It's hard to know if we should teach our kids to worry about nothing, or everything. It's easy to nail up "Be Yourself" banners in their bedrooms, and harder to explain why it is has been so hard to be ourselves. This problem is universal, but Richie Jackson makes the question urgently personal in his book Gay Like Me: A Father Writes To His Son (Harper). "Your confident attitude about being gay when you say your generation just doesn't think it's a 'big deal' greatly concerns me," he writes, explaining that being gay is not just one facet of his life, it is "the blessing of my life."
In the book, which is part-memoir, part-epistle, Jackson, Broadway producer of the Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song and executive producer of Nurse Jackie, retraces his arrival at NYU in 1983, right as the AIDS crisis began to decimate the gay community. He describes spending every weekend at a funeral in his early 20s; the hysterical lives snatched away (one friend, asked by a doctor to name the president, replied "Colleen Dewhurst?," naming the president of the Actors' Equity Association); and the weight of the AIDS quilt, which has grown to nearly 50,000 panels. Today, HIV has been "cured," PrEP is widely available, there is marriage equality, and it's easy to see how Jackson's 18-year-old son might feel complacent about the cause.
But he is in fact a moving piece in the ongoing cultural battle over reproductive rights: carried by a surrogate in California alongside a twin brother who died shortly after birth, Jackson's son lives in a state — New York — currently working to legalize surrogacy and award parents who conceive through assisted reproductive technology full rights prior to birth. That is, he still could not be legally brought to term by a surrogate in his home state.
Years ago, an older gay father asked Jackson how he would explain to his child that he paid for him. "He thought that our going the route of paid surrogacy meant that our interest in parenting was consumerist — akin to buying a fancy car or a country house, with the baby as an accompanying luxury accoutrement," writes Jackson. "It was my first whiff of the divide between those LGBTQ families who adopt or foster and those who have families through surrogacy."
This attitude continues to shape the topography of the surrogacy debate. As an author, Jackson's argument is that you can't choose not to engage with the political issues that have determined your very existence. Throughout the book, he warns that though we seem to be living in a post-homophobic world, hard-won victories are easily washed away (case in point, Donald Trump was there to fête Jackson's 2012 marriage to Jordan Roth, then brought social conservative Mike Pence with him to the White House).
Jackson is at his best when recounting discrete moments from his life, like flying home from California with an infant in his arms and a box containing the twin's ashes under the seat in front, or meeting the surrogate he and Roth found years later to carry their second, now-toddler son in Virginia. She had carried before, but joked that she had "no eject button," having been induced for each of her three labors. These fragments speak as loudly as the strict arguments: "Being gay is the most important thing about me. I have heard all the damaging delusions — gay doesn't define me; gay is just a part of me; I just happen to be gay — these are dismissals, rendering gay as incidental, merely matter-of-fact."
I saw Jackson stand before a room of media types and explain with passion well beyond the usual recital of the elevator pitch why this book needs to exist. One piece of it is the more traditional bequest of self-esteem to a child (in recounting coming out to his parents, he describes a beautifully supportive mother and a father who might have flunked the reaction, but whose humanity and pride won out) — and the other is political.
At times, the book is thick with reference material, important people who must be known, the guideposts that got Jackson through his life up until now, the call to follow @TheAIDSMemorial. The book is not, he preempts, "some parental mandate to know your history." Though it somewhat is. And I don't blame him.
It just so happened that while making my way through Gay Like Me, I took a turn back through Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I hadn't watched Sarah Connor's (Linda Hamilton) transformation into a lethal set of triceps since becoming a parent myself, and didn't fully appreciate her sacrificing John Connor's childhood to prepare him for Armageddon even as everyone else on Earth — including her son — thought she was nuts. "She was right," says her son as he retrieves military weaponry from a desert bunker, just as everything is about to turn into a smelter.
"Though it may seem that I am clipping your wings just as you are about to set off, I am merely watching out for you," writes Jackson. This is what we all wrestle with — how to prepare our kids for the dangers out there. For my mother, it was the ax murderer up the road, when perhaps it should have been a warning to better inure myself to a world that sometimes shakes your self-esteem like a coconut tree. For Jackson, it is both: the personal and the political. The stakes are higher for some of us, but whomever you are, if you can know what makes you special, he argues, you can better protect it.