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 us this week. We 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

Homosexuality, along with other sexual orientations and gender identities, are hot topics in today’s media. However, it is still new ground and can be confusing territory, especially for parents. Parents are already apprehensive about sex talks with their teens, but parents with LGBTQ-identifying teens can feel even more ill-equipped.

Despite the trend toward more acceptance, there are still challenges for LGBTQ people. Representation in history books is at best unequal, and often TV/film depictions are stereotyped or exaggerated. While tech-savvy teens can tap into supportive online LGBTQ communities, navigating the real world is not as easy – and often not as friendly. As a parent it can feel even harder to prepare your teen for the world when they identify as LGBTQ.

Richie Jackson, himself proudly gay, felt similarly as his gay son prepared to head off to college. Despite having 18 years, Richie knew there was a lot more his son needed to know about living in the world and being LGBQT. So, he started to write letters to him. In fact, he wrote so many letters that he had enough material for the beginning of a book. Those letters are now published in Richie’s first book Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son. In it, Richie shares stories from his own life, good, bad, and humourous, as well as stories of gay leaders, creatives, and game-changers. The book is a true labor of love and an important read for anyone who thinks being “gay” is no longer a big deal.

Richie is adamant that it is vital for your teen to hear information from you, their parent, not just from outside sources. And no matter your teen’s sexual identity or gender, making sure they know about it is still important. Being an LGBTQ ally can change someone’s life.

By teaching all kids and teens LGBTQ history, Jackson believes that gay and straight children alike will learn to embrace non-heteronormative identities as gifts rather than burdens. As we saw in Peggy Orenstein’s interview, being gay or non-binary can free a person to create a new script for their relationships, their career choices, and in their everyday lifestyle.

In addition to great advice on how to talk to your LGBTQ teen about sex and prejudice, Richie and I discuss:

  • Balancing vulnerability and caution in relationships
  • Talking to teens, gay and straight, about sex
  • LGBTQ obstacles now vs. then
  • The importance of raising straight LGBTQ allies and advocates
  • Writing a book as a full-time parent and producer

Richie has crafted a beautiful book and truly opens up to readers (and of course his son). It is as poignant as it is informative and helpful 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.