Many in the U.S. HIV community know Tony Christon-Walker, director of prevention and community partnerships at AIDS Alabama, for his funny, down-home, and no-BS take on HIV prevention, treatment, and policy, whether it’s at conferences or on Facebook. But many may not know that, in his 50-some years, he’s also been a father figure to numerous young Black people, only one of whom was his actual biological child. Those many relationships form the crux of Walking in Truth: Fatherhood, a (lightly) fictionalized memoir that Christon-Walker says is the first in a trilogy of books about his life.
When Christon-Walker told us about the book, he said that everyone he knows who’s read it so far has said it was unputdownable, and we have to agree. Christon-Walker has led a life full of twists and turns to match any soap opera, especially if it were one whose protagonist was a Black gay man from Alabama who stayed close to family and friends while still demanding that he be accepted on his own terms—and largely succeeded.
For someone who says that, prior to the book, he’s never written anything longer than a few pages, Christon-Walker has written a very fluidly narrated, well-paced, juicy, and funny book, full of vivid dialogue and scenes. You will probably laugh a lot and cry at least a few times as well. (I did.) It’s almost like a nonfiction version of a novel by the late gay Black author E. Lynn Harris, whom Christon-Walker counts as an inspiration.
TheBody chatted with Christon-Walker about why and how he wrote his book, how friends and family have received it, and why he thinks he’s played the father figure role over and over again—and continues to!
Tim Murphy: Tony, congrats on both writing and publishing your book. First question—the Amazon page calls the book “a fictional account,” but it pretty clearly reads as a memoir with names changed—including yours, to “Marvin Waller.” So, what is it?
Tony Christon-Walker: A memoir with names changed is exactly what it is, to give cover to certain people. But there is one part after I drop out of college that’s fictional. I wrote this as part of my own therapy to deal with the death of my [adult] son. I started it eight years ago, six months after he died. And I’d written only 20 pages until COVID hit in March, then I wrote the rest of it in three and a half weeks.
TM: Wow, that is incredibly fast. Was it hard to write?
TCW: The hardest part was writing the somewhat fictionalized section, but otherwise it was easy, because I know my own story. If I told my whole story in one book instead of a trilogy, it would be 900 pages long. The second book in the trilogy is going to be called Walking in Truth: HIV, because though I was diagnosed with HIV in 1993, I don’t touch on it a lot in this book.
TM: You just answered my second question, which was why HIV comes up so little in this book despite the fact that it involves the gay community in the 1980s and 1990s, your own longtime HIV status, and the fact that you have worked in HIV for so long. I was shocked that it was touched on so briefly, so now I know why.
TCW: Yes. It wasn’t really pertinent to this story. It didn’t affect my kids a whole lot. It’ll play a much bigger role in the next book, because, in addition to my contracting HIV at age 26 when my oldest son was 7 and youngest was 5, once I started doing HIV testing for people, I started weaving my own diagnosis story into their testing to let them know that an HIV diagnosis was not the end of the world.
TM: Ah, OK. So you were saying that only the fictional part of this book was challenging to write.
TCW: I sent the original 20 pages to some close friends, who all said, “OK, what happens next? You need to finish this.” So in March I started writing five or six pages a day, then up to 10 pages a day, because my friends kept egging me on. They would push me through my pain. Some stories I didn’t flesh out, and they would say, “We know how transparent you are, so why are you hiding this?”
TM: What were parts where they pushed you deeper?
TCW: The part where we pulled the [life support] on my son after he had his stroke. I knew he wouldn’t want to live like that, but the decision ultimately was his mother’s to make. The second part was the blow-up I had with my other son after the one who died, when I said to him [redacted to avoid spoilers]. My friend said, “Tony, oh my God, I can’t believe you said that.” But I meant it when I said it—I was going through my own grief.
TM: What kind of feedback from people who know you have you received since the book became available?
TCW: Overwhelmingly positive. Especially one of my former bosses, who is in the book. She downloaded it, read it, then said she’d bought 50 copies to give to people who she thinks might be struggling. And she’s from a very religious background. When we worked together, she told me not to tell other people that I was gay. Our boss had a Confederate flag in his office.
TM: The book was interesting for me to read, not being from the South and not growing up in a southern church. It’s very much set in the world of churchgoing Black southerners. What does the book say about that world that you want people to know?
TCW: All the stereotypes about the South when it comes to race and religion totally exist. But in some instances, those things don’t matter when you walk authentically as who you are. I’ve had several people through the years learn through me, such as a very conservative church friend who told me that knowing me made her change the way she talks about gay people. Yes, there can be problems with being Black and gay in the South, but you can also increase understanding. I’m just here to educate people, not necessarily change their minds.
TM: We talk a lot about trauma in HIV prevention, often when we talk about Black gay men. Do you feel like you had or have trauma?
TCW: In March, when I was really heavily into writing the book, I posted something on Facebook about realizing that something you thought that you just didn’t like is really because of childhood trauma. I realized while writing the book that I don’t like being in the forefront. As a child, I was bused to a middle-class white school while still living in this poor community where we didn’t have [equal] access to education. I was the smart Black boy who was always praised by my teachers but was ostracized back home in my community. So that’s why I don’t like being in the forefront—because it opens you up for criticism. When I did good things, my peers punished me for it.
Now, with the book out there, it feels weird to be in the spotlight, with friends asking me to autograph the book for them. But I can’t avoid the spotlight at this point.
TM: So a lot of your book is set in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. Has the Deep South changed since then?
TCW: A lot has changed, but so much has remained the same. There’s still the stigma and religious persecution around being gay, but when I was young, I had no road map. There were no gay role models to follow, to see yourself in. Now, growing up queer, you have Ellen and all these people to help you say, “Hey, I see myself.” And obviously there’s more acceptance. But it’s kind of like racism. You’ve come a long way, baby! But really, have we? It’s one step forward and two steps back. I feel like the same can be said about gayness in this country.
TM: So, what will books two and three be like?
TCW: The second one, focusing on HIV, will have more sexual content. The third will deal with life and relationships.
TM: More than the first one?
TCW: On a deeper level.
TM: Do you have any writing influences or inspirations?
TCW: E. Lynn Harris, the way he tells stories. And Margaret Atwood—how she can tie things together. Also Anne Rice—her descriptive powers.
TM: Yes, it’s true, your book does feel a lot like a real-life version of an E. Lynn Harris novel, with all its intrigues around sexuality, relationships, family, etc.
TCW: For me, a novice writer, I’m extremely honored and humbled by the comparison to E. Lynn Harris. Invisible Life in particular was very real for me. My second book will probably mimic that.
TM: If there is a villain in your book, it’s probably the woman you had your sons with when you were very young. She really does not come off well. Do you think some people will wonder what is her side of the story?
TCW: I don’t see her as a villain as much as someone who made bad decisions. To say she’s since learned a lesson would not be correct. I don’t think she’s read the book yet. She probably will.
TM: So Tony, what do you think has driven you to want to be a dad figure to so many kids other than your own biological kids? That is definitely the theme of this book—parenting, nurturing, making mistakes, getting through the tough times with kids, enjoying the good times, etc.
TCW: Growing up without a father. My grandparents pretty much raised me. But I didn’t see myself as a victim. A lot of people who grow up without fathers are angry. But I’ve always tried to fill vacuums. I’d see white men with little Black boys, and I know that they were serving as Big Brothers, but I’d think, “You mean to tell me that we can’t find another Black man in the community to step up to mentor this child?”
Once, [my desire to mentor and parent] went horribly wrong. Someone I knew had a very precocious little boy the same age as my kids. She was a single mother, so I offered to have her son hang out with my kids on weekends. She said, “Sure.” Then someone told her I was gay. She called and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I said, “Cause I’m not planning on having sex with you.” She said, “But what about my son?” I said, “I’m not planning on having sex with him either.” She took him away from me. Well, I think that child’s life is a mess now—and it wouldn’t have been, had I been able to influence him.
Right now, I’m raising a 6-year-old transgender daughter who just transitioned in the last year. When I met her, she was named Ben, but she loved girly things.
TM: You’ve had quite a life so far, Tony. What do you make of it? What conclusions do you take away from writing this book?
TCW: Sometimes the universe gives you a second chance, and I’ve had several. I don’t think I was the greatest father the first time, but I’ve learned since. I’ve also learned to allow myself to make mistakes. I’m a much better person than I was years ago, and it’s only because of the mistakes I’ve made. “Resilient” is a very good word to describe me.