IN CONVERSATION WITH ARMISTEAD MAUPIN.
Armistead Maupin can’t quite understand why people keep asking him about his decision to write a memoir. “My answer is why not?” he says frankly. “I’m 73. It seems like the age, pretty much. I wanted to explain how I got from there to here.”
The “there” he is referring to isn’t just the creation of his beloved series of novels set in San Francisco, Tales of the City — the first of which was published in 1978 and last in 2014 — but the juxtaposing aspects of his life. As Armistead recounts in his recent memoir, the bittersweet, candid and explicitly funny Logical Family, he grew up in the conservative southern state of North Carolina. His father was a supporter of the Confederacy, a white supremacist and homophobe, and Armistead adored him, blindly following his father’s footsteps into early adulthood.
Unbeknown to his father, however, was his son’s homosexuality; Armistead’s gayness was the crack in his conservative armour. His first sexual experience with another man occurred at 25 while he was in the navy. While described as “lacklustre”, it signalled that he wasn’t destined to carry on his father’s conservative mantle. After leaving the army and moving to San Francisco to become a reporter, everything slotted into place.
“I severed myself from the first half of my life,” he admits when we meet in London. “It took a while and it wasn’t immediate; I was still hanging a picture of Nixon in my apartment in Russian Hill. But it became clearer to me that I would have to create a life of my own”. He explains that his family’s conservatism is, still to this day, embedded in them and has previously revealed that they voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. “How they reconcile that in their own heads, I’ll never quite know,” he sighs. “I think a lot of parents use that lame line, ‘This is just my politics. I love you.’ It doesn’t cut it, and it never has for me.”
Despite the new beginnings, his first forays into the gay scene in San Francisco in the 70s weren’t ventures into a queer utopia. He recounts in the memoir a visit to his first gay bar, Rendezvous, describing how he was rattled by the “institutional queerness” on offer. “I had never been to a gay bar and it scared me. I thought, is this the way it’s going to be? This tacky room with the rotating lights and guys slow-dancing to Streisand?” he recalls. “When you’re young and it’s all new to you, you assume that there’s one way to be queer and you don’t learn that queer actually means that you have the freedom to be the architect of your own life.”
Indeed, as he acclimated to life on the West Coast, the lure of sexual freedom and liberation soon saw Armistead drawn into the world of bathhouses and glorious casual sex. “I was a slut,” he writes in Logical Family. “And beginning to enjoy it immensely.” These sex positive experiences are given a spiritual resonance in the memoir, and not, as he jokes, “because I was always on my knees.” “I don’t mean to make light of it,” he adds. “It made me realise how much time I had wasted enlisting to the puritanical strictures of other people.”
Sex is still something that Armistead finds spiritual, especially with his husband Christopher Turner. In their marriage, he says, sex is “a very healing affirmation of love. And it is love and lust happening simultaneously, which just doesn’t get any better.” That doesn’t mean their sex life is anodyne and vanilla. “Oh, I still reserve the right to be unpalatable,” he chuckles. “I think Chris and I are very public about having an open marriage. We’ve allowed ourselves a certain amount of freedom, which horrifies some people, and says that we are unworthy of marriage. But that’s because they don’t define marriage the way that I do. Fidelity is more important to us than monogamy. I just don’t believe that monogamous sex should be the deal breaker in a relationship.”
Armistead clearly sees his take on marriage to Chris as the ultimate rebellion, ensuring that it doesn’t slot into the heteronormative ideals prescribed by the evangelical right who so vehemently fought against marriage equality in the United States. Yet this rambunctious side has gotten him in trouble in the past. In Logical Family, he fondly discusses his relationship with the actor Rock Hudson, with whom he had a few sexual encounters and whom he later outed in the press when Hudson was dying due to complications related to AIDs. “The situation with Rock occurred because he got ill and the press were all over him. Randy Shilts, the reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, asked me if I would be willing to go public about my friendship with him. So that’s what I did,” Armistead explains. “I didn’t choose to be invisible in his life. I have lost friendships with other well-known people because I’ve let it be known that I’ve thought that they should stop playing the game.”
This issue of encouraging and sometimes forcing people out of the closet, Armistead argues, is a responsibility for gay people, and he has “very little respect for people that I know to be gay who don’t come out.” In 2017, he suests, there’s no reason for people in places like Hollywood to be locked in the glass closet. His friendships with the late Christopher Isherwood — who was somewhat of a literary mentor to Armistead — and Sir Ian McKellen were and are, he tells us, built on this desire for transparency in all aspects of people’s lives. It’s bold but personal, too. “It’s partially just contempt for my own timidity,” he says, “and realising how quickly things change when you start telling the truth and owning your own life.”
As exemplified by his stance on coming out and from his nine Tales of the City novels, Armistead isn’t frightened of the politically correct brigade. Yet at a recent Q&A session, the author was asked about the seeming lack of racial diversity in his Tales novels. He puts forward that the character of D’orothea Wilson was his response to this, but explains that a reader wrote in to him at the newspaper where the Tales stories were originally published as serial saying that the character was “nothing in the world but a white woman in black skin.” “I decided to avert disaster by proclaiming that she was a white woman in black skin,” he continues, before laughing. “And people gave me a lot of credit a few years ago for predicting Rachel Dolezal, but I was really just trying to save my own ass 40 years ago.”
Does he believe that this oversight was just symptomatic of the times in which he was writing? “I think it had to do with my myopia as a southerner,” he posits. “Even though I had moved to this wonderful town where you could see a degree of racial and sexual equality around you — I’m sure if you ask a black person about San Francisco in the ‘70s they’d say it wasn’t that great to be queer and black — writers only bring to the table the tools of their life experience. I hadn’t had much up to that point.”
The publication of Armistead Maupin’s Logical Family and his tale of expunging his conservative past to create his own identity couldn’t have come at a more pertinent time. It feels necessary not only to understand the fixed nature of politics in America, but also how one person can grow, change and impact lives for the better. Furthermore, Netflix have optioned a reboot of the Tales of the City TV series set in the modern day, which will hopefully bring the series to a new audience. The reboot will, Armistead promises, right any wrongs from the novels and the original 90s TV series, and be much more racially and sexually inclusive. “That has always been the spirit of Tales of the City,” he finishes thoughtfully, “even in the moments when I’ve failed in doing that.”