Fast-forward to campaign 2020 and the LGBTQ community is engaging in a similar and rather insane conversation centered around one question: Is former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg “gay enough”? Some have even gone so far as to question whether the serious contender for the Democratic nomination for president is really gay — a query that surely comes as a surprise to Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten.
Broadway and television producer Richie Jackson is having none of it. “So, whether he’s gay, I think is absurd. The whether he’s gay enough, I find deeply disturbing. First of all, definitionally, he’s gay. He’s married to a man. He served under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ That’s gay,” he said in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “Here’s an easy question. Would LGBTQ hate groups consider Pete gay enough to discriminate against? Yes. Would our adversaries consider him gay enough? Yes. Could he be fired in all those states? Yes. Can he give blood? No. Does he have to be careful where he’s holding Chasten’s hand? Yes. So he is definitionally gay because everything that’s stacked up against us is stacked up against him, too.”
Jackson and his husband, Jordan Roth, are big Buttigieg supporters, but Jackson brings extra passion to this subject because of his new book “Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son.” Jackson said he was thrilled when his son came out to him as gay at the age of 15.
“Being gay is a gift. It is the best part about me. It’s the most important part about me. It’s been the blessing of my life. I wanted that blessing for him,” Jackson told me. “Also, you can’t parent if every day you pray your child is nothing like you. I would have no self-esteem as a parent if I did that.” But his son’s coming out came with an asterisk. “When our son told us he was gay,” continued Jackson, “he said, ‘Daddy, being gay is not a big deal. My generation doesn’t think being gay is a big deal,’ and I said, ‘Oh no, being gay is a really big deal.’ ”
That’s what moved him to write “Gay Like Me,” a raw and very personal love letter to his son and to the LGBTQ community. Whenever he talks about either, his eyes are always on the cusp of crying, as they were during our interview. I wrote a blurb for the book because it is also a love letter to our generation of gay men, who came into our own in 1980s and 1990s New York City. Jackson fears the lessons we learned then are being lost today. “Back in 1983, we were marching. We were not having a parade. They were angry marches. There were more fists than flags. We were activists who were demanding attention, demanding rights that we didn’t have, demanding representation,” he explained. “There were no out politicians, there were no out movie stars, there were very few laws protecting us.”
Now that there is an openly gay politician making a credible run for president, Jackson thinks the conversation in the LGBTQ community about Mayor Pete misses the biggest lesson of all. “What I think people are forgetting is that our community does not have a litmus test for entry,” he said. “And we cannot start to think there’s primacy of one gay experience.
“You could be my son, 15, and say you’re gay and you are a part of our community. You could be the children who are standing up at their auditoriums and disclosing their gender identity. You can be that young man who is the valedictorian speaker at Brigham Young, who came out during his speech … [or you can be] a 31-year-old man who lives in the closet for fear that the life he wants for himself is not possible, who has shame about what he feels about himself. That is as legitimate an LGBTQ experience as any other.”
When Jackson’s mother took him to see Harvey Fierstein in “Torch Song Trilogy,” it was a life-changing moment. “Sitting in that theater, I did think I could have the life I wanted, which is to be a parent and to be in a relationship, because that’s what ‘Torch Song’ is about,” Jackson said about the Tony Award-winning play he would bring back to Broadway with Fierstein in 2018. “And this play was set in 1979 and Harvey’s character Arnold was demanding the life he wanted and it mirrored what I wanted.”
That Fierstein was also a gay man whose off-stage life as covered in the press was life-changing for Jackson. “In 1983, he said to Barbara Walters, ‘I [assume] everyone’s gay, unless I’m told otherwise.’ My gay self-esteem was just in its infancy. That was a staggering paradigm shift for me. So watching him off-stage was even more impactful to my life than it was on,” Jackson said. “And I think that’s why we need to have LGBTQ people play themselves, so that young people could follow them off-camera and see the life that could be possible for them.”
With his presidential run, Buttigieg is now filling that role for young people, despite the nutty conversation happening within the LGBTQ community. “Think about all the conversations that are going on about him now in classrooms, in homes and all these young people who may not understand all their feelings, who may not have told anybody about their feelings. But here is this gay man, who is a top-tier contender for the presidency, who is traveling around the country campaigning with his husband,” Jackson told me. “That is life-saving for young people to see that there is possibility for them in this world.”