Richie Jackson: It’s tougher to be gay in Trump era than 1980s

Producer Richie Jackson says being gay is the most special thing about him, and he always felt lucky to be gay. He came out in the early 1980s. 

But when Jackson’s own son recently came out to him, he advised and warned his son about facing prejudice in today’s America.  

Jackson wrote his son a long letter -- it’s actually a book called “ Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son .” 

The cover of “Gay Like Me.” Courtesy of HarperCollins. 

He tells Press Play that being gay made him unique: “I grew up in a very Jewish neighborhood. We all went to public school together. We all went to Hebrew school together. … Everyone was the same. I had a secret, and it made me feel special, and it set me apart. ... And being part of the LGBTQ community -- this diverse, creative, mischievous, naughty community -- is just incredible.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why most people wish they weren't gay

Jackson: “Right. Primarily because of the outside forces that teach them to think of it as wrong. 

When you think about LGBTQ people, we’re marvels. We disappoint our parents. We're at battle with our government. We're stigmatized by religions. We’re bullied in our childhoods. We’re erased in our classrooms. We survived a plague. And still we rise and come out and say, ‘This is me.’ That is the spirit of an extraordinary species of people. 

I wrote this book -- yes, to my son to tell him what it means to be a gay man, and what it takes to be a gay man in America. But I also wrote it to start to change the way we think about gay people. 

… We're only 4.5% of the population. That's not a defect. That's not worthless. That's chosen. And we have to start to talk about it that way. Because we're teaching our young people to think it's wrong, to be shameful about it. And when they think that way, they harm themselves.” 

Does ‘chosen’ mean ‘better?’

“Yes. If you have an opportunity to be different than almost everybody in the world, that's better. The question is: What do you do with that blessing? And what I write my book is: Invest in it, rely on it, have faith in it. That's where your potential is. That's where your answers are. And if you really make it centered to your life, it will be the blessing that it is. 

… What I say to my son in the book … I didn't want him to grow up to be one of these people that says, ‘Gay doesn't define me, I just happen to be gay.’ By making it matter of fact, he would be breaking his own heart and not taking full advantage of the gift that it is.”

Does he worry that some people would argue that LGBTQ people are different and therefore don’t deserve to be considered equal when it comes to marriage and other rights? 

“I've never wanted to be straight. I've never wanted to fit in. I've never scrubbed off any of my gayness. And I will not diminish myself in order to appease the anti LGBTQ bigots. … They don't get to give us our rights. We have our rights because we are human. We cannot behave as if we're granted rights by them. That's not how it works.”

Why Jackson believes being gay is tougher now than when he came out in the 1980s 

“In New York, a year after I was legally married to my husband, a gay man was called gay slurs and shot to death a block or two from our home. My father-in-law, who walked my husband down the aisle to me, called us and said, ‘Do not hold hands outside.’

Our son didn't know when he was younger that I never kissed my husband goodbye or held his hand until I thought the coast was clear. He didn't know when he called out “daddy” or “dad” in the playground that I checked to see who could hear and what danger might be lurking. 

We never traveled without his birth certificate for fear our parentage would be objected to, or we would be blocked, and God forbid we had to go to a hospital. 

So we protected him from all of these dangers. 

Now all these rainbows and this ‘love is love’ that everybody sees is masking a very real war that Mike Pence and Donald Trump have declared on us. 

The Trump administration argued in the Supreme Court that it is constitutional to fire gay people from their jobs. They argued in the Supreme Court that it's constitutional for a business to deny you services. They tried to institute a rule at the Health and Human Services Agency that says medical personnel can deny medical care to gay people out of religious objection.

  So all of these rainbows and all of this veneer of acceptability, it's going to be worse for my son coming out in 2020 than it was when I came out in 1983.”

Donald Trump was at Jackson’s wedding and wrote him a nice note. 

“It's strangely written, but he came to our wedding with Melania, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. They're friends with my father-in-law. And afterwards, Donald Trump wrote us a letter that said he thought our wedding was the most beautiful wedding he'd ever been to except his own, although he's not sure even of that.”  

What does Jackson think of the Trump administration’s clampdown on gay rights? 

“I have been asked a lot: Do I think he's really homophobic or it's just for politics? And it doesn't matter, really. I don't care if he's craven or if he's homophobic. It's all the same. It's vile. And it has the same effect. And I don't spend a lot of time thinking about him. I spend a lot more time thinking about the people he's hurting.”

-- Written by Amy Ta, produced by Sarah Sweeney