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San Franciscan writer,
Armistead Maupin, author of the snowballing series Tales From the City is big
news and getting bigger.
But, as he tells Rosemary Goring, though he’s glad to be gay, he doesn’twant
to live in a gay ghetto.
A little boy of four or five looked around at his South Carolina world and ‘had a sense ofbeing utterly different. It wasn‘t a negative feeling in those days. It was more as ifl belonged to some secret aristocracy.‘
As he grew older that feeling deepened. At first he put it down to class: coming from a ‘moss-backed aristocratic‘ family with rich military roots. he was automatically one step ahead ofthe rest. His father ‘was a rather prominent lawyer in town, with a severe racist and misogynist streak‘. his mother an amateur actress and founder ofthe local SPCA. But by the age ofthirteen he understood what set him apart: ‘I knew that I was attracted to my own sex‘.
Thirteen years ofsilence followed. He hugged this secret to himself; as he was later to write. it was a matter of revulsion. shame and disbelief. All he could do was prove that he was, even so. still a ‘real man’. So he volunteered for the Navy. saw inactive action in the Vietnam War, won a Presidential Commendation from Nixon. and returned to South Carolina as a journalist. Still he had not whispered a word of his awful otherness.
Armistead Maupin talks ofthis period of his life as ifdiscussing another man. He smiles as he speaks. but he seems to have little sympathy with his younger self. ‘I was a tight-assed Republican. . . I mean. I had racist attitudes into my early twenties — those old values didn‘t die until I came to San Francisco and came out of the closet. And since I recognised the nature of my own oppression. I began to see what I had been doing to other people.‘
Twenty years on he has become one ofthe most prominent gays in the USA. a cult figure whose fame is now licking across the English-reading world.
His transformation. as he describes it. came in San Francisco. a city he first saw on the eve ofsailing to Vietnam: ‘beautiful, shining. bright‘. His move there in 1971 followed his first overt homosexual act. ‘in Charleston. South Carolina -
Francisco enveloped him like a cocoon. ‘It was such an enormous reliefto discover that people in San Francisco. especially the straight people, were so completely blasé about the fact of my homosexuality. They made less of a deal about it than I did, and that taught me to relax and to feel loved.‘
Three years later, almost by accident, he wrote the first episode of Tales ofthe City. the wit-cracking, poignant adventures ofthe lovable inhabitants of 28 Barbary Lane. Electric with an infectious vitality. the stories suggest the explosion of firecrackers that were just jumping to get out ofthe box, and Maupin believes that ‘whatever vision came out of Tales ofthe City is probably a result ofall those years ofsilence.‘
Written in daily instalments for the San Francisco Chronicle. the series began as a convenient way of making social comment; but soon the characters created situations for themselves. Six books. sixteen years and countless episodes later, the to be precise. on the very spot where the first shots of the Civil War were fired! I realised then that I was going to have to get out of the South.‘
The warmth and liberation ofSan Barbary Lane crew have wormed their way into the unlikeliest hearts. from Castro Street clones to Charlotte Square Sloanes.
‘I really had no idea to what degree I was tapping into a lot of people‘s personal experiences. In the first place. I never really thought the stories would work outside of San Francisco. Then it became more and more amazing when I found that people in Scotland related to the situation. I think probany because I had come out ofsuch a repressive atmosphere in the South. my transformation in San Francisco struck me as a wholly unique experience. only possible in San Francisco, and it wasn‘t until I got out ofthe city and began seeing other parts ofthe world that I realized it was going on all over the place.‘
‘It‘. however. is not only closet-jumping. It is learning to live with and accept everyone. whether you. or they. are straight. gay. bi. transexual. or simply confused. It means showing your New Year resolutions to your best friend,
admitting you care when you have no one to put up a Christmas tree with.
lThe List 23 February - 8 March 1990