SEX AND THE CITY

ARMISTEAD MAUPIN ON WHY SAN FRAN­CISCO’S GAY MEN HAVE RE­LA­TION­SHIPS SORTED

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HOW did Armistead Maupin get here: a suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist and ac­tivist liv­ing in a happy gay re­la­tion­ship in San Fran­cisco? How did he end up as the writer of the beloved Tales Of The City nov­els, which fol­low a com­mu­nity of queers and hip­pies and ec­centrics, all moth­ered by an el­derly trans woman? And how on earth did he come to have a lib­eral, pro­gres­sive view of the world? Be­cause none of it should have hap­pened. The odds were stacked against him. He should have been some­one else.

What makes the 73-year-old writer’s life and ca­reer, and his sta­tus as a gay ac­tivist, seem so un­likely is where it all started. Armistead Maupin was a sen­si­tive and gen­tle child but he grew up in a place where it isn’t al­ways easy to be sen­si­tive and gen­tle: North Carolina in the con­ser­va­tive south of Amer­ica. In his new mem­oir Log­i­cal Fam­ily, Maupin re­veals that, as a child, he would fall into guilty de­spair if he so much as killed a fly; fish­ing trips were

also trau­matic – the sight of a fish, flap­ping and gasp­ing on the dock, dy­ing alone, was a cause for great an­guish, he says. There were also lit­tle signs of the gay boy he would be­come. “I en­joyed an­tiquing at a re­veal­ingly early age,” he says.

How­ever, there was no time for sen­si­tiv­ity where Maupin grew up. His fa­ther was an un­apolo­getic white su­prem­a­cist who walked out in protest when the lo­cal preacher an­nounced that he was end­ing racial seg­re­ga­tion in his church. His fa­ther also had no idea of his son’s nascent ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity – in fact, Maupin re­mem­bers him telling him: “Don’t worry son. If you ever knock up a nig­ger gal, we can send her to Puerto Rico for the op­er­a­tion.” How do you grow up gay in that kind of en­vi­ron­ment?

The an­swer for Maupin – ini­tially at least – was to put a lid on it, nail the lid down and then shout about how rightwing he was too. As a stu­dent, he made a speech de­fend­ing racial seg­re­ga­tion in restau­rants and ho­tels on the grounds that peo­ple should be en­ti­tled to run their busi­nesses as they saw fit. It was very much the ar­gu­ment you hear now from bak­ers who refuse to bake cakes for gay wed­dings and Maupin’s ver­dict on him­self as a young man is fairly harsh: “He was cal­low all right, but his heart was still closed to the pos­si­bil­ity of real ten­der­ness. The lid was locked down for fear of what might es­cape.”

When I call Maupin at his home in San Fran­cisco, I ask him about the lit­tle con­ser­va­tive that he used to be and I won­der how it hap­pens – are rightwingers made by their par­ents? “That was how I was made,” he says. “I had a white su­prem­a­cist fa­ther that I adored and I be­lieved ev­ery­thing he told me. That’s re­ally why the book is called Log­i­cal Fam­ily be­cause even­tu­ally you have to let your own de­cency take over and re­ject the ig­no­rance that’s laid on you by your par­ents.”

Maupin has also ob­served that he is hardly the first gay man to hide on the right wing of pol­i­tics. “Years ago in Eng­land, I said, ‘Scratch a Tory and you’ll find a homo’. I was wildly gen­er­al­is­ing but if you want to keep the lid on your own se­cret life, the best way of do­ing it is to in­sist oth­ers be as pure as you’re pre­tend­ing to be.”

So what led to Maupin’s trans­for­ma­tion from right-wing to left-wing? “The short an­swer is d***. I had de­prived my­self of sex­ual plea­sure for so long that when I came to San Fran­cisco and was able to em­brace that, I found my hu­man­ity. If you’ve spent your en­tire life avoid­ing the touch of other hu­man be­ings, a lot hap­pens when you set your­self free and for me, all the other prej­u­dices went with it when I stopped be­ing prej­u­diced against my­self. The bath­houses were re­mark­ably demo­cratic places – some­times I was democra­tised un­til dawn. You find your hu­man­ity in those places – I can tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween a bas­tard and a good guy in the dark. Left and right are just states of the heart – when you strip away all pol­i­tics, left is open­ness and truth and kind­ness and com­pas­sion and right is a shut­ting down of the heart.”

Maupin’s move to San Fran­cisco also, fa­mously, led to his life as a writer and the sto­ries that made his name. Tales Of The City started as a daily se­rial in the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle in 1976 and told the story of a naïve young woman, Mary Ann Sin­gle­ton, who moves into a house run by an old lady called Mrs Madri­gal, who is fond of hand­ing out ad­vice and neatly rolled joints. The se­rial, which also fea­tured Mary Ann’s sweet gay friend Michael “Mouse” Tol­liver, was a hit and even­tu­ally be­came a se­ries of nine nov­els and sev­eral tele­vi­sion se­ries; it has also been

I had a white su­prem­a­cist fa­ther that I adored and I be­lieved ev­ery­thing he told me. That’s re­ally why the book is called Log­i­cal Fam­ily be­cause even­tu­ally you have to let your own de­cency take over and re­ject the ig­no­rance that’s laid on you by your par­ents

a con­stant in­spi­ra­tion to many gay men and women com­ing to terms with their sex­u­al­ity. Gay peo­ple read the nov­els and think: right, that’s it, I’m com­ing out.

Maupin is im­mensely proud of the books, but is par­tic­u­larly fond of Mrs Madri­gal. When we first meet the land­lady in the orig­i­nal novel, stand­ing on her stoop amid wisps of in­cense and cannabis smoke, we know noth­ing of her child­hood. Then grad­u­ally, over the course of the first few nov­els, we dis­cover she grew up in a brothel and ran away to have a sex change.

At first, as Maupin ex­plains in Log­i­cal Fam­ily, the edi­tor at the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle was wary of the idea of a trans char­ac­ter and asked Maupin to de­lay re­veal­ing the fact. By the time Maupin did, read­ers had fallen in love with the char­ac­ter so that when they found out the truth they didn’t care. “The very fact that ev­ery­one got to see her hu­man­ity be­fore they found out about her past al­lowed her to wig­gle into their hearts and stay there. She is my most proud­est cre­ation.”

And rightly so: Mrs Madri­gal has prob­a­bly done more than any other fic­tional char­ac­ter to pro­mote trans equal­ity and un­der­stand­ing; she is also the queen at the heart of Maupin’s gen­tle, lib­eral view of the world, of peo­ple and of re­la­tion­ships.

Maupin has been with his hus­band Chris, a pho­tog­ra­pher, for 13 years, and, like one of the co­in­ci­dences in his nov­els, met him on the street by ac­ci­dent af­ter spot­ting him on a dat­ing site. They are deeply close – so much so that he be­lieves they can com­mu­ni­cate in their sleep – but they also have an open re­la­tion­ship in which ei­ther of them can see other peo­ple.

I ask Maupin how that works. Open re­la­tion­ships were 10 a penny among gay men in the 1970s, but I won­der if they are quite so com­mon now, given that gay peo­ple are stand­ing up and tak­ing mar­riage vows of monogamy just like straight peo­ple.

“I think there are far more open re­la­tion­ships than peo­ple ac­knowl­edge,” says Maupin. “It em­bar­rasses peo­ple to say that’s what they’ve worked out but I think frankly that’s one of the things that gay men have per­fected. They’ve learned how to not make sex the deal-breaker in a re­la­tion­ship. It’s not the eas­i­est thing in the world to do be­cause it re­quires full

hon­esty and kind­ness at all times and a cer­tain amount of reg­u­la­tion but if you in­sist to the per­son you’re with that you will be their one and only un­til death, you’re prob­a­bly headed in the di­rec­tion of heart­break be­cause there will be ly­ing in­volved.”

Maupin ac­knowl­edges that there are threats to this lib­eral, open view of the world – big threats like Trump and smaller threats, like Maupin’s brother Tony, who voted for him. “Those peo­ple wear­ing the red hats and want­ing to make Amer­ica great again they are just flat-out racists,” says Maupin. “I grew up with those peo­ple – I know who they are.”

As for Maupin’s brother Tony, he is one of those Trump sup­port­ers and is an op­po­nent of gay mar­riage. “Imag­ine what it’s like for me to have mem­bers of my fam­ily who are still vot­ing against mar­riage equal­ity when I’ve been putting the word out for 40 years in a very pub­lic way. It be­came crys­tal clear to me that I was an em­bar­rass­ment to him so I know how to re­move that em­bar­rass­ment and it’s go­ing to be by not stick­ing around.”

Maupin says this is the mes­sage of Log­i­cal Fam­ily: you don’t need to stay loyal to your fam­ily if they’re not right for you. “You can divorce the hell out of them if they’re not chang­ing,” he says. “It’s worth no-one’s time af­ter a while. Get on with your life and find your log­i­cal fam­ily.”

Log­i­cal Fam­ily by Armistead Maupin is pub­lished by Dou­ble­day at £20

Armistead Maupin’s first book was and still is a gamechanger for gay men and women around the world. Above: Maupin with hus­band Chris

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