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"My Uncle's Wedding" is endearing children's story of Andy and his growing family - and marriage equality

"Hi. My name is Andy, and I want to tell you a story about my family."

That is how we are first introduced to the little boy who is the heart of an inspirational new children's book.

The book was written by Eric Ross, a native San Diegan who was literally fed-up with the way "the other side" was exploiting children and using them as part of their "Yes on 8" campaign during the election of 2008.

He decided to do something about it and "My Uncle's Wedding" was born.

"My Uncle's Wedding" is a wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated paperback book that deals with same-sex marriage in a way that makes gender irrelevant. It also blends interracial relationships into the story, when readers are introduced to Andy's complete extended "family" at the end of the book.

Children will immediately relate to the diversity displayed in the story, because there are families like Andy's everywhere.

Ross, who now lives in Emeryville, Calif., worked closely with the Oakland chapter of Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA) during the election.

In the early stages of the Proposition 8 campaign, one of his MEUSA colleagues attended a "YES on 8" strategy meeting, where the reasons behind the decision (by supporters of the measure) to use children for political gain was unveiled. Subsequent ads and the focus of "YES on 8" then emphasized that abolishing gay marriage was necessary to "protect" children as well as traditional marriage.

"We need to own that [protecting traditional marriage] ourselves," Ross told San Diego Gay & Lesbian News. "Kids are harmed because their [LGBT] parents can't get married."

In the book, readers follow Andy as he first learns about the "big" news, helps to plan the festivities and then eventually participates in the wedding itself.

Marketing materials for the "My Uncle's Wedding" call it "an innocent and beautiful exploration of marriage far away from politics."

Although they are still waiting for Prop. 8 to be repealed so they can be legally married in the state of California themselves, Ross and his partner Mat Wood had a lavish wedding ceremony at Disneyland (see photo at left) April 2 and registered as domestic partners the same day. Wood's own 6-year-old nephew participated in the wedding -- acting as ring-bearer -- just as Andy does in the book (a copy was indeed sent to the nephew ahead of time).

The book and its message may be simple, but Ross put a great deal of thought into how he would approach this potentially sensitive subject. He wanted it to relate to all children, regardless of their age and even avoided the use of any reference to the word gay.

"Andy is any age the reader wants him to be," Ross said. "And I intentionally left the word 'gay' out - it is not a 'gay' wedding, it's just a wedding - so parents can address it as they wish.

"I'm hoping it can be used as a tool to start conversations. It is conversations that wind up changing people's minds."

Marketing 101

A couple months ago, Ross was in the Castro on his way to a few bookstores to "shop" his book around when he ran into none other than state Sen. Mark Leno.

Leno is the first openly gay man to serve in the California Senate. He represents district three, which includes parts of San Francisco, Sonoma and all of Marin County.

Realizing how serendipitous this chance meeting was, Ross introduced himself and handed Leno a copy of the book before getting on with his marketing plan. A few days later, Leno's office called, saying the senator would like to attend the official book release and signing event March 5th at A Different Light bookstore on Castro Street.

At the book release, Leno awarded Ross a Senate Proclamation (see photo of proclamation at bottom left, and watch the video of the award presentation at the end of the article).

A few weeks later, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) got wind of the event and posted a summary of the book along with supportive comments from Leno on their NOMblog, much to the ire of their supporters. What is most significant about this particular blog posting are the comments that have been posted below it.

If there is anything positive to come out of NOM's blogging about the book, it gave Ross more publicity.

Born to be an activist

Although this is the first book Ross has ever published, he is no stranger to advocating for LGBTs.

Ross came from a loving and supportive family and recognized his sexuality at a young age. As a senior at Orange Glen High School in Escondido, Calif., in 1997, Ross decided to start the school's first Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).

The first GSA in the nation was started in 1988 by then-history teacher Kevin Jennings and one of his students at Concord Academy in Massachusetts. Jennings went on to launch GLSEN and is now an Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration.

Today, there are well over 4,000 GSAs nationwide; but in 1997, when GSAs were still in their infancy, Ross was both brave enough and determined enough launch one at his very conservative school.

He first brought the idea to his school counselor's attention, who wanted to (literally) give him psychological counseling instead. Next he wrote a letter to the school principal explaining his desire to start the alliance. When he didn't hear anything back, he decided to send the principal the same letter -- once a week -- until he got a response.

The response never came.

Not to be deterred, Ross decided to take his request to the next school board meeting, where he and a friend took their turn at the microphone and addressed the lack of response he was receiving at Orange Glen.

In an interesting twist of fate, a reporter at the meeting took an interest in the boys' cause and interviewed them afterward. The story made front page news in the North County Times the following morning, and it was then that Ross finally got his wish. The principal, admittedly not happy with the coverage, pulled Ross out of his classroom and told him, begrudgingly, he could start the GSA.

After graduation, Ross moved down to the 'gayborhood' (Hillcrest) "as soon as possible." For the next six years he lived in San Diego neighborhoods (during which time he also had a short stint working at Numbers); first in Hillcrest, then Point Loma and finally Little Italy, before moving up to the Bay Area in 2005.

A few years ago, Ross quit his regular job so he could be more flexible with his time and finish his business degree at the University of Phoenix. Since then, he has thrown himself into activism, with a focus on educating the public about the importance of marriage equality, "and the 1,138 rights that are denied to same-sex couples."

Now a chapter leader with MEUSA in Oakland, Ross also just accepted a position on the San Francisco Pride board and looks forward to putting his expertise to work in the coming months to help plan the nation's second largest Pride celebration this June.

Getting the book off the ground

Ross hopes "My Uncle's Wedding" will be an extension of the work he's been doing to help educate others about marriage equality, and encourage parents to talk to their children.

Breaking into a publishing house is difficult these days, so Ross decided to do it himself. Self-publishing is a difficult choice, however, one which requires the author to do all the work: the writing, the editing, the formatting, the marketing, and making one decision that could make or break the project - choosing an illustrator.

Ross has done a first-class job all the way around. Despite all the challenges of self-publishing, the book could not appear more professionally published than it already does, which in large part is due to the über-talented illustrator he chose -- Tracy K. Greene. Ross feels lucky to have found Greene - an LGBT ally - and the daughter of a personal friend.

"Always tap into your networks," he said with a wink.

Before even meeting her face-to-face, Ross sent over the script so Greene could kick around some ideas and send back some samples. When her drafts came back, he was surprised to see that Uncle Mike bore a striking resemblance to himself and the style and clothing Greene had chosen to represent Uncle Mike's partner, were also similar in design to Wood, his fiancé.

The choice was a no brainer and a partnership was formed.

Greene's illustrations are as simple as the story itself, but they fill each page in a splash of vivid colors and shapes that are sure to grab a child's attention, page-after-page.

Response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive and anyone interested can find reviews and comments all over the internet, as well as on Amazon.

Although more books could be on the horizon, Ross is keeping quiet about that, saying instead that he plans to focus on this book and his activist work for the time being. His future plans do include a possible visit back to San Diego for a book signing, hopefully during San Diego Pride this July.

Stay tuned.

About "My Uncle's Wedding"

The book is a self-published 8" x 10" paperback, consisting of 34 beautifully illustrated pages.

The price is $10.99 and it is available right here locally at the Obelisk Shoppe. Obelisk currently has a limited number of signed copies (as well as unsigned), so get one before they run out and support your local bookstore at the same time.

If you live outside of San Diego and want your own local bookstore to carry "My Uncle's Wedding," simply ask them; because "My Uncle's Wedding" is self-published, bookstores can't get copies unless someone requests it.

The book is also available on Amazon.

For more information, email info@myuncleswedding.com. You can also visit the My Uncle's Wedding website or follow them on Facebook.

Watch the video of the proclamation awarded by Senator Leno at the book release for "My Uncle's Wedding":