Saturday, January 6, 2018

Armistead and I: Tales of Two Cities


Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On New Year’s Day 2018, KPBS, the local San Diego outlet for public broadcasting, showed a couple of programs from 9 p.m. to midnight. One — the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s concert, featuring the music of the Strauss family and other light fare —was the sort of thing you expect to see around the New Year’s holiday. The other wasn’t: it was a film by Jennifer Kroot (she’s credited on only as director but the actual credits list her as writer as well) called The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, a documentary about the life of the San Francisco-based Gay writer who created the long-running serial Tales of the City, first published in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper and then in a book, which begat another book, which ultimately became six books in all ending in 1989, plus a couple of follow-ups Maupin wrote years later.
I don’t know why I wanted to watch this. I’d never been a fan of Armistead Maupin. I’d never even read him, though I’d seen the 1993 mini-series of Tales of the City on PBS — parts of it, anyway. Indeed, my husband Charles told me several times in the early minutes of The Untold Tales that if I wanted to watch something else, he wouldn’t mind me either switching the channel or putting on a movie on DVD. “This is an important slice of Gay culture and history,” I told him, and the show stayed on and we watched it until the end. It was a weird experience, mainly because it flashed me back to my own adolescence and early adulthood in San Francisco and my coming to grips with my own sexuality, including the time I was attending San Francisco State University and simultaneously dating two of my fellow students — a woman and a man — and ultimately living with the woman for nearly five years before I finally decided it was time to come out as Gay.
What I didn’t realize about Armistead Maupin was that not only was he a Southern boy. He was born in Washington, D.C. but raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. His family was Southern in their orientation and even had a genuine Confederate war hero in their lineage: Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, a Confederate general killed in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. (This was an especially noteworthy battle because it was the North’s first major victory, and it gave President Lincoln the political and military credibility he felt he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.) What’s more, Maupin got his first job in media at a TV station in Raleigh managed by none other than future U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, a deeply and viciously homo-hating man who once told Maupin that a homosexual was “the worst thing you could possibly be.”
Maupin grew up a hardline Right-winger and so intensely committed to the U.S. military that he volunteered for the Navy, served three tours (one of them in combat in Viet Nam) and only reluctantly left. In Kroot’s documentary, he ruefully admits that all the cute guys he could ogle there were one of the reasons he wanted to serve, though in the pre-“don’t ask, don’t tell” era when Queers were automatically banned from the U.S. military and there were periodic witch hunts to ferret them out, discharge them and give them “bad paper” that would make it virtually impossible for them to get civilian jobs later, he knew the rule was “look but don’t touch.”
He didn’t find his way out of either his political or his sexual closet until 1971, when he got a job with the Associated Press in their bureau in San Francisco. Though Kroot didn’t tell when or how Maupin came to grips with being Gay, his Wikipedia page says he knew he was Gay from childhood but didn’t have sex with a man until age 26 and didn’t definitively come out until age 30. In 1974 he began writing a serial about urban live in San Francisco for a weekly newspaper called the Pacific Sun, based in Marin County, just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. The Pacific Sun hired Maupin when they were attempting to expand into San Francisco itself, and when that folded he managed to place the serial with the biggest and most prestigious newspaper in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Chronicle.
Tales of the City — a title invented by his editor at the Chronicle since the Pacific Sun owned its previous name, The Serial — raised eyebrows at the Chronicle because newspapers generally didn’t publish fiction. They had once, and in Untold Tales Maupin at least twice compares himself to Charles Dickens because Dickens’ books, too, were first published chapter by chapter in newspapers as serials. The installments created a sensation, mainly because they dealt frankly with the fact that there were a lot of Queer people in San Francisco, and the Chronicle’s Gay and Lesbian readers embraced the series because it gave them a chance to read about people like themselves. The stories’ central character is Mary Ann Singleton, a naïve young woman who moves from Cleveland to San Francisco, takes an apartment in a building run by an eccentric landlady named Anna Madrigal, and falls in decidedly unrequited love with a young Gay man named Michael “Mouse” Tolliver.
The stories got attention from Chronicle readers, who fought what would now be called “flame wars” in the paper’s letters-to-the-editor column. Some denounced Maupin’s story as utterly unsuited for a family newspapers, while others defended the series. In 1978 a New York publisher sounded Maupin out about publishing the serial episodes as a novel, and Maupin agreed. Tales of the City became a best-seller and Maupin wrote five more books in the cycle. It ended in 1989 with Sure of You, a decision Maupin says in the film he reached because he had made Michael Tolliver HIV positive and he didn’t want the cycle to end with a morbid death scene like virtually all previous fiction about Queer people. As people with HIV diagnoses began living longer and AIDS receded from being an automatic death sentence to what the medical business calls “a chronic, manageable disease,” Maupin resumed writing about Michael Tolliver in 2007 with a book called Michael Tolliver Lives, with him narrating the story this time instead of it being told in third-person.
One of the things that kept Maupin’s series popular and relevant was his inclusion of real-life characters, events and issues facing the Queer community. Oddly, Jennifer Kroot includes a segment in her film about the effect of AIDS on Queers in general and the San Francisco community in particular before her depiction of Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” anti-Queer campaign in 1977 — four years before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) first identified AIDS as a diagnosable medical condition. Maupin was one of the first fiction writers to address AIDS — in the fourth installment in the Tales cycle, Babycakes, published in 1983, at a time when a lot of people in the Queer community were hoping the epidemic would burn itself out and go away.
He was also one of the first to depict a Transgender character. He had had it in mind that Anna Madrigal, the landlady and on-site manager of the building where most of the characters live, would be a Transwoman and be revealed as such at the end of the first Tales of the City book. Realizing that he knew very little about actual Trans people, he sought out a Transwoman and interviewed her. When he asked her why she had gone through gender reassignment, he was stunned by her answer: “Because I wanted to be able to talk to women.” At a time when there was a good deal of anti-Trans prejudice in the Queer community — much of it from self-proclaimed feminists who thought Transwomen were embracing the attributes of “femininity” many Lesbians were consciously rejecting in the 1970’s — Maupin was once again a trailblazer in depicting a Trans character realistically and sympathetically.
Maupin mostly used the real names of actual people he incorporated into his story, but made an exception for a major movie star he called “_____ _____,” but who was obviously Rock Hudson — whom Maupin had tricked with a few times in the 1970’s, including one three-way with Hudson’s partner. When Hudson fell seriously ill in 1985 and his publicists put out various cover stories to try to keep people from figuring out he had AIDS, Maupin publicly stated that he knew Hudson and had personal knowledge that he was Gay, thereby “outing” him after decades of rumors and getting dumped on by a lot of Queer people who thought no one should ever be brought out of the closet against their will.
One of the most heartbreaking stories about the impact of AIDS in Kroot’s film comes from Maupin’s long-time friend, Chinese-American author Amy Tan. She first met Maupin when he came to do a book signing at a bookstore Tan’s family owned. It had a lot of Queer employees, attracted Queer customers and stocked books about Queers and their lives. As the AIDS epidemic progressed, Tan recalled, her employees started dying. Her customers started dying, too, and eventually so many of her “regulars” passed away that the bookstore lost business and was forced to close.
Kroot pretty much races through Maupin’s post-Tales of the City years. She does discuss two long-term relationships he was in, including one with a man named Terry from whom he had what Maupin calls a “cocktail divorce.” After the 1996 International AIDS Conference in Vancouver — held during a long period when it was impossible to hold the conference in the U.S. because Maupin’s former mentor, Jesse Helms, had pushed a bill through Congress banning entry visas for people who tested HIV positive — new therapies involving multiple drugs were introduced and people with AIDS or HIV diagnoses started living longer. This had the odd result that people like Maupin in so-called “sero-discordant” relationships — he’s remained negative but he says in the film that all his serious partners have been positive — found their partners wanted to leave now that they no longer felt they needed someone to support them through an imminent decline and death.
Maupin’s current partner — his husband, actually, though Kroot doesn’t mention that they are legally married — is Christopher Turner, a much younger former model and photographer who created the Web site for younger Gay men interested in meeting and dating older ones. Maupin remembered looking at the site but not dating anyone from it; later he met Turner on the street and told him, “Didn’t I see you on” Turner then acknowledged that he’d created because he’d wanted to meet older men. The two began dating and married in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on February 18, 2007.
One good thing about Kroot’s film is that, though she made it with the intent of getting it on PBS, it doesn’t shy away from the sad history of Maupin’s work on the network. Tales of the City was made into a miniseries on PBS in 1993, with the young, then little-known Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton and Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal — both of them are interviewed extensively in Untold Tales — and it was sensationally successful. It brought many PBS stations the best prime-time ratings they’d ever had, and in San Francisco Tales pulled in more viewers than the commercial networks.
Then disaster struck: the Republican Party gained control of both houses of the U.S. Congress and Maupin’s mentor turned nemesis, U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, made Tales Exhibit A in his case for why the government should cancel all funding for PBS. The network caved and backed out of their deal to make another miniseries out of the second book in the cycle — and Linney, in Kroot’s films, vividly recalls her disappointment that she would not get to play the character again.

Maupin’s San Francisco — and Mine

I was born in San Francisco in 1953, making me nine years younger than Armistead Maupin. (By ironic coincidence, my husband Charles is nine years younger than I.) In 1960 my mother and stepfather (my dad and my mom had broken up when I was 1 ½ and I have no living memories of them as a couple) moved to Marin County and bought a home. I grew up in Marin County and suffered through some of my mother’s social experiments — including moving us to the so-called “gilded ghetto” of Marin City, where most of the county’s African-Americans lived — after she and my stepfather broke up in 1965.
Then in 1974 I moved to the East Bay to attend UC Berkeley, where I dropped out after two quarters. I stayed there until 1978, when I moved into a dorm at San Francisco State (where I’d started attending in 1977 less out of any burning career goal and more just to check “college graduation” off my list of life tasks) and then found a small studio apartment on Larkin Street, where my girlfriend and I lived until we moved to San Diego in January 1980.
There were a number of reasons we did that. She was from Southern California and felt more comfortable there than in San Francisco. I was already noticing my “roving eye” roving towards the men in our neighborhood, and I naïvely believed it would be easier for me to resist temptation and keep my straight relationship going if I got away from the large, politically influential and socially inescapable Queer community in San Francisco. Also the November 1978 murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had to some extent soured me on the city of my birth. The fact that I had commonalities with both Milk and his killer, Supervisor Dan White — I’m Irish-American like White and Queer like Milk — made the post-assassination political state of San Francisco even weirder and less welcoming to me.
Needless to say, the hope that I could keep my straight relationship together in San Diego and not be tempted to stray back to my Gay side didn’t work — though I didn’t finally come out to my girlfriend until December 1982. (We remain close friends to this day.) I was certainly a late bloomer sexually — I didn’t have my first sexual experience with a woman until early 1973 (she was on the rebound from her breakup with a mutual friend who also turned out to be Gay; today we’re back in touch and are friends on Facebook) and didn’t have my first with a man until late 1977.
I was coming out of the student bookstore at San Francisco State when I was approached by a man who sidled up to me and said, in a voice I’m sure he thought was sexy, “I’d like to blow you away.” Never having consciously thought of myself as Gay — though I can look back at my life and realize there were certain boys in my life on whom I clearly had what I can now recognize were crushes — I was freaked out by this, though I let him give me his phone number. That night, I tossed and turned virtually all night, worried about the whole thing, until I finally told myself, “You’re going to call that guy and you’re going to make a date with him.” The next morning I did, leaving him a message which he returned at an almost cosmically right moment — I was in my room listening to an LP of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1938 recordings of the Act I Prelude and Act III Good Friday Spell from Parsifal, and he called right in the pause between the Prelude and the Good Friday Spell.
I had my first Gay experience in the back of his car, on a weekend morning in the San Francisco State parking lot. We dated for a while until I met my girlfriend, also at school, and that, I thought, was the end of that. But as a Bay Area resident in the late 1970’s, when Tales of the City appeared as a miniseries on PBS, I recognized many of the settings — and many of the kinds of people depicted, too. In fact, I found much of the series hard to watch because, as I explained to my then-roommate, “I didn’t like these people that much in real life — why would I want to watch a movie about them?” I wonder what I’d think about Tales of the City if I revisited it now as an historical document.
I know that the books about life as a Gay man I did read in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, like John Rechy’s The Sexual Outlaw and Larry Kramer’s Faggots, probably kept me in the closet longer than I otherwise might have lasted because they made life as a Gay man seem like a relentless hunt for sex on the most superficial level. I’ve written before apropos of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus books that if its author, John Gray, wanted to test his theory that men and women approach sex differently, with women demanding that it have a romantic and emotional context and men more interested in the sheer physical sensation, he should have done what scientists call “isolate the variable” and looked at how people behave sexually when they don’t have to worry about the needs, desires and feelings of the other gender: totally Gay men and totally Lesbian women.
Certainly my own experiences as a Gay man — including being “out” for the past 35 years and having been through both “open” and “closed” relationships — lend credence to the idea that men can readily detach the physical pleasure of sex from any emotional or relational context. It also helps, of course, that Gay men can’t either get pregnant themselves or make their partners pregnant. When I was with my girlfriend I would frequently lose my hard-on during the laborious process of her putting in her diaphragm, which she had to use because she was allergic to pills and scared of IUD’s. When I came out I joked to her that I was finally practicing a form of birth control that was guaranteed 100 percent effective.
I can’t read a book or watch a movie about San Francisco in the late 1970’s without having twinges of nostalgia. I remember an establishing shot in Peter Berlin’s remarkable 1970’s Gay porn film That Boy that took us past the Wherehouse Records outlet in San Francisco, where I could remember buying the boxed set of Bruno Walter’s recordings of the complete Beethoven symphonies as well as quite a few avant-garde jazz items by people like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.
When I watched — or tried to watch — the PBS miniseries adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in 1993 I had a lot of those nostalgic twinges and said a sad requiem for the city I had once lived in, and the sort of community it had started groping towards before the Moscone/Milk murders, the rise of AIDS, and later the takeover of San Francisco by the dot-commers (briefly alluded to in Untold Tales when Maupin tells Kroot that he still loves San Francisco and refuses to protest things like the “Google bus” that spirits tech employees from their homes in San Francisco to their jobs in Silicon Valley) ended that set of possibilities.
San Diego is my home now and probably will be until the day I die — unless the relentless gentrifiers price me out of it and force Charles and I to relocate to a more isolated, more conservative but cheaper area for our final years. It’s not a place that exalts me the way the Bay Area used to, but it doesn’t disappoint me the way the Bay Area did either. But as the song says, I did leave my heart in San Francisco — or at least a piece of it — and cultural artifacts like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City bring it back to me in weird and not altogether pleasant ways.