Ep 70: Sexual Identity Challenges

Episode Summary

Richie Jackson, author of the newly-released Gay Like Me and long-time, award-nominated TV/film and theater producer, joins Andy this week. Richie and Andy discuss how parents can support their teens in their own journey of sexual identity, and how teens might become allies for their friends in the LGBTQ community.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Gay like Me

These days it seems like just about everyone is ok with gay; there are more LGBTQ characters on TV, same-sex marriage is legal, and many religious groups originally against homosexuality are starting to come around. However, members of the LGBTQ community are persectuted and slandered every day. There are still numerous nations where it’s illegal to be gay and there are many places in the United States where people are killed for their sexual orrientation. Regardless of location, members of the LGBTQ community confront challenges for sexual identity on a daily basis. This challenge could be someone using a gay slur and refusing to apologize because they didn’t mean it in that way. Or, heaven forbid, they come face to face with a homophobe who threatens or assaults them for liking the same sex. Yes, we all struggle with our identities but the struggle is much harder for people who’ve been told they will never be accepted.

While homosexuality is far more accepted nowadays, struggles that LGBTQ teens face are new ground and can be confusing territory for parents. Parents are apprehensive about sex talks with their teens, but those with LGBTQ-identifying teens can feel more ill-equipped. Despite the trend toward more acceptance, there are many challenges for sexual identity that straight people cannot fathom. Representation of homosexuality in history books is virtually non-existent, and TV and film depictions are often stereotyped or exaggerated. While tech-savvy teens can tap into supportive online LGBTQ communities, navigating challenges for sexual identity in the real world is not as easy—and often not as friendly. 

For parents of LGBTQ children, it feels daunting to prepare your teen for a world that isn’t always accepting. Richie Jackson, an openly-gay broadway and television show producer, felt similarly when he was preparing to send his gay son off to college. Even though his son grew up in an era much more accepting of homosexuality than Richie did, he knew his son had a lot to learn about navigating life as a gay man. So Richie started writing letters to his son, so many letters that he accumulated enough material for the beginning of a book. These letters were published in Richie’s first book Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son. In this book, Richie shares stories from his own life, the good, the bad, and the humorous, as well as stories of LGBTQ leaders, creatives, and trailblazers. The book is an important read not just for those facing challenges for sexual identity, but for parents of homosexual and heterosexual kids alike. Richie insists that all parents must understand the struggles of LGBTQ people in order to empower their LGBTQ teen and, if they have straight children, to teach them to be better allies to their queer peers.

Please note that the term “queer” is used throughout this article and in the episode. Queer is a term that nowadays is used to describe anyone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or questioning their sexuality. Though previously used as a gay slur, the word queer has been reclaimed as an empowering term to describe the LGBTQ people who have formed an inclusive culture and community for themselves despite facing challenges for sexual identity. 

Know Your History

Richie believes that if you’re a parent of a queer teen, it’s vital that you be the one to show them how to face challenges for sexual identity. If you’re a straight parent, you may be thinking “how can I help them with challenges for sexual identity? I have no idea what it’s like to be LGBTQ!” In order to help them, Richie insists that you get informed about LGBTQ history, find shows that accurately and earnestly portray the queer experience, and provide an environment where talking about sexual identity is accepted. And parent’s of straight teens are not disqualified from talking about sexual identities with their kids. Richie insistst that it’s important for herosexual teens to learn about the queer experience in order to create a more accepting environment for their LGBTQ friends, classmates, and teachers. 

Starting a conversation about what it’s like to be queer can be as easy as sharing a personal story. For example, Richie shares his experience seeing the Broadway Show Torch Song Trilogy with his mother in the early 80’s. At the time, being gay was barely acknowledged and certainly not accepted. The show’s portrayal of a gay man was unlike anything he’d ever seen. After seeing the show, his mother told him that she would never reject him for being gay. His mother’s acceptance empowered Richie to come out and eventually use his challenges for sexual identity as an inspiration for many of his future endeavors. Richie states that the earlier parents express their acceptance and support of queerness in general, the easier it will be for queer teens to come out and the more prepared straight teens will be to provide allyship to the LGBTQ community.

No matter your teen’s sexual identity or gender, making sure they are informed about LGBTQ history is an important part of instilling queer-affirming beliefs in your teen. That means teaching them about the Stonewall Riots, which was a series of political uprisings in respose to police brutality against the LGBTQ community in 1969. It also means teaching them about the AIDS pandemic. Additionally, it’s important to teach teens about LBTQ activists like Marsha P. Johnson, an African American Drag Queen who was a major player in the Stonewall Riots. The list of important events and people in LGBTQ history is vast, and unfortunately wildly unknown because most schools ignore LGBTQ history. When queer teens learn about the multitude of LGBTQ people who paved the way for them to be open about their sexuality, they are more empowered to handle challenges for sexual identity. Additionally, straight teens will develop more empathy and understanding for their LGBTQ peers when they learn about the hardships queer people have endured to be accepted into modern society. 

Let’s Talk about Sex

Richie points out that regardless of how progressive your teen’s school is, less than 7% of LGBTQ kids get an inclusive sexual education. This makes it harder for them to have mutually fulfilling intimacy with their partners and frankly, harder for them to know what to do when they have sex. Learning about same-sex intimacy can be uncomfortable and unfamiliar for many parents. But in order to support queer teens, you have to be open, informed, and frank with them about sex. To hear more about challenges for sexual identity when it comes to intimacy and how to talk about these challenges with queer teens, tune into the episode. 

Challenges for sexual identity are often caused by the misconceptions of heterosexual people who have no idea what it’s like to be in a queer person’s shoes. So regardless of what your teen’s sexual identity is, Richie believes that teaching LGBTQ history and sharing stories of queer people you know will help both queer and straight children to embrace non-heteronormative identities as gifts rather than burdens. Cultivating a queer-affirming environment for your teen paves the way for LGBTQ people to pursue their relationships and dreams freely.

In addition to shocking stories about his past and blunt, but effective, ways to confront the challenges for sexual identity that queer teens face, Richie and I discuss:

  • Balancing vulnerability and caution in queer relationships
  • LGBTQ obstacles now vs. then
  • Creating a safe environment for teen’s to experiment with their sexuality
  • How to view Queerness as a Superpower

Richie has crafted a beautiful book and opens readers to the challenges for sexual identity that many may not be aware of. It is as poignant as it is informative and I think every parent will come away with new insights!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Remind your teen not to take on anyone else’s baggage:

“You won’t know where in their process they are. You won’t know if they’re in the closet, if they’ve been bullied, abused, if they’re self-loathing. So you have to take care with them.  You have to be good to them because they could be hurting. But don’t take on their shame.”

-Richie Jackson

2.  When your teen diminishes their LGBTQ identity:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Inspire your teen with LGBTQ people from history:

Parents all know it’s important to provide teens with a wealth of examples from history and the present of positive role models. Richie Jackson feels the same. Richie stresses how important it is for LBGTQ kids and teens to be exposed to gay people from all walks of life and all ages. And while many classroom history books leave out examples of important historical gay figures (not to mention women and ethnic groups), the Internet has done a wonderful job of it. A simple google search should yield plenty of “listicles” of LGBTQ people past and present. Create your own list of the 15 most important people to expose your LGBTQ teen to. Each week, bring up that person and their story to your teen. Be honest with your teen and tell them you want to make sure they have lots of examples of gay people living diverse lives – not just as caricatures on TV.

2. Write Your Teen a Book:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Your background is on Broadway and also in television producing Nurse Jackie for Showtime.

Richie: Yeah.

Andy: That is awesome. So I’m super interested in what your journey was to get there, and then what propelled you to write this book?

Richie: Right. So I had produced Nurse Jackie for seven seasons on Showtime. And my career was I produce theater and film and had gone to school to be a producer, and that was where my career was. And so when Nurse Jackie ended, I had this idea to write a TV series about an older gay man and a younger gay man who are thrown together as roommates, and try to look at how different it is to be getting now versus when I was a teenager in 1983. And I thought the hilarity would ensue.

Richie: Then just as I was coming up with these character descriptions and plot outlines, my husband and I have two children and our oldest son who was 15 at the time told us he was gay. And I thought, “Oh, this is happening right at our dinner table. This is not a TV show. It’s real life.”

Richie: And I was thrilled. I wanted him to be gay. I had hoped he’d be gay. And then he said, “Dad being gay is not a big deal. My generation doesn’t think it’s a big deal.” And I said, “Oh, no, being gay is a really big deal. It’s the best thing about me. It’s the most important thing about me.”

Richie: And I didn’t want him to be one of these people that diminishes it and demeans it by saying, “Well, gay doesn’t define me. I just happened to be gay,” because he would break his own heart and not take full advantage of the gift that it is.

Richie: So I started to think of all the things I needed to share with him, to tell him what it means to be a gay man. And then Donald Trump was elected and declared war on the gay community. And he took with him the Washington, Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, all who are more of an imminent threat to our son than ISIS or North Korea. And then I had to warn him what it takes to be a gay man in America. And that was the impetus for the book.

Andy: And so did you start actually as writing this just to your son, and then at some point along the way you realized you had to publish it, or someone told you you had to publish it or what?

Richie: So it started as a letter to my son. And one day my friend Arianna Huffington asked me, what was I thinking about? What was I excited about? And I said, “Well, I’m writing this book.” And she said, “That’s an important book. We have to get your message out.” And she introduced me to her book agent who then made this all happen for me.

Andy: It’s a beautiful book and it’s beautifully written and it’s very personal, but the messages that you talk about are universal, I think. And it’s about your family, but it’s also about our culture. And it’s about your story, but it’s also about this just reads like all conversations that parents should be having with their kids, I think regardless of your kid’s sexuality, these are things that you should be talking about.

Richie: I’m happy you think. There’s so much we’re not taught about ourselves growing up and especially LGBTQ youth. And our parents are in the Quip on their own to help us. And so I feel like I got to write the book I so desperately needed when I was young, the book our son needs, the book so many of us are hungry for, and that our parents need and our straight friends need to read to understand us better.

Andy: Okay. So talk to me about a play that your mom took you to called Torch Song Trilogy that you mentioned in this book was kind of a pivotal experience in your life and kind of shaped your trajectory into adulthood.

Richie: Right. So when I was in high school in 1982, when there were no out movie stars, there was no representation or visibility on TV or in movies or in magazines, there were no out elected officials, nobody was talking about gay people back then, my mother came home from a day in the city, a day in New York city, we lived on long Island. And she said, “I just saw this unbelievable play with this incredible actor who was also the playwright. And on my way out, I bought tickets to take you.”

Richie: I thought we don’t have enough money to buy tickets at the box office, and we never bought tickets for something we’ve seen before. So I was like, what is the urgency? And I said, “What’s it about?” She said, “Homosexuality.” And my mother took me to see Harvey Firestein in Torch Song Trilogy. And I had not told her I was gay. I hadn’t told anybody. The character that Harvey plays, Arnold, was the very first gay I ever came in contact with. And he wanted what I wanted. He wanted to be a father and he wanted a relationship. Those were the only two goals I’ve ever had in my life. So I was completely taken with this entire experience.

Richie: But at the end, the play culminates with the character, Arnold, having a fight with his mother and the mother says, “Had I known you were going to be gay, I would never have had you.” And afterwards, my mother took me to dinner and said, “If you ever came home and said you were gay, I would never react like the mother in that play.” She used theater as a crystal ball to show me a life that could be possible for me. And my mother had no gay friends, no gay coworkers. It was her own humanity that had her bring me to see this play and introduce me to this world that was going to be my life. And it was a real lifeline for me.

Andy: I think that’s such a great tool for parents though, to be able to use something that’s happening in the culture or something else that you see, to kind of begin a conversation or as kind of a way in. So that’s really cool that she did that, I think, and obviously had a huge impact on you. And we just talked so much about how important it is to have models. And as a teenager, you need to have models for what your life could look like. And so interesting that this was the first gay man that you have been exposed to at all. And that shows you what our media was at the time and still is largely, that there aren’t models for you to look to of like, what could my life be and how could I live my life?

Richie: That’s why I talk about in my book, for parents of LGBTQ kids, and really any kid who might be other, or if they need to see themselves, look to art, look to writers, to artists to theater, and you can help your child understand themselves better. And you can make them feel less alone. And art teaches you that your otherness is a gift.

Andy: You talked about this earlier, but one of the things that I had marked in this book is on page 65. You talk about this idea that people say being gay doesn’t define me. Gay is just a part of me. I just happened to be gay. And you say, “These are all dismissals, rendering gay as incidental merely matter of fact.” Why is this attitude damaging? And why do you hope that your son thinks differently about his identity?

Richie: That’s a very good question. Thank you. Being gay is the best thing about me and everything good in my life has come from my gayness. Everything I think, feel, crave, create comes out of this deep well of my gayness. And I think if you diminish it, if you demean it, if you say, “Oh, I just happen to be gay.” That means you’re putting it in a tiny little corner of your life and you’re not taking advantage of the freedom that being gay gives you, the blank canvas of what your life can be, the creativity, the incredible community to which you are a part of and the incredible people that you will love and that will love you.

Richie: And part of being a strong gay person is not breaking your own heart. It is very hard to be gay in America. You have to have double vision. You have to have one view. You have to have America’s clear eye view of how they treat you, how they see you, how you’re at battle with the government, how laws don’t protect you, how you’re not always safe. But in your other view, you have to see your beautiful gayness, your divinity, your vision board for the future, what’s your destiny? And part of being gay is holding those two visions every day, and making sure you don’t let America’s view of you sip in and poison your own special view of your gayness. So if you’re demeaning your gayness, if you’re belittling it, you’re basically doing the work of our adversaries. And I don’t want my son to do that.

Andy: So if you’re a parent, what can you say or what can you do, especially if you feel like your kid is kind of adopting this attitude a little bit, or you notice comments that are sort of negative, what could you say? Or what do you think you could do?

Richie: Well, I think one of the things that parents could do to help their LGBTQ youth is build up their self esteem. And you do that by teaching them LGBTQ history. And not out of some sense of responsibility, it’s not like, Oh, you have to know your history. If you teach them their history, they will feel less alone. And they will see that they are part of this incredible continuum of people who have always changed our world. That will empower them. And then if you teach them, as I said before, if you expose them to art and literature, LGBTQ thinkers, writers, and artists, they will see that their otherness is a super power and they will see how to activate it. And if they activate it, then that will give them a better sense of self than if they’re trying to fit into the straight world, if they’re trying to soften the edges of their gayness, if they’re trying to pass or get along, to go along, to get along. I think a good parents lesson would be don’t scrub off your gayness, invest in it, rely on it, have faith in it. And that will build up their sense of this superpower.

Andy: I love that. We recently had Peggy Orenstein on the podcast. And she was talking about kind of like the similar concept, but for women and how our education system is so male focused and it’s like for girls going through school.. She went to this one teacher’s class for reporting for one of her early books school girls, where it was like this teacher in middle school forced people to at least do projects on women and stuff. And it was like this eye opening experience for the students because they were like, “Wow, there’s so many women in history that we had no idea, we didn’t know about.” And I had the same thought reading your book is, because you talk about and hear how there’s, we got the gay Rosa Parks, there’s a whole history that is just not taught, that’s completely glossed over, the LGBTQ history that is like-

Richie: Imagine if you are a young LGBTQ kid sitting in your elementary school, while you’re being taught about Martin Luther King and the, I have a dream speech and that march on Washington. And imagine if the teacher also told those children that Bayard Rustin who organized that march was a black gay man. If that fact was mentioned to young gay people, when they were in elementary school, that would be a lifesaver for them.

Andy: Yeah. It’s just erased from the history books or it’s just completely disregarded.

Richie: Yeah. So that means the students are erased as they’re sitting there. They’re literally erased.

Andy: You just don’t feel like you’re represented anywhere..

Richie: Not anywhere. No

About Richie Jackson

Richie Jackson is the author of Gay Like Me, published by HarperCollins. He is an award-winning Broadway, television and film producer who most recently produced the Tony Award-nominated Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song on Broadway. He executive produced Showtime’s Nurse Jackie (Emmy and Golden Globe nominee for Best Comedy Series) for seven seasons and co-executive produced the film Shortbus, written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell.

As an alumnus of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, he endowed a fellowship program, the Richie Jackson Artist Fellowship, at his alma mater in 2015 to assist graduates in the transition from academia to a lifelong career in the arts.

He and his husband, Jordan Roth, were honored with the Trevor Project’s 2016 Trevor Hero Award. They live in New York City with their two sons.

Want More Richie Jackson?

You can find Richie on his website as well as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.