When I wrote Sidecar, and Casey didn't know about the AIDs crisis in 1988, people wrote me and said, "But he was only 150 miles north of San Francisco. How could he not?"
Well, I didn't.
I mean, I'd heard of it, but nobody talked to me directly, and even though some of my friends were gay, they didn't seem to have it, so why would it affect me?
And I'm not sure when I realized that it should affect everybody. Was it an episode of Designing Women? Was it And the Band Played On? (I hope not--that was so long afterward!) Did a friend finally tell me to pull my fucking head out of my ass, I wasn't the only princess on the goddamned planet?
I don't remember what it was. Maybe it was the combined weight of all those things. Maybe it was when Magic Johnson told the world he was HIV+ and a friend of mine had a full blown crisis.
Maybe I just grew up--when I talk about being a girl from the hills, I'm not kidding. Sure, now Loomis is a bustling metropolis with over 10,000 people in it, but when I was in high school it had less than 3,000, and Rocklin, where I went to junior college was not much bigger. We looked shit up in encyclopedias and microfiche then, and the internet was a thing that other people had, or that made that weird grinding noise when you turned on your modem.
Maybe it was when I went to San Francisco State for a year, and people were passing out condoms all the frickin time.
Or when I became sexually active, the summer before, and I realized that I was really lucky that neither of us had a sexual history to discuss and that the pill was great because I didn't have to worry about where Mate's penis had been prior.
But realize, I did--eventually. And as the full scope and horror of the situation descended upon me, I realized how stupid, how self-involved I'd been to not know.
And how many potential friends passed away when I didn't even know there was a monster out there to take them.
When I started writing gay romance, I knew that fear, that history, was a thing I could only touch on peripherally--I hadn't lived through it. It had been reported to me. I had very little right. It wasn't mine.
Tonight, Squish--age 12--and I watched the live action Beauty and the Beast-- while she was shopping for a new book, by the way--and just before Gaston started to sing "Kill the Beast", I paused the TV and told my daughter about Howard Ashman, and why this song was about something bigger than Beauty and the Beast, and about all of the horrible things I know about that time now that I had been blind to when I was a dumbfuck teenager from the hills.
I told her about the things I've read since, the movies I've seen, stories from people I know who had to go to a funeral a week, articles about the woman who gave her family inheritance to bury people whose families wouldn't even come claim their bodies.
And some people may be going, "She's twelve! Does she really need to know that?"
But she's reading Rainbow Rowell and John Green and probably secretly looking up m/m fanfic on her phone, and I felt like if she was going to be part of that reading culture, she needed to know the things that I hadn't. She needed to feel some of the history, be made part of the larger world. I pieced together my empathy a bit of information at a time.
I gave it to her in blanket form, and we both cried as we looked at all the pieces.
It was so fucking tragic, and nobody in her class knew about it. "It's the punchline to a joke," she said in disbelief. "And now I'm mad about that, because this is awful. How can we not know?"
I know where my shell of cluelessness and innocence came from--I built it to keep me safe from the awfulness of my own world which I don't talk a lot about, and probably never will. Maybe it flaked away a piece at a time as I got strong enough to deal with the world at large and learned to compartmentalize my own damage where it couldn't corrode my empathy for other people.
But my children have had a good life. The things that hurt me have been kept far away from them, and I always hoped that would make them stronger.
Today my kid saw a thing I was afraid to face, and she cried, and then she took the knowledge to her heart and let it make her a better person. I think she's going to take that knowledge out into the world and help make it a better place.
And while I'm not proud of the clueless little space cadet I used to be, I'm proud of the children that girl grew up to raise. If I've contributed nothing else to this world, I've given it better human beings than I ever was, and maybe they can make the difference I could not.