From a distance, their relationship is hard to peg. There's a sense of intimacy in their body language, as the tall, broad-shouldered white man and his young black female companion stroll across the park toward me. He adjusts his gait to match her speed; they brush against each other comfortably.
I recognize their familiarity, but I wonder what strangers seeing them might think. Professor and student? Coach and athlete?
They are father and daughter. Michael and Tia.
I met them almost six years ago when Michael was 52 and Tia was 7, and wrote a column about their unlikely pairing. "A Rorschach test for observers," I called them -- the white, middle-aged, gay, HIV-positive man and the black girl he adopted when she was a baby.
Over the years, I'd often worried about them. Was he still healthy? Was she doing well in school? Did she feel different and resent him for it? Did he ever learn to do her hair?
Back then, he worried too. He was willing to share their story but wondered whether "outing" his daughter was the right thing to do. Would his HIV status make her an outcast? Would she grow up to think him selfish? To protect her privacy, he insisted on one rule back then. I could tell their story, but their real names wouldn't be used.
Michael Kearns is his real name. He's a gay activist who had never given much thought to having kids. In the 1980s, he was one of a few openly gay actors in Hollywood and a writer whose plays often dealt with socially and sexually provocative themes.
But in 1992, after his lover died of AIDS, he was seized by a "physical yearning" to raise a child and signed up to be a foster parent. Tia came to him in 1995, when she was 5 months old. Her drug-addicted mother had left the three-pound infant in the hospital. Michael fell in love with her at once; the process of adoption took almost three years.
When I met them in 2002, Tia was a free-spirited, happy child oblivious to their unconventional lifestyle. She understood that she was black and her dad was white; that there would be no mother in her life. But she did not know about AIDS or HIV.
Now, they're out of the closet, so to speak.
So much has changed since then, they no longer represent some sort of mind-bending anomaly. Trans-racial families have become trendy, thanks to Angelina Jolie. Adoption by gay and lesbian couples is rising, along with single-parent adoptive families. And swift death is no longer the certain prospect of HIV.
"As offbeat as we are -- unorthodox, unconventional, whatever -- we love each other," Michael said.
His worries are typical parental concerns. He thinks Tia's growing up too fast, wonders if he's indulged her too much. He feels guilty sometimes -- she's traveled the world with him; taken lessons in swimming, gymnastics, tennis and acting, but hasn't yet learned to clean the bathroom.
"I'm spoiling her, but I'm not sure anything's wrong with that," he said. "Tia's still a pretty reasonable kid."
He helps with homework, drives carpool and holds sleepovers at their Los Feliz apartment for Tia's friends, who aren't bothered by the framed wall photo of dad in drag. At Tia's small private school in Sherman Oaks, people are more apt to be alarmed by a "Vote Republican" bumper sticker than a mismatch between daughter and dad.
"Her friends like that we're different," Michael insists. "There's no road map to what we're doing, and Tia seems to revel in that," he said. "Somebody else, it might scare them. But Tia's a big, bold personality. She's been like that since she was a baby."
Tia has grown into a pretty 13-year-old, with big brown eyes, framed by gorgeous eyebrows that her father tweezes once a week -- "two minutes before we head out the door to school and way before enough coffee," he says.
When we meet at a Sherman Oaks park, she's on her way home from a friend's sleepover, lugging a backpack full of unfinished homework. She seems patient, thoughtful and unusually poised; a consequence, I figure, of spending so much time with adults.
She shares his sense of humor, his way with a joke. They have different tastes in books and TV shows -- she likes science fiction, he won't even watch "Lost." They enjoy listening to the same songs. They finish each other's sentences when they talk. She lets him borrow her leopard-print makeup case for a weekend trip.
It seems pointless, but I have to ask her: Does your father's gayness bother you? His color? His age? She smiles and shrugs.
Of course her father embarrasses her. He's boisterous, opinionated and stubborn. He sings out loud in the grocery store. He won't let her watch R-rated movies. "And sometimes I'll think a guy is cute, then I realize he's totally flirting with my dad. That," she says, "is annoying."