LGBT locals – particularly those in the leather and HIV communities – likely know Justin Terry-Smith. He served as Mr. Maryland Leather 2010. He’s been amazingly public about his HIV status with his video blog, or ”vlog,” Justin’s HIV Journal. The 31-year-old is undeniably both out and about.
Jay, on the other hand, is a sixth-grader who is just learning about what it means to be so public.
”I wonder what the kids will think about me afterwards. Will Charles and Bobbie hate me for having HIV? Will they not talk to me or play with me anymore? Will people not want to go to school with me?”
To learn exactly how the other kids find out about Jay’s HIV status, and how Jay and his school handle this revelation, the curious will need to get their hands on a copy of I Have a Secret.
Terry-Smith, meanwhile, has few secrets and is happy to talk about all the angles of the book and himself, explaining that he and his husband, Dr. Philip Terry-Smith, may have gotten the book ball rolling with their discussions of parenting.
”We decided this year we might become foster parents to kids with HIV,” he says, adding that he’s been with his partner for six years, married for nearly two. ”It’s almost a ‘make or break’ thing for me, to be a parent. I love children.”
Walking down that path, focusing on the intricacies of HIV-positive children, Terry-Smith thought of his own youth, his own seroconversion at 25, and a book for children seemed a good way to express the thoughts that were brewing.
”I wanted to start out with a children’s book, because that’s where we need to start,” says Terry-Smith, who is also pursuing a degree in political science. ”A lot of children who are HIV-negative might treat a positive child differently. That should not happen.”
Terry-Smith says that children who are HIV-positive need special attention, beyond the needs of HIV-positive adults. And while he may not have been HIV-positive in his own youth, he has no trouble remembering youthful hurts and how those might be applied to an HIV-positive child.
”Let me just say kids are cruel. When I was a kid, I can recall being picked on, being bullied. I can’t imagine being born with HIV and having to deal with that as a kid. As an adult, it’s hard, dealing with dating, drinking while on meds, whatever. With kids, you deal with different issues.
”The similarity is acceptance. That’s all kids or adults who are positive want. You want to make sure people don’t treat you any differently. I know a lot of kids who are poz and are not open about their status because they don’t want to be ostracized.”
Beyond that cerebral exercise of creating a fictional sixth-grade stage, Terry-Smith did find ways to fill this world with pieces from his day-to-day life. The principal, Mr. Terry? Yes, he used his husband as the template. Actually, all the characters’ names are borrowed from people who occupy Terry-Smith’s life.
”When I wrote it, I took some of my experiences, like having my pillbox spill out on the metro,” he says, adding that the same goes for both he and his protagonist trying to keep the lid on their serostatus. ”Whatever I’m feeling is something I have to write about. I’m a very emotional writer.”
Beyond Terry-Smith’s passion for writing I Have a Secret, there was also a bit of kismet. On a train to Chicago last May, he bumped into a fellow traveler, Thomas Rosengren. Turns out Rosengren is a writer with Creative House. Thanks to their friendship begun on that train, Rosengren was there to read Terry-Smith’s manuscript, finished near the end of 2010. And now Smith-Terry, too, is part of the Creative House family of writers.
While crossing paths with Rosengren may have been lucky for Terry-Smith, in the end it’s still really the youth who are the most fortunate.
”I wrote I Have a Secret for every child. It’s dedicated to any child affected by or infected with HIV. I wrote it for HIV-positive children so they can feel empowered, whether they decided to be public or private. On the other side, it’s for HIV-negative children – a lot of them don’t understand it’s really, really hard.
”I want everyone to read it. This is the thing with HIV: It’s not a black disease, not white, not gay, not women…. It’s everyone’s disease. HIV affects us all.”