Gay Times Magazine - - In Conversation With Armistead Maupin - Words Alim Kheraj

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 suˆests, 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.”

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