I admit it. When climbing the landscaped stairway in front of Armistead Maupins 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 Madrigals 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 isnt wearing a caftan and drinking Frannie Halcyons 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 Franciscobased characters through to the late 80s.
While the last Tales book was published in 1989, its characters have resurfaced intermittently through Maupins other acclaimed novels. For devotees, its akin to receiving postcards from far-flung friendsnice updates, but not the same as getting together for one of Anna Madrigals 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 Tolliveror Mouse, as fans have come to know himand his circle of friends. For a lot of gay men, Mouse was our first gay sightingthe first time we spotted a gay man in our culture who wasnt hidden behind euphemisms, villainously perverted, or tragedy-bound. Its hard to reconcile today how groundbreaking the idea of two men lying in bed next to each otherhaving a normal conversation about life, friends, and familywas in 1974, when Mouse first appeared in a mainstream newspaper.
The concept was so new, Maupin recalls, that a chart in his managing editors 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 characters leg. It didnt 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 editorwho were both gay themselvesdemanded 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 didnt 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 thatlike much of his lifeis 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 Maupins 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 PBSs Tales of the City miniseries.
Maupins 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 hes created are those who are not out.
He is properly intolerant of hypocrisy and lies, says actor Ian McKellen, a close friend of Maupins. Neither in private nor public, however, is he self-righteous. His humor would not permit that.
McKellen is speaking from experience. Although today hes 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. Its through him that people have come to realize how many of us are among them. And thats made all of our lives much, much easier.
Armisteads 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.
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 didnt 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 timeonly 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 vanguardhes prescient.
And then theres 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.
Hes 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 thats 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.
Maupins spoonful of sugar activism often catches even longtime friends off guard.
The quality of Armisteads activism didnt 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 couldwith 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 peoplea lot of mainstream peoplethink of me as a sort of warm, fuzzy, safe gay author, Maupin says. I sort of resent that because I feel Ive 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? Its 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. Maupins 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 whats so groundbreaking about being happy and in love?
Maybe its that hes happy and in love with a man nearly 30 years his junior.
Given the way Maupins art reflects his life, its 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 Michaels point of viewmostly.
Michael is a mix of who I am, who Id like to be, and sometimes who Id like to fuck, Maupin answersprobably for the millionth exasperating timeto the question of whether or not he is Mouse.
The books atypically graphic descriptions may shock readers familiar with the Tales series. Unlike the previous books, the narrative doesnt 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 Im not alone in being slightly discomfited at finding my intrepid hero Mousewho in the first Tales book famously won the underwear dancing contest at the Endupnow 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 whats 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 havent seen a lot of this in gay literature. Or movies. Or even porn.
Which makes me wonder whether the rest of his readershipa large number of whom are straight women now old enough to be Bens motherwill think Mouse has turned into a, um
A dirty old man? Maupin finishes my sentence for me. Look, theres 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 thats been very good for me in terms of eliminating any residual self-loathing I feel.
In our youth-obsessed, chicken-hawk culture, its novel for a younger man to be not only an aggressor but a teacherand 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 dont get it.
Turner is handsome. But not in the twinkish way one stereotypically imagines of much younger husbands. When I meet the couple for lunch, Im struck by how Turners goatee and pensive eyes give him the demeanor of someone older than his 34 years.
Proving that its not only the differences but the similarities that make any relationship work, its not surprising that Maupins new husband is just as passionate about exposing unexplored aspects of gay life to the world. The two met after Maupin saw Turners personal ad on Daddyhunt.comthe dating Web site the latter founded five years ago. Now his company, Pantheon Productions, owns another site, HotOlderMale.com, for which he produces porn movies featuring older men.
I never imagined myself running a company that produces porn, Turner says. But a lot of my motivation was political, believe it or not. I wanted to say that its OK to be attracted to older guys, and I wasnt seeing my kind of man being celebrated.
Its hard to argue that intergenerational gay romance is simply a niche fetish: Turners personals site alone has over 100,000 members. But such relationships are certainly not discussed frequently in gay media. And when they are, theyre often viewed with suspicion.
Turner is under no illusions as to how his relationship with Maupin might be received by those who dont know them.
Theres always the assumption that if theres a big age difference, Turner says, the two parties are using each other in some way.
The discomfort works from the inside out as well. Turner admits that it was a little daunting bringing Maupin home to meet his parents.
Hes a couple of years older than my parents. It took my dad longer to warm up to him than anyone else. Armistead is the first person that I have ever taken home. I just wanted to get it right before I introduced someone to my whole family, Turner says, adding that after a short time together, it really was no issue for anyone.
Which is pretty easy to believe. For 30 years Maupin has made us all comfortable. Through his Tales of the City characters hes made many straight people comfortable with fun-loving, flag-waving homosexuals, transsexuals, bisexuals, and others. Hes made closeted gay people grow comfortable enough to step out into the world they fear. And now hes easing a self-obsessed gay youth culture into being more accepting of sexuality among the older generation they will eventually belong to. Its all in a days work for Maupin, essentially.
Armistead doesnt try to break ground, Dukakis laughs when I call him a stealth activist. He just, as Tennessee Williams would say, goes forth and writes about it. And then everyone else calls it groundbreaking.
When in reality, she continues after a moment of thought, what feels so new to us is simply honesty.
Michael Tolliver Livesis published by HarperCollins.