The Stealth Warrior
By Josh Kilmer-Purcell
Introducing gay characters in mainstream story lines was just the beginning of Tales breakthroughs, which occurred on a weekly basis as stories unfolded. With the series covering subjects such as AIDS and gay parenting and introducing a rare sympathetic transsexual character, there are few topics in modern LGBT history that we didn't hear about first from Maupin. In 1983, he introduced a plot in which a straight man discovered the woman he was sleeping with had AIDS, a notion akin to science fiction at the time'only gay men got AIDS. Coincidentally, when the installment appeared, a report ran in the same paper on a handful of women in local hospitals purported to have contracted the disease. Maupin, it sometimes seems, is not simply in the vanguard'he's prescient.
And then there's the subtle power of his writing to break 'gay news' to his mainstream audience in such an entertaining and nonthreatening way that he avoids the militant backlash of more overt activism.
'He's such a cunning storyteller,' says Clive Barker, 'cleverly making the reader identify with his people [so] that, before you know it, you sort of love everybody. You love the world.'
Perhaps that's why, when taken out of context, his story lines seem so dangerous to the intolerant and bigoted. When Tales of the City aired on PBS in 1994, it received official condemnations from the legislatures of South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Georgia, mainly for showing scenes of two men kissing. The PBS affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn., received bomb threats. It all seems silly now, after Will & Grace and Queer as Folk. Then again, so does tallying up characters in heterosexual and homosexual columns. By the time we realize the number of breakthroughs Maupin has accomplished with his wry humor and sentimental story lines, the moment of threat has long passed.
'I could not believe the violently dramatic reactions of people like Jesse Helms and what we now call the religious right,' says Olympia Dukakis about the controversy whipped up around the miniseries. Dukakis played the transsexual Anna Madrigal in all of the Tales miniseries.
Maupin's 'spoonful of sugar' activism often catches even longtime friends off guard.
'The quality of Armistead's activism didn't quite hit me until I saw him give a speech at a [Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation] event,' says Laura Linney, who played the naive Midwesterner Mary Ann in the TV series. 'Here we were at an event where everyone was deservedly celebrating their successes, and then Armistead stood up to speak. There was my sweet, kind, loving Maupin telling everyone in the most passionate and firm manner that it was not time to rest on their laurels. And he did that in the way only he could'with such great love and humor that people were able to embrace the message rather than be demoralized.'
Maupin himself sometimes ponders his activist legacy.
'I think a lot of people'a lot of mainstream people'think of me as a sort of warm, fuzzy, safe gay author,' Maupin says. 'I sort of resent that because I feel I've been breaking ground every inch of the way.'
But is it possible for a set of characters who are by now in their 50s to blaze any more trails? It's hard to imagine, in this day and age when gay people are liberally peppered throughout pop culture. But, as the author says, 'Life has a way of providing.'
Three years ago life provided Maupin with Christopher Turner, whom he married earlier this year in Canada. Maupin's 1996 breakup with his last partner was painful and fairly public. But after a few years spent recuperating as a bachelor in the Castro, he is in love. And happy. But what's so groundbreaking about being happy and in love?
Maybe it's that he's happy and in love with a man nearly 30 years his junior.
Given the way Maupin's art reflects his life, it's perhaps no surprise that in Michael Tolliver Lives, Mouse, now 54 years old, is dating a man named Ben who is 21 years his junior. Interestingly, this is also the first book set in the Tales milieu written in the first person, from Michael's point of view'mostly.
'Michael is a mix of who I am, who I'd like to be, and sometimes who I'd like to fuck,' Maupin answers'probably for the millionth exasperating time'to the question of whether or not he is Mouse.
The book's atypically graphic descriptions may shock readers familiar with the Tales series. Unlike the previous books, the narrative doesn't stop at the bedroom door. Maybe I too was one of those people who considered him to be my warm and fuzzy gay literary uncle instead of my warm, fuzzy gay literary daddy. But I'm not alone in being slightly discomfited at finding my intrepid hero Mouse'who in the first Tales book famously won the underwear dancing contest at the Endup'now worrying about his 'falling ass.'
When I point out the new sexual descriptiveness, Maupin notes that both his editors and agents wondered whether or not he should 'tone things down.'
'Maybe what's making everybody squeamish is the idea of someone my age having a three-way,' he muses in that same way he deftly turns observations into pointed questions aimed back at the questioner.
The uneasiness is not simply a manifestation of ageism. After all, this is a 54-year-old man having a threesome with someone young enough to be his son. We haven't seen a lot of this in gay literature. Or movies. Or even porn.
Which makes me wonder whether the rest of his readership'a large number of whom are straight women now old enough to be Ben's mother'will think Mouse has turned into a, um'
'A dirty old man?' Maupin finishes my sentence for me. 'Look, there's always the assumption that it involves money or power or actual daddy issues. Who the hell knows what turns anyone on?'
As usual, Maupin attacks preconceived notions with reality. 'I went to a great deal of trouble in Michael Tolliver Lives,' he says, 'to explain that Ben was as much the aggressor as Michael. In fact, he was advertising for such a relationship.'
Was the same true of him and Turner?
'Christopher has known of his attraction to older men since he was a teenager. I had to get used to believing him. Really? You want me? It was a huge surprise and delight to find out that he was every bit as turned on by me as I was by him,' Maupin says. 'And that's been very good for me in terms of eliminating any residual self-loathing I feel.'
In our youth-obsessed, chicken-hawk culture, it's novel for a younger man to be not only an aggressor but a teacher'and not for reasons of power or wealth, but for true romance and attraction.
And did Maupin ever date older men when he was younger?
'Hell, no,' he laughs. 'I don't get it.'