The Stealth Warrior
By Josh Kilmer-Purcell
I admit it. When climbing the landscaped stairway in front of Armistead Maupin's Noe Hill home, which backs up into the magical Sutro Forest in the heart of his beloved San Francisco, the first thing I look for is pot plants.
My stomach has been lurching over the hills on the taxi ride to his house, and a little of Anna Madrigal's special blend would do wonders. Not spotting any plants, I continue climbing, aware of how much I desire Maupin to resemble, in spirit, the eccentric transsexual landlady-matriarch Anna Madrigal from his groundbreaking Tales of the City series.
We gays do that to our lions as they age. We desex them. We strip them of their power and influence. We mock their vast accomplishments as quaint. In an age when coming out can often be as breezy as joining a junior high gay-straight alliance, we look back on the hushed secret languages of those who came before us and think of them as somehow weaker than we.
So when the man standing at the door isn't wearing a caftan and drinking Frannie Halcyon's famous mai tais but is instead a sturdy, handsome, genial snow-haired daddy type, I think, To hell with the weed. Pass the poppers.
Already a local celebrity by the mid 1970s thanks to his weekly serial in the San Francisco Chronicle (to which the series had migrated from the Pacific Sun), Maupin (pronounced maw-pin) catapulted to widespread fame after the 1978 publication of his first book, Tales of the City. Five collections would follow, each taking up where the previous one left off, tracing the lives of an increasingly familiar set of San Francisco'based characters through to the late '80s.
While the last Tales book was published in 1989, its characters have resurfaced intermittently through Maupin's other acclaimed novels. For devotees, it's akin to receiving postcards from far-flung friends'nice updates, but not the same as getting together for one of Anna Madrigal's dinner and pot parties. And while Maupin is reluctant to classify his latest book, Michael Tolliver Lives (released this month), as a sequel in the series, ardent fans will likely be overjoyed with the return of Michael Tolliver'or 'Mouse,' as fans have come to know him'and his circle of friends. For a lot of gay men, Mouse was our first gay sighting'the first time we spotted a gay man in our culture who wasn't hidden behind euphemisms, villainously perverted, or tragedy-bound. It's hard to reconcile today how groundbreaking the idea of two men lying in bed next to each other'having a normal conversation about life, friends, and family'was in 1974, when Mouse first appeared in a mainstream newspaper.
The concept was so new, Maupin recalls, that a chart in his managing editor's office logged the sexual orientation of various characters. 'One column was labeled 'homosexual' and the other 'heterosexual,' ' he remembers. 'Each time a new character was introduced, the name was entered into its appropriate column. I was strictly forbidden to make more than 30% of them gay.' (In an effort to stack the deck, he once tried to include in the heterosexual column a dog that humped a woman character's leg. It didn't stick.)
'Today, we take for granted the world Armistead was writing into,' says fellow gay author, filmmaker, and friend Clive Barker. 'Even as late as 1984 my agent and editor'who were both gay themselves'demanded that I remove a short story from a collection because it had gay heroes. This was a full decade after Maupin began creating his magical world of Dickensian characters.'
Maupin didn't grow up in an environment that allowed anywhere near 30% of its people to reside in a homosexual column. It was more like zero.
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1944 and reared in North Carolina, Maupin had an upbringing that'like much of his life'is thinly veiled within the pages of his fiction. The son of conservative but loving parents, he was outed to his mother when she read a Newsweek profile of '70s antigay activist Anita Bryant in which her son was described as 'the prominent homosexual columnist Armistead Maupin.' She hid away in the library secretly reading up on his 'condition,' keeping it a secret from Maupin's 'crusty archconservative' father.
Maupin, himself, started down quite a different path from the brazenly liberal thruway on which he wound up. After earning his undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he enrolled in (and later dropped out of) law school. Echoing his upbringing, he penned a conservative column for the school paper that caught the eye of a local television station vice president and family friend, Jesse Helms, who gave Maupin his first job. Yes, that would be the same bigoted Jesse Helms who later vehemently denounced PBS's Tales of the City miniseries.
Maupin's youthful experience of writing from such an insincerely conservative vantage point might have been the catalyst for his disdain for the closet. In three decades of writing, the only 'bad' gay characters he's created are those who are not out.
'He is properly intolerant of hypocrisy and lies,' says actor Ian McKellen, a close friend of Maupin's. 'Neither in private nor public, however, is he self-righteous. His humor would not permit that.'
McKellen is speaking from experience. Although today he's considered a pioneer for gay actors and actresses coming out, it took a gentle nudge from Maupin to bring him fully into the spotlight.
'In 1987, at his home in San Francisco, I asked Armistead what he thought about my completing my coming-out journey by speaking openly in the media,' McKellen admits. 'His encouragement to do so was crucial.'
For over 30 years Maupin has been steadfastly making the world a gayer place, though not in any disproportionate sense. It's through him that people have come to realize how many of us are among them. And that's made all of our lives much, much easier.
'Armistead's own honest and rigorous sense of responsibility,' McKellen concludes, 'has made him the godfather to all of us who have learnt his lesson that coming out changes life forever for the better.'