I wasn't expecting the question, hadn't prepared a response, was caught entirely off-guard: "You wrote a book about AIDS... now a children's book? I'm intrigued with that."
Scot Haney, an openly gay weatherman on Connecticut's WFSB Channel 3, was asking the question in an April 1 interview about my new book Wilhelmina Goes Wandering on the afternoon talk show he co-hosts called Better Connecticut.
My career as a journalist for the last 28 years has largely focused on health and medicine, particularly HIV/AIDS. The book Haney was referring to was Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America. I document in this 570-page history and its 1,200+ endnotes the devastation and transformation of lives and institutions wrought by the epidemic in the U.S. between 1981 and 2011, when the second edition was published.
I have also been open about my own 2005 HIV diagnosis since I "came out" about it in The Washington Post in 2006.
In fact it was an entire adult lifetime lived under the shadow of the epidemic that brought me to this moment, to writing a children's book. It's taken decades of living, and more than a little loss, to be able to articulate in the simplest images and language the transformative power of love and acceptance -- of ourselves and others who are different from us in whatever ways.
Embracing my "different" sexual orientation way back in 1981, when I was a mere tadpole of 22, was just the first step in also learning to embrace other differences: being a writer who doesn't fit the nine-to-five mold; a gardener who shirks the homophobic stereotypes with which gay men bully each other ("Of course you love flowers, dear"); an HIV-positive man who refuses to let a medical diagnosis define him.
I maneuvered Scot Haney's question away from AIDS to focus quickly on Wilhelmina's themes -- given our short time before the camera and my desire to tell viewers about the book. After all, I was appearing on Better Connecticut because Wilhelmina is my first children's book, and it's based on the true story of a runaway cow in Milford, Conn. In 2011 our bovine heroine was the talk of the town as she traveled for five months with a herd of deer, was mistaken for a bull, twice evaded capture and was brought down by her sweet tooth.
"I have a variety of interests," I answered, truthfully. Pivoting and plugging the book's main theme, I added, "Many of us as adults understand this need to leave our familiar pasture to find our true home."
"Wilhelmina is a story about learning to accept our differences," I explained. "Wilhelmina, in spite of her size, in spite of being a cow who hangs around with a herd of deer, learns to accept her differences."
The book never mentions "gay" or "HIV/AIDS." But anyone who has ever been stigmatized for being or having something different from what most people are or don't have, who has walked the pathway from shame to pride, will get it pretty fast. So will every man, woman or child who has ever felt ashamed of being different for any reason.
As I see it, writing a children's book -- particularly this one, based on a true story (how could it not appeal to a journalist?!) -- flows naturally from my love of life, and from the awareness that in my 55 years I have actually learned a few things from my own life that may be helpful to children, young people -- even other adults.
It's a normal and deeply human need we have to nurture the next generations. It's not exclusive to heterosexuals. Judging from my own experience, it's not even necessary to want children of your own to feel this desire to "pass on" and share what you have learned. Psychologist Erik Erikson called it "generativity."
Wilhelmina Goes Wandering is the most visible, so far, expression of my own sense of generativity. I've already been working on the sequel, so I'm far from exhausting this craving to give and share from a very positive place.
Most of my readers are responding with big smiles and admissions of long-held fascination with cows. It's a far cry from the sometimes angry responses I've had to things I've written about HIV/AIDS over the decades. That's what I'm enjoying most about this new experience as a children's author. There's nothing controversial about learning to accept our own and one another's differences.
Yet my literary agent described Wilhelmina as "subversive."
That's precisely what I intend it to be: A book that subverts homophobia and racism by bringing people to a sweet spot of innocence and imagination where they realize how silly it is to exaggerate and stigmatize differences, how much better it is to embrace and celebrate our shared humanity -- and why that is a wonderful legacy for their children.