This interview was conducted as part of the interview series LGBTQ&A, a weekly podcast that documents modern queer and trans history.
"Everything good that has happened to me is because I am gay," Richie Jackson writes in his new book, Gay Like Me. "Everything I think, believe, crave, create, conquer comes from being gay."
To be gay is cause for great celebration, one of the self-defining features of Richie Jackson's life — all of which exist in direct contrast to Jackson's son who is also gay and seems to exhibit a nonchalance toward his sexuality. His son describes being gay as not a big deal, and in that way, Gay Like Me serves as a course correction, a splash of cold water against this younger generation's face. It's a necessary reminder that despite where you live or how supportive your local community might be, LGBTQ people have not yet made enough progress that we can let our guards down.
"We're legal. We're not safe." Richie Jackson says on this week's LGBTQ&A podcast, pointing out that even these legal protections vary wildly by state and many are under attack. Our safety, Gay Like Me warns readers, is not a certainty, and our vigilance and collective action is required in order to keep making progress.
Read a preview below and click here to listen to the full podcast interview.
Jeffrey Masters: In Gay Like Me, you wrote that everything good that has happened to you is because you are gay. Would your son say the same thing about himself?
Richie Jackson: He would not. And that's the tension in the book and why it was urgent for me to write. He came out to my husband and I when he was 15. I was elated, and he said, "Daddy, 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 tell him what it means to be a gay man. It's a really big deal." And then Donald Trump and Mike Pence were elected just as our son was leaving our home to be an adult out in the world. Now I had to warn him how to be a gay man in America, what it takes to be a gay man in America.
JM: That’s a worry, I think, that only a queer parent would know to have. You raised your son in New York City and you shielded him from things. Now you’re worried he hasn't built up his defenses, that he's not as alert as he should be.
RJ: I was thinking about him leaving our home, I thought, "Oh, wait a minute. He has no gay guard." We all have a gay guard. You are constantly on alert. There's a vigilance to being gay and it's exhausting.
You have to always be aware of who's around you, where you are, what you're saying, who's hearing you. I don't kiss my husband goodbye or hold his hand unless I believe the coast is clear enough to do that. When we were married in 2012, legally married in the state of New York, two blocks from our home a gay man was called gay slurs and then shot to death.
We're legal, we're not safe.
So I had to teach my son how to have a gay guard, to build up his gay guard, to understand that coming out isn't only just once, but you're going to have to come out every day, multiple times a day, and this guard will let you know when it is safe to come out and when it's not.
JM: Most gay people learn these lessons outsides of their homes.
RJ: That's how lucky I feel to be able to give him these lessons, because I know that I didn't get them when I was growing up, and I had to learn them by trial, error, and a lot of tribulation.
I made a lot of mistakes. I have a lot of scars to show for the mistakes I made. I'm trying to have it be where he doesn't make the same mistakes I made.
JM: You moved to New York City in 1983 at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. How soon into moving to New York did you become aware of it?
RJ: My very first acts as a gay man was to march in the rallies about trying to get the government to act. For me, my coming out has never felt really like an exploration of identity or a culmination of any sort of evolution. It felt political.
My friends and I felt we had to come out, to stand up, to be counted, to show the government just how many of us there were. And that was my very first semester at NYU. Being political, being angry, and being gay are all wrapped up together for me.
JM: Growing up, being gay was defined by AIDS for me. But you grew up before the time of AIDS. What was associated with being gay then?
RJ: The stereotype before '81 was just that it was sissies, lonely men. And you would have this lonely life. I remember if I had caught any movie about gay people on TV, they were either suicidal or homicidal.
JM: And that tracks with your first sexual experience.
RJ: You know, my first sexual experiences were all...all of the three men's gay shame came out at me after sex. When I was in high school and I was 16, I was sort of dating this guy from college. And one day after having sex, before we got off the bed, we had not even stood up yet, he broke up with me and said, "We shouldn't be doing this."
It made having sex for me very difficult my entire life, because the next time was college and I met someone I actually liked. He said to me, "I'm straight," and then leaned in and kissed me, and then we had sex. We had sex for two weeks and then he broke up me and said he was straight.
And then the third guy I had sex with, right after we had sex, he hit me. He punched me and he said, "What did you just do?" And I didn't realize that he was so angry at having just enjoyed sex with a man.
What I've said to my son is, especially in college when you're having sex with young men, you don't know where in their process they are. They may be in the closet, they may be self-loathing, they may be stigmatized by their religion, bullied in their childhood. You have no idea. It's a tightrope.
You have to be vulnerable enough to be intimate, but you have to protect yourself, to not to take on any of their baggage and shame. And I said to him, you have to take care of them, because they are young people yearning to be free. You can't be callous when you're having sex with someone your age because you don't know what's happening for them inside.
JM: That's incredibly realistic and thoughtful.
RJ: Right. I mean that. You know, we have talked a lot about the acts of sex and the mechanics of it and how to protect himself with condoms and PrEP. We did that so often that I know that he's got it, but really what I want him to understand is what it is to be with another person.
I wasn't taught this, of course, how could I have been? I didn't know it. So my first sexual experiences were bruising, and I still have the scars from it. I wanted to protect him from that.
JM: And since you're modeling good communication with him, hopefully, he'll be less scared to talk to a partner about these things.
RJ: I hope so. And you know, we try to be sex-positive. I've had my troubles, certainly my beginning was very difficult, but we wanted to be a sex-positive household.
JM: In the book, you make the point that you cultivated a sex-positive home because LGBTQ kids don't have the options that straight kids. They often can't kiss in public spaces, for example.
RJ: Right. They can't go outside and kiss on a park bench. They could be beaten up or worse. So the safest place, the best place for them to experiment is in his bedroom in my home.
That's an important point for parents of LGBTQ kids. As uncomfortable as you may feel letting them have that freedom in your house, you are actually keeping them safe by letting them do it.
JM: You cover sex in the book, but a big portion is also your love story with your husband, Jordan Roth.
RJ: Right. One of the things I always hear people say is you have to love yourself before you love someone else. And I was like, "I don't have time to wait for that."
I actually don't think it's true because I have been healed by Jordan's love. If I had waited until I loved myself enough to think I can love someone else, I would not be the person I am today. I am way healthier because of Jordan.
And I say to my son, you have to love the person the way they need to be loved. If you do that and they do it to you, you will help heal each other. You will see that relationship sustain itself.
Gay Like Me, the new book by Richie Jackson, is available now.
New episodes of the LGBTQ&A podcast come out every Tuesday on the Luminary app.