Richie Jackson, an award-winning author and Broadway, television, and film producer, sat down with Tony Award-winning actor and author Harvey Fierstein at the RJ Julia Bookstore on Thursday, Feb. 20. The pair discussed Jackson’s debut memoir “Gay Like Me,” in which Jackson shares his relationship with parenting, and his journey as a gay man coming of age through decades of political and cultural changes within the LGBTQ community. The conversation offered an exploration of how self-love and parental support can influence LGBTQ people’s relationship with changing societal norms.
“Let’s talk about sex,” Fierstein said. “When did you come out and how old were you?”
As it turns out, Fierstein played an influential role in Jackson’s coming out story. Jackson explained that when he was 19 years old, his mother took him to see Fierstein perform in “Torch Song Trilogy” on Broadway. In the play, Fierstein’s character wants to be a gay father, but receives no support from his mother. Over dinner following the play, Jackson’s mother encouraged him to talk to her about his sexuality by promising that she would never react like the mother in the play. While he did not come out to her that day, this encounter filled him with relief. Jackson recalled that despite her unfamiliarity with the LGBTQ community, his mother accepted his sexuality through her unwavering love and sense of humanity.
“Nobody was talking to our suburban mom about gay people,” Jackson said. “It was her own humanity that had her take me to a Broadway play and use it as a crystal ball to show me a life that would be possible for me.”
It was both his mother’s acceptance and Jackson’s own self-confidence that allowed him to defy society’s rejection of gay identity. While he realized that he was gay in third grade, his early life was stifling. There wasn’t a gay community in his town, and gay culture was suppressed in his Hebrew school and on his Little League Baseball team. Despite this, Jackson felt that his identity was special.
“I look at the LGBTQ community as chosen to look at the world differently, to love differently, to think differently, to feel differently,” Jackson said. “When you have that opportunity, it is a blessing, and you have to hit the gas on it, invest in it, rely on it, have faith in it, or else you squander.”
Fierstein did not share Jackson’s initial self-acceptance.
“We as gay kids have our feelings; we are just about to say, ‘Look, this is who I am,’ and then we look at the world and realize we have the wrong answer,” Fierstein said. “We go back and do the math problem again—that’s the way it worked for me.”
Jackson reasoned that their dissimilar experiences stemmed from their generational difference. Fierstein is a decade older than Jackson, and for Jackson, Fierstein was a crucial role model for coming to terms with his gayness. He recalls his awe while watching Fierstein talk openly about his sexuality during a television interview.
“My experience as a gay man might not have been the same if it had not come after you,” Jackson told Fierstein.
Despite Jackson’s self-acceptance, he has faced other challenges. For him, one of the most traumatizing periods in history for him was the AIDS epidemic.
“I was deeply bruised and battered by AIDS,” he said, “I’ve never had sex, even now, even married, where I don’t think about death.”
Society also restrained Jackson from fulfilling one of his most important lifelong dreams: becoming a father. When Jackson and his husband decided to have a child through paid surrogacy, they quickly found that, at the time, this process was illegal in every state but California. They had to travel across the country, and their first son was finally born in California.
“Back then, California was the only place where same-sex couples would give birth because there was one judge there who would put same-sex couples’ names on the birth certificate,” Jackson said.
Jackson talked about the expectations versus realities of parenting. While his love for his son is more or less what he expected parental love to feel like, the depth of responsibility he feels as a parent far exceeded his expectations.
“Responsibility is the greatest part of parenting,” Jackson said. “Everything is important, every moment you are with them has importance, and I love that.”
When his son came out to him as gay, Jackson was shocked, but elated. Jackson had always hoped that his son would be gay, and wanted him to appreciate that identity as much as he had, despite their generational divide.
“I didn’t want him to grow up to be one of those people that says, ‘Being gay doesn’t define me, I just happened to be gay,’” he said. “If he is matter of fact about it, he [won’t] be able to take full advantage of the gift that he has been given, and he [will] break his own heart.”
After Jackson’s son came out to him, he felt obliged to provide him with advice based on his own hardships, and on the hardships of other LGBTQ-identifying people he knew.
“I was worried for his safety, and I was worried about him being a gay man in America,” Jackson said. “I wrote this book and I am at peace; I told him everything that he needs to know.”
Steph Dukich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.