The Sissy Duckling, a variation on the tale of The Ugly Duckling, is gay-rights activist and Torch Song Trilogy author Fierstein's first children's book.
PW: What gave you the idea for The Sissy Duckling?
HF: There was a wonderful series on HBO called Happily Ever After. They would take European fairy tales and rewrite them ethnocentrically, and they approached me about writing a Jewish one. I said, there actually are Jewish fairy tales, but have you ever thought of doing a gay one? So I wrote The Sissy Duckling as a 45-minute TV special. Afterward, I gave the script to my agent, and Simon & Schuster snapped it up.
PW: How did you develop Elmer, the sissy duckling, as a character?
HF: What is different about Elmer is that he's a happy kid, he's having a great old time. I was a happy kid, you know, but I wanted to play with dolls. And my parents let me. That's not why I'm gay, but it may be why I'm a more well-adjusted gay man. Because my parents said, "That's who he is."
The Drakes of the world, the little straight ducks, they're not inventive, or fun, or brave. They just go along and do what everyone else does. It's the ducks like Elmer that change the world. Elmer becomes the first duck to survive the winter without flying south.
In so much of gay politics there's a certain apology for who we are. We have to sort of fit in. And that's an absolutely heinous idea.
PW: Do young children know if they're gay?
HF: No one becomes gay. My first crush was on a girl, my kindergarten crush, but soon afterward, I realized my crushes were starting to be on boys. Anybody who doesn't believe you're born that way, all you need to do is go and mix yourself with 100 eight-year-olds, and you can pick out pretty easily the hardcore sissies. Not every one of them is gonna be gay, because, of course, many gay people don't have those sorts of affectations, but there are plenty that do. And it shows up really early.
PW: How does this book fit in with your past work like Torch Song Trilogy, which touches on the subject of growing up gay?
HF:The Sissy Duckling is really for the creative kids. I was creative my whole life, and I ended up making a really nice living from it, but I can't imagine how different my life would have been if I'd read a book about a kid like me.
A lot of this was inspired by Gramercy House in New York, which is a safe home for kids that have been thrown out of their own homes for being gay. They're funny and creative and inventive and smart, and they have a way of looking at the world unlike anybody else. When I met these kids, I thought, their story has to be told. And this was my way of doing it.
One of the reasons I chose "The Ugly Duckling" was that at the end, it's not the duckling that changes. He's just growing up. He always was a beautiful swan. And it's the same thing in The Sissy Duckling. The world has to change, not Elmer. Elmer's just fine.