we compared it to blackface, people
started to get it. Apparently, the lighter the ethnicity,
the harder it is for people to fathom.

So it had a positive effect?
It was undeniably positive. People didn’t
understand what we were talking about before that.
Everything that’s happened since then resonates
with that moment.

But if you say that a Caucasian actor can’t play
an Asian character, why can’t someone else
say that an Asian actor can’t play a Caucasian character?
I would say, it doesn’t work both ways.
It’s just one of those things that
doesn’t.

Back to Oz for a moment: In the last season, Toby
Beecher gets to go home; he’s a free man.
And then Chris Keller frames him, so he’s
sent back to prison. I found that almost too sad to watch.
I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was
about Chris saying, “I cannot be without you. I
cannot live without you in this place.” You have
to believe that Chris loved Toby.

What do you say to your fans who are angry they never got
to see you in the prison shower?
I say, “Send photos. JPEG format
only.”

Since Oz is over, maybe you can help us understand
your character. What was Father Ray’s sexuality?
That’s a really strange question, don’t
you think? You wouldn’t ask a straight person
that question.

Sure I would. I’m interested in how an actor plays
a priest. I thought you might have some insight on
how Ray was able to repress his sexuality.

I can’t imagine doing it. And yet these
people do it. My insight is that the Catholic Church
is full of incredible men and women who are leading
celibate lives, and we should celebrate them.

And Father Ray?
He was straight.

I guess you don’t like it when people expect you
to know particular things because you’re
gay or because you’re Asian.

I know about lots of things that have nothing to
do with being Asian, that you would never guess from
looking at me. I know all about musical theater. I
could go on Jeopardy! and knock off the whole
Broadway show tunes category. Also the whole Bible
stories category.

Because of your upbringing?
No. I wasn’t raised in any religion. Because of
Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Do you believe in God?
Yes. I think about God a lot; it’s a front-burner
issue for me. God is trying to show me that everything
is going to be all right.

Are you a Democrat?
It’s like religion; it’s like a lot of
things: I don’t know what I am. But I’m
not a Log Cabin Republican. That I know.

Do you worry about Republicans and the Christian right
trying to roll back the freedoms that allowed you
to have Jackson?

I’m concerned about them and alarmed by
them, but I’m not afraid of them. I believe
that love and goodness prevail.

What would you say to the president of the United States
if you found out he was opposed to parenting by
gays and lesbians?

I’d say, “I live in your country;
I pay my taxes; get over it.”

Why do you think so many gay men don’t have children?
I guess a lot of gay people have issues with
their parents, and that must color their ideas about
whether they want to be parents or not. One of my
friends said, “I can’t have kids; I’m a
kid, and I need attention.” But I think of
myself as a kid, as someone who vies for attention.

I’ve met people who, when I talk about my
children, tell me they’re happy just having
a dog.

I had a dog, and I’m sorry to say
it’s not remotely the same. Remember, the part
I like about parenthood is communicating.

Your family has been supportive?
Wonderfully, disgustingly gooey all
around.

Do you think more gay people ought to have children?
Only if they really want to. There’s
something pure about our bloodline: There are no
accidental kids of gay parents. Every single gay parent
desperately, passionately wanted to be a parent.
That’s neat, and I hope we can keep it that
way.

Will you and Richie have more kids?
We haven’t had that period of time yet
where things are calm and we can think about having
another one.

Would you play yourself in a movie of Following Foo?
I don’t know if I could handle doing it
myself. But I might, for closure.