Tales of the City
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By clicking on the links to the right you can access an array of Armistead’s published writing. Many of them are recent forewords to other books. Some are popular blasts from the past like the 1985 manifesto, “Armistead Maupin’s Design for Living” and the author’s seminal 1977 coming-out statement, “Letter to Mama.” There’s even a story from 1971 about Armistead’s adventure as the last American sailor to withdraw from Cambodia.

Additional writings can be found on the blog of this site.

The site of the time capsule where Tales of the City is interred.
(See foreword to Gay by the Bay)


It’s not hard to imagine the joke Harvey Milk might have made about being the subject of an “oral history.” He was a bawdy and unembarrassed guy—“sex-positive,” as we now so tiresomely call it—so he never missed a chance to send up his own libido; he was part satyr, part Catskill comic, and both instincts energized his political career.

I can’t say that I knew Harvey well, but we were brothers in the same revolution. In the late 70s while he was campaigning for supervisor in the Castro, I was across town on Russian Hill cranking out “Tales of the City” for the San Francisco Chronicle. Since both efforts were predicated on the then-radical notion that queers deserved a voice in the culture, Harvey and I often found ourselves on the same bill, headlining events that ran the gamut from pride marches to “No on 6” fundraisers to jockstrap auctions at the Stud. We had come of age in a time when homosexuality was not only a mental disease but a criminal offense, so to be oneself and make lemonade from such long-forbidden fruit was exhilarating beyond belief.

Ridiculous as it seems to me now, Harvey and I had both been naval officers and Goldwater Republicans. Like so many gay folks who defected to San Francisco in the early 70s, we’d finally had enough of the shame and secrecy that had stifled our hearts to the point of implosion. Now we were catching up on everything we’d missed, the full fireworks of adolescence: the free-range sex and clumsy puppy love and the simple, giddy freedom of standing-on-the-corner-watching-all-the-boys-go-by. Harvey was fond of saying that he never considered himself a candidate, that the gay movement itself was the candidate. I’m not sure he believed that completely—look at him on the back of that convertible—but it does show how brilliantly he understood the nature of the army he’d assembled. This really was about us: the clerk at Macy’s, the dyke cop on Valencia, that old tranny singing torch songs in the Tenderloin. It was a movement born of our long frustration and the comforting interconnectedness of everyone who had chosen that moment in history to tell the truth; it was born of a love that could finally speak its name.

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Let me tell you a story.

In the last month of his life, Harvey Milk met a cute twenty-five-year-old named Steve Beery at the Beaux Arts Ball in San Francisco.

Steve was dressed as Robin from the “Batman” comics, so the supervisor introduced himself by tossing out an effectively hokey line—“Hop on my back, Boy Wonder, and I’ll fly you to Gotham City.” On their first date Harvey asked Steve if he was happy being gay, because Harvey, always on the run, wondered exactly how much on-the-job training would be required. Steve took this to mean that Harvey saw him as serious boyfriend material.

I can’t say for sure how many times they got together—half a dozen at the most. On the mornings when Harvey slept over, he would drive Steve to work at a credit union on Geary Boulevard and they would make out in Harvey’s Volvo in full view of Steve’s co-workers. Sometimes Harvey would call Steve from City Hall and playfully petition for a blow job at his desk. They had made plans to spend Thanksgiving together, but a last-minute crisis at City Hall—reports of the mass suicides at Jonestown—kept Harvey working late again. On another occasion Steve recalled Harvey shrugging off a grisly death threat that had arrived in the mail. “I can’t take it seriously,” he said. “It was written with a Crayola crayon.”

Their last night together was the Friday before Harvey was murdered. Steve remembered it as a night of leisurely cuddling that turned into the gentlest sort of lovemaking. On Monday morning, Steve got the news from a coworker who’d heard it on the radio. His boss took pity on him and drove him home, where Steve found a note from his roommate saying that Harvey had called that morning with plans for getting together that evening. Numb with disbelief, Steve walked all the way across town to City Hall, where throngs of other people sobbing in the street finally made the tragedy real for him. He didn’t try to push his way past the police barricades; he had come into Harvey’s life too late to be part of his official history. He had just been in love with the guy.

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When Steve worked up the nerve to call Harvey’s office, Harvey’s aide, Anne Kronenberg, arranged for him to attend the memorial service at the Opera House. “We’ve been trying to reach you,” she told him. “You’re one of the chief mourners.” Arriving alone at the memorial service, Steve found a seat next to mine and asked if he could take it. He was crying, so for most of the service I held the hand of this stranger. His face was blurry with grief, but I could see what Harvey must have seen: a bright, inquisitive, tender-hearted soul. For the next fifteen years Steve would be my closest friend, forging a life for himself as an activist and a writer. Like so many of the young men who marched in Harvey’s army, he never quite reached middle age, never got to pass on his wisdom. AIDS robs us of more than life; it erases a universe of collective memories and hard-earned experience.

Maybe that’s why we’re having to learn to kick ass all over again. The generation that knew nothing of Harvey Milk before seeing the movie that bears his name was jolted into a harsh new reality when California voters decided to strip gay people of their right to marry. To us old-timers the argument for Proposition 8 was a blast from the past, a throwback to the evil theocratic Save-the-Children bullshit that Anita Bryant was spewing over thirty years ago. Why, then, was our response so maddeningly weak-kneed and closeted? Why didn’t you see images of gay people in any of our ads—or even the word “gay,” for that matter? Are we that ashamed of ourselves?

The answer is no, thankfully; most of us aren’t. And a growing number of young people have lost patience with the black-tie silent-auction-A-gay complacency of the organizations that claim to be fighting for our rights but don’t want to ruffle feathers. These new kids are friending each other on Facebook (whatever that means) and taking to the streets on their own. My husband and I met a few of them when we picketed the Mormon temple in Oakland last month. They have love in their eyes and fire in their bellies and a commitment to finish this fight once and for all.

Harvey would have loved them.

Armistead Maupin
November 2008
San Francisco

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I was seventeen when I first saw “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” at a movie house in Raleigh, North Carolina. Looking back, it’s easy enough to see why a fledgling queer would fall for it. There was Audrey Hepburn, to begin with, so delicate and witty and spritelike that she seemed somehow…beyond sex. Here was a girl you could talk to all night without being expected to put out. I loved her apartment, too. That half-bathtub sofa, and the common fire escape, and the way that Audrey, when depressed, would climb through George Peppard’s window and sleep with her head planted chastely on his well-muscled chest. What I loved, in effect, was a gay boy and his girlfriend.

Peppard, after all, is playing the writer character from the novella—the Truman Capote character, for heaven’s sake—so despite the film’s heterosexual intentions, the easy intimacy and candor and (yes) love between Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak somehow suggest two people who aren’t out to fuck each other. I melt over that final wet-cat-in-the-rain kiss as much as the next person; I just can’t imagine what comes next. More shopping on Fifth Avenue, I guess, more breezy banter and true confessions.

A decade later, I recognized the same chemistry between Liza Minnelli and Michael York in “Cabaret,” another story about an urban apartment house and its polyglot residents, though (I’m embarrassed to admit) I was just as ignorant of its queer creator, the great Christopher Isherwood, as I had been of Capote at the dawn of the sixties.

Isherwood’s writer alter ego in Goodbye to Berlin—the 1939 source material for “Cabaret”—remains coy about his own sexuality while tracking his platonic friendship with the quirky Sally Bowles. The film, of course, makes it clear that its handsome hero likes boys and that Sally adores him for it, though this revolutionary concept is eventually blunted by a drunken tryst between Minnelli and York that left me, frankly, a little queasy.

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By then, I was already living in San Francisco and had girlfriends of my own. One was a struggling actress like Sally/Holly; another a rusty-haired mother of two who called me Babycakes, and who, upon receiving my quavering confession of homosexuality, snorted “Big fucking deal.” With both women I shared everything: my exploits at the baths (largely joyful) and the heartbreak that inevitably followed when I tried to turn playmates into lovers. I was almost thirty by then, but I was braving the masculine wilderness for the first time, so it helped immensely to have women on my side. And since sex and romance were not factors in our relationship, we were free to open our hearts—or spill our guts—when joy or catastrophe demanded it.

Such friendships were rarely celebrated back then, so I knew they would make perfect fodder for “Tales of the City,” the daily serial I launched in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976. In my own variation on the urban apartment house—28 Barbary Lane—a young queer named Michael Tolliver takes devilish glee in scandalizing his friend, Mary Ann Singleton, a bright young naif fresh out of Cleveland. Inhabiting both these characters came naturally to me, since, if the truth be known, I was both of them. I was a wide-eyed newcomer like Mary Ann and a randy gay blade like Michael, though the decadent poses I struck for my straight girlfriends were often a cloak for my own insecurities, making me, I suppose, more akin to Sally and Holly than their more sensible male companions. Michael, therefore, would need someone to call him on his shit, someone older and less blindly sentimental. Enter Mona Ramsey, a world-weary lude-popping lesbian who’d tried a few men and found them decidedly lacking. Both Mary Ann and Mona would hold a mirror to Michael’s dreams, just as he would do for them.

That was over three decades ago, so the notion of women bonding with gay men is far less exotic than it used to be. Which is not to say that the experience is any less rewarding or complex or richly amusing as it always was. The essays in this book, as widely varied as life itself, stand in vivid counterpoint to the clichés that popular culture has already codified about gay men and the women in their lives. They remind us once again that neither gender nor sexuality can ever fully dictate the tenants of our hearts.

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“TALES OF THE CITY” DVD liner notes, August 2002

The outrage “Tales of the City” provoked when it aired on PBS in 1994 seems almost quaint these days. Apoplectic over the sight of two men smooching in a convertible and the pot smoke wafting through 28 Barbary Lane—lawmakers in Georgia, Oklahoma, and South Carolina passed resolutions fiercely condemning the miniseries. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, there was even a bomb threat that emptied the local PBS affiliate the first night the show aired. The Reverend Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association sent members of Congress a 12-minute bootleg videotape featuring what he regarded as the dirty bits of “Tales of the City.” Since this included a shot of Norman Neal Williams (Stanley DeSantis) scratching himself in Jockey shorts, the less said about the Reverend’s thought processes the better. I do want to thank him for the noise he made, for without it—and the subsequent lurid reporting by “Entertainment Tonight”—my life’s work might never have attracted such a widespread audience.

Contrary to right-wing claims, “Tales of the City” was not funded by “taxpayer dollars.” It was entirely the product of Britain’s innovative Channel Four and the determined efforts of Working Title Films and Propaganda Films. PBS acquired it the way it acquires many British programs cheaply and without risk—only to receive unprecedented ratings, critical raves, and a Peabody Award. So it was all the more galling when the network caved in to conservative pressure and reneged on plans to broadcast “More Tales of the City”. I suspect they regret that now, if only because of the small-screen revolution that followed. “Tales of the City” forever changed the landscape of television, paving the way for the domestic lesbians of “Ellen,” the straight girl/gay boy antics of “Will & Grace,” the unapologetic promiscuity of “Queer as Folk,” and the omni-sexual, multi-generational humanism of “Six Feet Under.” PBS left the party just as it was getting interesting.

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Frankly, I’m used to this sort of nonsense. Back in 1976, when “Tales of the City” began life as a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, I often fought with editors who underestimated the tolerance and intelligence of their readers. To make my point, I took a brief break after the first year; 40,000 San Franciscans wrote to ask what the hell had happened to Mrs. Madrigal and her tenants. Three years later, when Warner Brothers bought the rights to the first of the six Tales novels. I learned what nervous nellies Hollywood executives could be. “Love that gay gynecologist,” one guy told me with a straight face, “but I think he should turn out to be a serial killer.”

The culture has grown up a lot since then. Freed from the burden of manufactured hysteria, “Tales of the City” can now be appreciated as the benign fable it has always been, a story about people being kind to one another, even under the oddest of circumstances. Alastair Reid’s stunningly atmospheric production has emerged as a sort of “American Graffiti” for television: a showcase for a number of “unknown” actors who went on to achieve considerable fame. It’s rare that such talent converges for a single project, and I’m grateful to everyone, on both sides of the camera, who made the miracle happen.

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1.  Stop begging for acceptance. Homosexuality is still an anathema to most people in this country—even to many homosexuals. If you camp out on the doorstep of society waiting for ‘the climate’ to change, you’ll be there until Joan Rivers registers Democratic. Your job is to accept yourself—joyfully and with no apologies—and get on with the adventure of your life.

2.  Don’t run away from straight people. They need variety in their lives just as much as you do, and you’ll forfeit the heady experience of feeling exotic if you limit yourself to the company of your own kind.

Furthermore, you have plenty to teach your straight friends about tolerance and humor and the comfortable enjoyment of their own sexuality. (Judging from ‘Donahue,’ many of them have only now begun to learn about foreplay; we, on the other hand, have entire resorts built around the practice.)

Besides, it’s time you stopped thinking of heterosexuals as the enemy. It’s both convenient and comforting to bemoan the cardboard villainy of Jerry Falwell and friends, but the real culprits in this melodrama are just as queer as you are. They sleep with you by night and conspire to keep you invisible by day. They are studio chiefs and bank presidents and talk-show hosts, and they don’t give a damn about your oppression because they’ve got their piece of the pie, and they got it by living a lie.

3.  Refuse to cooperate in the lie. It is not your responsibility to ‘be discreet’ for the sake of people who are still ashamed of their own natures. And don’t tell me about ‘job security.’ Nobody’s job will ever be safe until the general public is permitted to recognize the full scope of our homosexual population.

Does that include teachers? You bet it does. Have you forgotten already how much it hurt to be fourteen and gay and scared to death of it? Doesn’t it gall you just a little that your ‘discreet’ lesbian social-studies teacher went home every day to her lover and her cats and her Ann Bannon novels without once giving you even a clue that there was hope for your own future?

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What earthly good is your discretion, when teenagers are still being murdered for the crime of effeminacy? I know, I know—you have a right to keep your private life private. Well, you do that, my friend—but don’t expect the world not to notice what you’re really saying about yourself. And about the rest of us. Lighten up, Lucille. There’s help on the way.

4.  Stir up some shit now and then. Last spring I wrote a commentary for the Los Angeles Times on the subject of television’s shoddy treatment of homosexuality. The piece originally contained a sentence to the effect that ‘it’s high time the public found out there are just as many homosexuals who resemble Richard Chamberlain as there are who resemble Richard Simmons.’ The editor cut it. When I asked him why, he said: ‘Because it’s libelous, that’s why.’ To which I replied: ‘In the first place, I’m not saying that Richard Chamberlain is gay; I’m simply saying there are plenty of gay men who resemble him. In the second place, even if I were saying that Richard Chamberlain is gay, it wouldn’t be a libelous remark, because I’m gay myself and I don’t say those things with malice. I don’t accuse anyone of being gay; I state it as a matter of fact or opinion.’ When the new city of West Hollywood assembled its council last month, the Associated Press identified the three openly gay members as ‘admitted homosexuals.’ Admitted, get it? Fifteen years after the Stonewall Rebellion, the wire service wants to make it perfectly clear that homosexuality is still a dirty little secret that requires full confession before it can be mentioned at all. If you don’t raise some hell, that isn’t going to change.

5.  Don’t sell your soul to the gay commercial culture. Well, go ahead, if you insist, but you’d better be prepared to accept the butt plug as the cornerstone of Western civilization. I am dumbfounded by the number of bright and beautiful men out there who submerge themselves completely in the quagmire of gay ghetto life, then wonder why their lives seem loveless and predictable. What the hell did they expect?

If you have no more imagination than to swap one schlock-heavy ‘lifestyle’ for another, you haven’t learned a goddamn thing from the gay experience. I’m not talking about sex here; I’m talking about old-fashioned bad taste.

No, Virginia, we don’t all have good taste. We are just a susceptible to the pitfalls of tackiness as everyone else in the world. Your pissing and moaning about the shallowness of other faggots falls on unsympathetic ears when you’re wearing a T-shirt that says THIS FACE SEATS FIVE.

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Not long ago I sat transfixed before my TV screen while an earnest young man told a gay cable announcer about his dream of becoming Mr. Leather Something-or-other. He was seeking the title, he said, ‘in order to serve the community and help humanity.’

He wore tit rings and a codpiece and a rather fetching little cross-your-heart harness, but he sounded for all the world like a Junior Miss contestant from Modesto. If our fledging culture fails us, it will be because we forgot how to question it, forgot how to laugh at it in the very same way we laugh at Tupperware and Velveeta and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

6. Stop insulting the people who love you by assuming they don’t know you’re gay. When I began my book tour, a publicist in New York implored me to leave his name out of it, because ‘my family doesn’t know about my…uh, lifestyle.’

Maybe not, but they must be the dumbest bunch this side of Westchester County; I could tell he was gay over the telephone. When my own father learned of my homosexuality (he read about it in Newsweek), he told me he’d suspected as much since I’d been a teenager. I could’ve made life a lot easier for both of us if I’d had the guts to say what was on my mind.

7. Learn to feel mortal. If AIDS hasn’t reminded you that your days are numbered— and always have been—then stop for a moment and remind yourself. Your days are numbered, Babycakes. Are you for living them for yourself and the people you love, or are you living them for the people you fear? I can’t help thinking of a neighbor of mine, a dutiful government employee who kept up appearances for years and years, kept them up until the day he died, in fact—of a heart attack in the back row of an all-male fuck-film house. Appearances don’t count for squat when they stick you in the ground (all right, or scatter you to the winds), so why should you waste a single moment of your life seeming to be something you don’t want to be? Lord, that’s so simple. If you hate your job, quit it. If your friends are tedious, go out and find new ones. You are queer, you lucky fool, and that makes you one of life’s buccaneers, free from the clutter of two thousand years of Judeo-Christian sermonizing.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself and start hoisting your sails. You haven’t a moment to lose.

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“THE LAST AMERICAN SAILOR,” The News and Courier, Charleston SC, 1971

THE LAST AMERICAN sailor to withdraw from Cambodia was naked. To be perfectly honest, that wasn’t the way he had planned to do it. He’d planned to leave like John Wayne, grim-eyed and granite-jawed, in tattered fatigues and muddy jungle boots. He left, instead, in nothing more than a coat of soap suds. This is the way it happened:

IN LATE JUNE, 1970, I was stationed on a little Navy boat moored in the Mekong River at President Nixon’s 21.7-mile limit in Cambodia. The craft, with a crew of 13, was the last remnant of a “Brown Water” armada that had steamed up the river May 9 to chase communists out of the town of Neak Luong and thereby open Highway 1 between Phnom Penh and Saigon. Life, since that time, had been sluggish and uneventful. Excitement consisted of impromptu swim meets, the weekly arrival of the ice boat, and occasional treks into the village to swap C-rats for souvenir flags and sarongs. During our stay, we fired a total of three shots, all of them at George, a mascot dog which had suffered a seizure and was drowning in the river. The killing of George constituted our only massacre, our only grief. Then, one day, a radio message changed our lives inexorably. The command post down the river in Vietnam told us that our 50-foot, Marine green, shoebox-shaped “tango boat” was to become the last American Naval vessel to withdraw from Cambodia. Not many days later, on the eve of the President’s withdrawal deadline, ABC correspondent Steve Bell boarded the boat and offered to make us “heroes on the 6 o’clock news”.

WE ACCEPTED without hesitation because Mr. Bell had not overestimated the limits of our idealism. (He bribed us with two cases of beer.) We sensed, too, a kind of tragic grandeur about posing for what amounted to the first televised retreat in the history of warfare. To capture that grandeur, we “withdrew” from Cambodia twice. That is, we pulled away from the river bank twice, so that Mr. Bell and his cameraman could get the proper photographic perspective on our war-torn vessel.

As the cameras whirred, a dozen crew members pranced Patton-like about the deck, sporting remarkably well-laundered camouflaged fatigues and festooned with grenades, jungle knives and enemy weapons. An hour before, they had been wearing nothing but chopped-off trousers.

One man could not participate in this stirring saga of the sea. Duty required him to remain below deck in the sweltering innards of the boat, manning the radio watch.

That was me, of course, and I was mad.

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Imagine the frustration! My one, clear shot at glory had been crushed by the mundane demands of the Watch Bill. I fumed shamelessly. But not for long. We had been under way for less than half-an-hour when the boat in front of us—the one bearing the television team and a public affairs officer from Delta headquarters— radioed that she had taken a B-40 rocket over the bow. To complicate matters, the public affairs officer had been wounded by a sniper bullet which had passed, somewhat unceremoniously, through a beer can in his right hand. He received, someone later remarked, only minor schlitznel wounds.

OUR BOAT, less than a kilometer way, went to General Quarters, which involved little more than becoming officially nervous. There was nothing else we could do. In the heat of that moment, the idea came to me. It was so idiotically simple, so solidly foolproof, I marveled it had not occurred to me before. My chance for glory had not passed. I could yet become the “last American sailor to withdraw from Cambodia.”

The last American sailor to withdraw from Cambodia would be the man who was standing on the fantail when the boat crossed the border into Vietnam.

I did a little jig around the radio, then settled down to map my strategy. The border was an hour away, plainly marked by a flagpole flying the Vietnamese colors. I would get off watch in 30 minutes, leaving plenty of time to position myself. The enemy had stopped shooting. The only problem was how to stand on the fantail for any length of time without attracting attention. I didn’t relish getting caught in the act of self-glorification. The solution was to take a shower. There was a hose back aft, fed by water pumped directly from the river. At night, when sea snakes and treacherous currents made swimming impossible, it had served as our shower. Soon, it would serve a far nobler purpose. Ever so subtly, when the appointed time came, I took off my clothes and strolled back to the fantail. I turned on the water, soaped down, and sang a sea ditty, deliriously confident of victory. The flagpole was less than two minutes away! Then something catastrophic happened.

THE COMMANDER, the ranking officer on the boat, appeared out of nowhere and walked aft of me. He dawdled around the stern, and I knew with sickening certitude that he was trying to take my title from me. And he knew that I knew. And I knew that he knew that I knew. It was not a time for indecision.

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Steeling myself for battle, I discarded the soap and strode purposefully to the anchor winch, a metal structure extending over the wake of the boat. Passing the commander, I proffered a crisp salute. In lieu of returning the pleasantry, he made an impolite remark about my ancestry. Undaunted, I mounted the winch cantilevering my naked body over the churning white water. My grip on the oily metal was perilously unsure. The commander, who by this time, had totally reverted to his native tongue (Anglo-Saxon), grabbed a nearby line and commenced to lower himself off the stern. He was not giving up easily. In fact, he seemed to be gaining on me. I inched out further on the slippery steel, as bits of my life began to flash before my eyes. For one chilling moment, I thought I had lost my grip. I wondered, stoically, how the Red Cross would phrase the letter to my family. Then, as the flagpole slid abeam, I arched my back and flung my left leg in the direction of Cambodia, looking, for all the world, like a figurehead installed by a drunken shipfitter. The commander, tasting defeat, uttered a single monosyllabic and unprintable word. The rest, of course, is history.

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“MAD, STARK MAD,” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2007

A recent episode of “South Park,” the animated show on Comedy Central, was devoted to the notion that hybrid-driving liberals in San Francisco had caused a toxic “cloud of smug” to form over the city, threatening the entire nation.

That’s closer to the truth than I’d like to admit.

We San Franciscans can be a little smug sometimes, a little too patriotic about our beloved city-state. But, frankly, it’s hard not to feel that way when you’ve lived here for any time at all. This place is special—a patchwork of villages huddled on seven hills above the bluest of bays. We’ve got wild parrots in our trees and mom-and-pop stores on the corner and world-class olive oil down at the Ferry Building. These days we’ve got an elegant new museum in the park and a tree-lined boulevard where an ugly freeway offramp used to be. We’ve got that strapping young mayor too—who became even more irresistible to the ladies when he married some gay folks down at City Hall. Hell, we’ve even got the woman who is leading the House of Representatives now—the first woman to do so—and though she’s cleverly disguised as a Catholic grandmother at a country club, she’s our kind of gal.

And we’ve been right about things. Sorry, but it has to be said: we’ve been right about things for a very long time. Wacky, godless, treasonous San Francisco, standing alone in its madness, spoke out about global warming and the war in Iraq and George W. Bush long before the rest of America finally woke up to the truth. So those dreaded “San Francisco values”—tolerance, compassion and peace—aren’t sounding quite so flaky in a country disillusioned by Abu Ghraib and Hurricane Katrina.

Don’t get me wrong. We’re no wiser than the rest of America—just a lot freer. We can think our foolish thoughts and chase our foolish schemes without hindrance from church or state or the neighbors down the block. We are free to transgress— politically, artistically, sexually and spiritually—and we believe that a great deal of good has emerged from that. That’s why, in the end, we don’t really care what the rest of America thinks of us. We’ve been immune to those taunts since 1849, when the New York Post described the citizens of San Francisco as “mad, stark mad.”

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There was justification, mind you. The crazed fortune hunters who created this place left their ships to rot in the harbor on their way to the gold in the hills. That’s how certain they were that they would never return to their homes in the East. Their ships, what’s more, were dragged out of the water and into the muddy streets, where they found brash new lives as hotels and jailhouses—weird Dr. Seussian hybrids of vessel and building that stood for years as proof there was No Going Back. The past, having outlived its usefulness, had been carpentered into the future.

A century and a half later—despite earthquakes, epidemics and dot-com disasters—people still chase their dreams to San Francisco. They don’t so much move to the city as defect to it, warmed by the glow of their burning bridges. Like the heroine of my Tales of the City novels, newcomers have been known to take this leap overnight, enduring high rents, low pay and joblessness in the hope of becoming someone else.

It’s not that we don’t revere tradition: we do, deeply. But ours is a tradition of eccentricity and earthly pleasures and a healthy disrespect for the powers that be. And most of us, I’ve found, love reciting the lore of our rebellious history. When visitors arrive from elsewhere, I myself can be every bit as garrulous as a docent in an antebellum mansion in Georgia. Here, for instance, are some of the things I enjoy telling them:

● That Mary Ellen Pleasant, a former slave who settled here after the Civil War, secured the right of black people to ride the trolleys in San Francisco almost a century before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of that bus in Alabama.

● That Mark Twain, while steaming in a Turkish bath on the site of the current Transamerica Pyramid, struck up a friendship with a local fireman whose homespun-sounding name—Tom Sawyer—would later prove useful to the storyteller.

● That Billie Holiday was busted for drugs in a room at the Mark Twain Hotel.

● That the ashes of gunfighter Wyatt Earp were buried in a Jewish cemetery south of San Francisco so that his beloved widow could later be interred with him.

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● That Jack Kerouac wandered away from Neal Cassady’s cottage on Russian Hill to stumble upon Joan Crawford, larger than life in pumps and a fur, shooting “Sudden Fear” in the fog.

● That the Twin Peaks bar at Castro and Market was the first gay bar in America to have windows on the street, making the patrons visible to the general public.

● That Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, like Rosie and Kelli O’Donnell, were married at San Francisco City Hall.

● That Jeanne Bonnet, a swashbuckling lass who frequented the brothels of the Barbary Coast dressed as a man, later convinced some of the prostitutes to flee their pimps and join her own all-girl band of pickpockets.

● That the Lusty Lady, a modern-day Barbary Coast establishment on Kearny Street, struck its own blow against the exploitation of women when, in 2003, it became the first worker-owned peep show in the nation.

● That in 1927 a fresh-faced young Mormon named Philo T. Farnsworth transmitted the world’s first television image in a laboratory at the foot of Telegraph Hill.

● That the brain of Ishi, the last “wild” Native American and a one-time San Francisco celebrity, was returned to California in 2000 after spending almost a century in a Smithsonian Institution warehouse in Maryland.

● That among the words San Francisco has given the dictionary are beatnik, yuppie, hippie, hoodlum and shanghaied.

I was none of those things when I arrived in San Francisco in 1972 to work for the Associated Press. Fresh out of the South and a tour of duty in Vietnam, I was seriously conservative and frightened to death of almost everything, especially my own homosexuality. (It was, after all, still officially a mental illness, not to mention a crime.) But when I worked up the nerve to confess my “condition” to a new friend—a young married woman with children—she stared at me soulfully, took both my hands in hers and murmured a dewy-eyed “big f------ deal.” I could hardly believe my ears. Like the city itself, she was telling me to lighten up and get on with the business of my life.

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That proved to be my born-again moment, the watershed from which I date my transformation. In San Francisco I found love the way I’d always wanted it. I found friends of every imaginable variety. I found my creativity and a generous audience and a seemingly endless supply of stories to tell. After too many years of searching, I found, in other words, the age-old American promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

So I dragged my ship out of the harbor and made it my home for good.

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“GROWING UP GAY IN OLD RALEIGH,” The Independent Weekly, Raleigh NC, 1988

When I was a teenager in Raleigh my friend Clark told me I could get a girl horny by putting cigarette ashes in her Coca-Cola. “You just flick them in,” he explained on a camping trip to Confederate Dam. (It’s gone now, gobbled up by the Beltline.) “Wait till she goes to the john, and give it a flick or two. She’ll be all over you, man. I swear.”

From my standpoint, there were three drawbacks to this scheme:

1. The taletell taste.
2. The fact that I didn’t smoke.
3. The fact that I wasn’t attracted to girls.

Clark didn’t know about that third thing, of course, because he was my best buddy, and I didn’t want to disappoint him. He had a generous, exuberant heart and he saw himself as my mentor in the Ways of Women. So I listened and nodded and leered brutishly in all the right places, and kept it up all the way through college, where Clark became increasingly concerned about my virginal state.

“I’m saving it,” I told him.

“Saving it? You’re crazy. For what?”


“Oh, sure.”

Glancing down at my Weejuns, I tried to look cavalier but conscientious. “I don’t believe in premarital sex.”

“Shit, man, I don’t, I believe you! With all the woman around here?.”

“Well, I...”

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“Sex is great,” he laughed “And you’re a fool.”

I remained a fool too, I didn’t go to bed with anyone until I was 26.

Feeling funny.

I think about my friend Clark every time Jesse Helms gets all het up about safe-sex literature and the ways in which it might help to “promote” homosexuality, if sexuality could be promoted, Clark would have made a straight boy out of me back in 1962! Lord knows he tried hard enough.

I don’t know what made me gay, but I can safely assure Senator Helms that it wasn’t a pamphlet or illustration or even one of those dirty movies he takes such delight in being disgusted by. As far as I’m concerned, I came into this world gay, and l shall leave that way, God willing, and no amount of “promotion” will alter my fundamental nature.

I knew this when I was 14 and thought I was the only person like me in Raleigh. True, my parents were friends with a bachelor professor who taught at State and bred day lilies behind the Y, but he wasn’t really “that way”—as my mother used to put it—he was “just sissy.”

Some perfectly normal Southern men have those mannerisms, she said, because they were raised by large households of women (mothers, aunts, maids, and the like) and this tended to make them effeminate. But that didn’t mean they were “funny.” So many of them were married after all.

The only gay person I knew about for sure was a math teacher I had at Broughton who was arrested for Crimes Against Nature. One day he was teaching class and the next he wasn’t, and his mystified pupils learned why the following day on the obituary page of The News and Observer (the man wasn’t dead, mind you, but the implication was that he might as well be). Since his transgression occured at a state park, I felt almost certain that a Crime Against Nature had something to do with defacing trees. A classmate set me straight.

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Well not straight enough, obviously, but I got the message anyway: My feelings about other boys were not only unnatural and disgusting; they were punishable by law. I was in deep trouble.

When would it begin to show? I wondered. When would my voice crack, my hips start swiveling? How long could I reasonably delay before people got suspicious and called me a Fairy Nice Fellow (a euphemism my father employed for some of my mother’s fellow actors at the Raleigh Little Theatre)? What if I just remained a debonair bachelor like Bob Cummings on “Love That Bob”? Would anyone be fooled?

My father, as it happened, was compiling a family history at the time, a Herculean feat of research in which he held forth on a variety of topics, including the worldly fate of Maupin Men throughout history. Looking to it for guidance, I found this:

“They are lawyers and doctors, planters and merchants, generals and privates…If you go far enough back into the dim past, there appears to be a small amount of royal blood—and there most certainly is the blood of at least two pirates…One thing is certain, and that is wherever one of these men met success, there was a self-effacing and goodly lady at his side.”

So there I had it. There were no bachelors in my family—no successful ones, at any rate. Even the pirates had goodly ladies on board, which, once I’d thought about it a while, was certainly not my idea of how to run a pirate ship.

Firing the first shot.

Four years later, when I enrolled at Chapel Hill, I learned to muffle my sex drive with extracurricular overachievement. I was the token conservative in Student Legislature (this being the ‘60s, after all) and wrote a column for “The Daily Tar Heel”, which strove to be a jaunty mixture of Art Buchwald and William F. Buckley, Jr. I went out with girls, but they were all just buddies, so my sacred virginity was never really at risk.

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Then I moved on to UNC law school, imagining myself as my father had imagined me —a trusted junior partner in his Raleigh firm. This vision began to collapse, however, as tort piled upon dreary tort and I learned the literal meaning of “bored to distraction.” At the end of my freshman year, after being elected president of the class, I took one look at the single question on my Equity exam and hitchhiked home to Raleigh. I can still remember how good it felt to walk out.

By this time the Vietnam War was raging full force, so I applied for Naval Officers Candidate School to avoid being drafted as a field soldier. I was accepted, but I had to wait five months before beginning my training in Newport. In the interim, I took a job as a reporter at WRAL-TV, a station then under the executive management of Jesse Helms, a longtime friend of my family.

Jesse saw me as a kind of protege, I think, and I was a willing pupil. Conservatism appealed to me at the time not only because it was the creed of my family, but because it claimed to champion the rights of the individual. And I was feeling more individual by the minute.

One day, when the station sent me to interview the imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, I came back with some footage which stopped Jesse cold. I had asked the I.W. what he thought of the recent marriage of Dean Rusk’s daughter to a black man. He had replied, rather calmly, that it didn’t surprise him at all, because the Secretary of State was a woolly liberal and a practicing homosexual.

Jesse was horrified. He himself didn’t care much for Rusk, but this was nothing short of libelous—even for a liberal—and the station simply couldn’t run it. Homosexuality, he told me, was the most heinous sin a man could commit. I nodded dutifully and kept my mouth shut.

When I finally acted on my feelings, I was a boot ensign stationed on a destroyer tender in Charleston. My partner in this awkward adventure was a man I met one night on The Battery—the very spot where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. (Even at the time, this felt curiously appropriate, for my great-great grandfather had been a Confederate general, and my father flew—and still flies—the Rebel flag in his den.)

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As romantic escapades go, this one wasn’t that much to speak of, but I think of it now as the moment when I finally became human. Reporting for duty the next day, I felt so utterly relieved, so completely transformed by the experience that I feared it might show somehow, like a “Scarlet H” on my forehead.

No one even noticed.

Telling the truth.

After a tour of duty in Vietnam and a stint as a reporter in Charleston, I was offered a position with the Associated Press in San Francisco. Having seen the city on my way home from Vietnam, I had already been struck by its physical beauty, but the word of mouth was even better. “You’ll have a wonderful time,” a friend whispered as I left Charleston. “They have gay bars there.” To which I replied somewhat primly: “Oh, I would never go in one of those.” Of course, I was in one of those the night I arrived.

I also found something else in San Francisco: a climate of tolerance which I had never experienced in the South. My first good friend was a 30ish straight woman with a husband and two kids. We were so close that I hated the idea of deceiving her, so one night I downed three mai tais after work and steeled myself to tell Jan the awful truth.

When I arrived at her house, I must have looked so unhinged that she hurried the children off to bed and plopped me down on the living room sofa. “Babycakes,” she said, “what in the world is the matter?” I hemmed and hawed for a while, then looked at her dolefully and said: “I’m homosexual.”

Jan blinked at me once or twice, then knelt in front of me and took both my hands in hers. “Big fucking deal,” she said, smiling.

From that moment on I resolved to make those three little words my answer whenever someone questioned my right to exist. Bit by bit, I began to construct a life for myself which was based on shared honesty and personal freedom—the individualist ideal I had looked for in conservatism but never found.

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There were wonderful side effects, too. As my heart grew and prospered my imagination took flight and I discovered my calling as a storyteller. Drawing on my own life for color and content, I created a daily, fictional serial for the San Francisco Chronicle which has so far been collected into five novels with an international following.

It was through that serial—“Tales of the City”—that I finally “came out” to my parents in 1977. Using the voice of a fictional character (who is writing to his own parents), I explained in the gentlest way I knew that I was happy being gay, that it had made me a wiser, stronger man, that it was no one’s “fault,” and that I loved them more than ever. “Please don’t feel you have to answer this right away,” I wrote. “It’s enough for me to know that I no longer have to lie to the people who taught me to value the truth.”

My father, who had been following the serial on a regular basis, received this news with some consternation, though he told me later that he had suspected as much from my earlier stories. (“I wondered,” he said dryly, “how an Eagle Scout knew such things.”) When the dust settled, his old cavalier spirit took charge and he began bragging to selected friends that he had “Three fine children—one of each.”

My mother, it seems, had known I was gay for years and had made herself an expert on the subject by sneaking into the stacks of the Olivia Raney Library. My revelation drew us closer than ever, I think, and it got to the point where her only concern was finding me a suitable partner.

Several years later, after a brave bout with cancer, my mother died at the university hospital in Chapel Hill. She spent her last day on earth trying to fix me up with her orderly.

Fighting back.

Every story needs a happy ending, so here is one my mother would like: I’m 44 now and no longer a bachelor, having settled down in San Francisco with Terry Anderson, a Southern boy I met during a speaking engagement in Atlanta. I’m a committed homebody but I travel extensively on behalf of gay rights.

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I might have bowed out of this effort years ago if it weren’t for the fact that I still remember how much it hurt to be 14 and feel utterly alone in the world. There are kids like that everywhere suffering more than I did, because the once unmentionable Crime Against Nature has a name and a face to it now.

Four or five years go I returned to Raleigh for a public appearance on behalf of the North Carolina Human Rights Fund. The event was held at a gay bar called Glenwood Park, next door to the Five Points theatre where I had watched Roy Rogers movies as a child.

The men and women who showed up that night ran the gamut of Southern humankind. There were journalists and lawyers, working mothers, construction workers and closeted scions of “Old Raleigh” families. Some of the older people regaled me with personal ancestors “I knew your mother,” one of them told me warmly. Another had taught me Sunday School at Christ Church. Still another had been a friend of my family’s genial, wise-cracking pediatrician—a lesbian, it turned out. I was flabbergasted. Where had these folks been all my life? Why had I not noticed them at the time?

The question is rhetorical, of course. Fading into the woodwork is a lesson most gay people learn remarkably early in life. The twin issues of acceptance and survival teach us to mask our true natures, even from those who might be our friends. The result is often a life of laborious “discretion,” an endless cycle of apology and deceit.

I was past 30 myself before I discovered the simple way out of this mess: If you don’t want to be told on, tell on yourself first. The best way to take charge of your life is to abandon your secrets.

Some of the people at the bar that night had already figured this out. Others, sadly, never would, forever indentured to a system which has trained them to be ashamed, to toe the line, to lower their voices—even there—when they spoke the word “gay” in public.

Since then, I understand, the social climate has changed dramatically in North Carolina. Faced with virulent anti-gay attacks from Jesse Helms and others (as well as increasing incidents of outright brutality and murder) lesbian and gay men here have begun to fight back with a determination that is unequaled in America.

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In the past two years the state has seen the formation of activist groups in Asheville, Greensboro and the Triangle area. Gay organizations are in the works in Charlotte and Winston-Salem, and a new state coalition convened for the first time several months ago. Perhaps the most heartening news to me was that Raleigh, the hometown I share with Jesse Helms, has followed the lead of Chapel Hill and adopted an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It’s appropriate, then, that this June 25 Raleigh will be the site of the annual North Carolina Lesbian & Gay Pride march. Terry and I will be present for that event, making our way down Hillsborough Street, to the monument my great-grandmother erected “To Our Confederate Dead.” We are doing this because we know the world won’t change until gay people become visible and proud. We are doing it because we have our own dead to honor now, and their blood is on the hands of the indifferent.

When I was in college, the scourge of integration was Jesse Helms’ main obsession, the commie-stooge demon he railed against nightly on WRAL-TV. Then, lo and behold, the times changed on ol’ Jesse, leaving him one less minority group to kick around in public. I suspect he feels a certain embarrassment now about those early racist editorials.

Is it too much to hope that he’ll live long enough to experience the same discomfort about his current vendetta against “sexual deviates?” Gay people, after all, are part of his constituency, too. They can be bullied and insulted just so long before taking him to task for his ignorance.

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“THE ISHERWOOD CENTURY” Foreword by Armistead Maupin

The title of this volume fits its subject to a tee. There was so much about Christopher Isherwood that felt centurial in scope: from his pre-modernist concern for the enjoyment of his readers to his trailblazing commitment to telling the truth, even when it proved unflattering. On a personal level, this union of charm and candor made him a treasure to his friends: a sort of social alchemist whose very presence in a room could bridge the generations. Certainly no other figure in my life made me feel more connected to a past I had never known and a future I had yet to realize. He accomplished this remaining solidly in the present, while never presuming that his celebrated history was a matter of common knowledge. “My friend Wystan was a poet,” he once explained to a friend I brought to his house. And he provided this footnote without a trace of condescension.

Chris’s comfort around people of all ages was gloriously present at a dinner party he and Don Bachardy threw in the early eighties. An unknown friend of a friend of theirs was performing in a jazz club in the San Fernando Valley—a cabaret, if you please—so the couple suggested we retire there for drinks, while warning us that they could promise nothing. The senior member of our gang, Chris, reclined in the back seat of the car, not because he was infirm but because he couldn’t bare to watch Don’s driving, and the couple had settled upon this peculiar method of travel as the best way to avoid conflict. (Chris once explained it to me this way: “I believe I’m the only person who’s fit to be on the road at all; therefore, I prefer to just miss it when other people drive.”)

We were all rather giggly by then and speculating wildly about our destination, which, to judge from our suburban surroundings, threatened to be relentlessly hetero. To aid in our deliberations Chris would read aloud from the signs that flickered past his limited low-level vantage point. “Midas Muffler,” he would mutter with exaggerated alarm. “That’s very bad news indeed.” But when we finally arrived at the nightclub, tucked primly into a prosaic mini-mall, he read the last sign he saw with a note of unexpected relief in his voice. “Pioneer Chicken,” he crowed. “It is a gay place, after all!”

It wasn’t—in any sense of the word—but we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. (It helped that the chanteuse was a touchingly plump Valley Girl version of Sally Bowles). There were six men at the table that night, each representing a different decade of adult gay life, and it was exhilarating to see the journey laid out before me so attractively. Chris had his arm around a twenty-eight-year-old, whose nipple he would occasionally

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tweak in a friendly way, much to the honor of the tweakee. I remember catching Don’s eye and seeing the twinkle there that I would learn to read so much into in the years to come. “Isn’t this wonderful?” he seemed to be saying. “This happy little band of queers in the midst of this ordinariness.” Or maybe that's just how I felt at that moment: proud and free and blessedly special because of the company I was keeping.

I first met Chris and Don at an Oscar Night party in the home of one of the producers of “Saturday Night Fever”. (There was, I remember, a distinct note of protest in the air, since all those catchy Bee Gees songs had been officially excluded from consideration by the Academy.) I established the author’s identity by the piercing blue eyes that had recently mesmerized me on a PBS interview. He was very much in his cups that night, but he was gracious when I expressed my fandom and even more so when I told him I was writing a fictional serial for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Oh, yes,” he said. “That marvelous, funny thing.” At which point I lost all sense of proportion and asked if he might consider reviewing Tales of the City for the Los Angeles Times. Chris countered with an offer to write me a blurb, explaining that he never wrote reviews because they sometimes required one to be critical of other writers. He would rather just celebrate the good, he said. (This policy made so much sense to me that I promptly adopted it as my own—and adhere to it faithfully still.)

Chris’s blurb arrived in a letter that likened me to Dickens and declared-even more shockingly-that he had reread Tales three times and would probably read it again before long. Re-reading that letter recently, I was struck by his unfailing graciousness to a young writer. He actually apologized for being late with the blurb, explaining that “writing a blurb sometimes comes as hard to me as writing a sonnet—I mean, there’s the same necessity to be brief.” The other thing that letter made clear was my impoverished state at the time. “I tried phoning you,” Chris wrote, “but the operator told me the number has been disconnected. If there’s another, please let me know.” When I was able to thank him in person, Chris deflected my gratitude by citing the generosity that Forster and Maugham had shown him as a young writer. He knew full well what effect this would have—linking a callow newspaper serialist to the noble lineage of English literature—and drew great pleasure from it, I think. And his support didn’t stop there. When I came to L.A. for my very first out-of-town gig, there were six people who showed up for my autographing at the Unicorn Bookshop in West Hollywood: three friends from back home, the guy I’d picked up the night before at a sex club called Basic Plumbing, and that famous pair from Adelaide Drive.

In the years that followed I cherished a relationship with Chris and Don—then with Don alone—that continued to illuminate my life in ways both personal and

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professional. Chris was the first writer to tell me that art and entertainment were not mutually exclusive, that I should never apologize for my impulse to keep readers interested. He was also the first to warn me about literary labeling. “Don’t let them call it a gay book,” he told me emphatically in reference to Tales of the City. “You’re writing for everyone and about everyone.” Though Chris has been understandably embraced by the new queer theorists, the man who popularized the Q-word in public interviews had a horror of being restricted to a sub-genre for his honesty. His aim, it seemed to me, was the aim of a true revolutionary: to change literature from the inside and remain squarely under the nose of what he called “the heterosexual dictatorship.” I can’t help but wonder what he would make of the current marketing scheme that keeps gay thought restricted—at least in this country—to a cubbyhole in the back of the bookstore.

Which is not to imply that Chris was in any way cautious about discussing his homosexuality. He spoke out more fearlessly—and more often—than any of his queer contemporaries; certainly more than Truman Capote, who once equated his gayness to his alcoholism, or even Gore Vidal, who wrote brilliantly about our oppression but remained cagey about his own life while he still had a shot at the Senate. Chris was deliciously blunt and remained that way to the end. In 1985, when I talked to him for the Village Voice in what proved to be his last interview, he even offered some blasphemous advice to young men who had been ostracized because of AIDS: “They’re told by their relatives that it’s a sort of punishment, that it’s…God’s will and all that kind of thing. And I think they have to get very tough with themselves and really decide which side they’re on. You know, fuck God’s will. God’s will must be circumvented, if that’s what it is.”

There were other lessons I learned from Chris: subtler ones that came from observing a successful gay couple in action. The longevity of his partnership with Don was widely celebrated, but it should be noted that they never used it to feel superior to others or to propagandize for some grim replica of conventional marriage. I well remember Don remarking to The Advocate that his decades with Chris were no more inherently valid than a lifetime of one-night stands. It wasn’t the numbers that counted, he seemed to be saying, but the quality of the love that was shared. And, as Chris’s and Don’s diaries begin to unfurl before the world, it becomes increasingly clear that the couple achieved a fidelity far deeper and more rewarding than simple monogamy could ever be.

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The thirty-year difference in their ages lent a Socratic quality to the union that was fascinating to witness. Chris had early on recognized Don’s gift as an artist and supported his education, so that over the years the younger man began to develop an impressive visual counterpoint to his partner’s greatest contribution: a sharp but generous eye on the human condition. They were twin lights, separate but together, each feasting off the other’s talents and perceptions. And anyone who knew them will tell you how eerie and wonderful it was that a kid from the beaches of Southern California came to adopt the stammer of a well-bred Englishman. Even after years of knowing them, I found it a challenge to guess which of the two was answering the phone at Adelaide Drive.

So I had a reference point already when I met a feisty young man in Atlanta who was fifteen years my junior and reportedly sounded exactly like me on the phone. Terry Anderson worked part-time at a book store called Christopher’s Kind and came into my life just as Chris was leaving, so it felt like a pilgrimage of sorts when I took my newfound soul mate to Santa Monica to meet Don. (I remember the guilty thrill I experienced when Don left the room and Terry and I scrambled to take each other’s pictures in the straw chairs that Chris and Don had posed in for David Hockney.) Several years later Don would fall in love with Tim Hilton, a young architect as far from him in age as Don had been from Chris, and they would spend their honeymoon with Terry and me on the isle of Lesbos. Both partnerships would flourish for almost a decade, dissolving—or at least reconfiguring themselves—at roughly the same time. And the wisdom that Don had accrued from both sides of the generation gap once again offered me a source of strength and validation.

When Don visited me in San Francisco last month, I told him it didn’t seem possible that Chris had been gone for nearly fifteen years. He felt the same way, he said, acknowledging the potency of the words and memories that Chris had left behind. But there was something else that induced that feeling of my mentor’s constant presence, something I noticed as we stood on the porch waiting for a cab to arrive. Don bounced on his heels in a way that seemed utterly familiar, and the set of his jaw in profile made me gasp in recognition of the man he was becoming at sixty-five. “Oh, my God, Don,” I murmured, and he read my mind on the spot. “I know,” he said with an impish smile. “And the haircut doesn’t help either.”

Armistead Maupin
San Francisco
29 September 1999

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“THE BERLIN STORIES” – Introduction

Several years ago, on a break from the Berlin Film Festival, my husband Christopher and I took our friend Ian McKellen on a pilgrimage to Nollendorfstrasse 17, the address made mythic by Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. It was a bitter winter night, stinging with sleet, but, we were heartened to find the street much as the writer had described it: “Cellar-shops…under the shadow of top-heavy balconied facades…houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.” A brass plaque, rendered in German and tagged with graffiti, marked the apartment house where Isherwood had lived in the early 1930’s, sometimes down the hall from the model for his best-known creation, Sally Bowles. Across the street, on the side of another house, a pink neon sign was bleeding its message into the black-and-white landscape—GAY INTERNET CAFÉ—prompting Ian to smile in tender appreciation. “Perfect,” he murmured. “Absolutely perfect.”

I knew what he meant. It was lovely to see that seventy-five years after Isherwood had lived on this “deep solemn massive street,” young men were still coming here to tell stories and look for love. The writer had come here himself because “Berlin meant boys,” all those decades ago, and the boys were back in town, proclaiming their desires in unapologetic neon. In the course of Isherwood’s life two holocausts— one brought on by fascism, the other by a deadly virus—had decimated the people he called his tribe, yet we were still here, still riding a wave of change that Isherwood himself had helped to set in motion. That neon sign was as much his legacy as his writing.

A small confession: I found my way to The Berlin Stories the way many readers of my generation did—through the 1972 movie musical “Cabaret.” (Isherwood, unlike his less cheeky Berlin compatriots Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden, was not widely taught in American schools in the 1960’s, especially in the South.) As a young gay man who’d recently defected to San Francisco, I was stunned to find echoes of my new life in this film about another city and another time. Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles reminded me of some my own new women friends: daffy and wounded and falsely naughty and refreshingly nonchalant about homosexuality. And the Michael York character—the Isherwood figure, I learned-was so winsome and virile and gorgeous that I wanted to be him, going so far as to buy a sleeveless sweater like the one he wore in the movie.

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So I went straight to the source and plunged into the old New Directions “paperbook” of The Berlin Stories—that black-and-white cover with the Brechtian piano player— where I was willingly led astray by Isherwood’s cast of charlatans and rent boys and all-seeing landladies in the last days of the Weimar Republic. The novel, as it turned out, was actually two novels, both told in the first person. The first of them, The Last of Mr. Norris (1935), was narrated by a young writer named William Bradshaw— Isherwood’s two middle names, unsubtly enough. The second novel, Goodbye to Berlin (1939), while still presented as a work of fiction, was told in the voice of someone called Christopher Isherwood. This was perhaps the first step in a long journey toward ever more candid self-disclosure that would occupy Isherwood for the rest of his days. The well examined life would become his obsession—and, some would say, his great gift to literature.

I admit to a certain frustration upon encountering the Bradshaw/Isherwood narrator in The Berlin Stories. While his voice was seductive in its elegant economy, his eye was always turned towards the Others; his own life, particularly his sex life, was a blank “I am a camera with its shutter open,” he tells us, “quite passive, recording, not thinking.” He meant simply that he was new in town and absorbing everything around him, but he would come to think of those first four words as “infamous” after they were popularized as the title of John van Druten’s stage adaptation of the novel. From that point on, lazy critics would have a far-too-handy shorthand for analyzing his work.

Isherwood was not, as the camera metaphor suggested, a detached or clinical observer; he was as fully engaged as a writer could be, both with his work and his readers. The problem for him was an ethical one: the need not to lie. Time spent with Magnus Hirschfeld at the Institute for Sexual Research (not to mention in bed with working-class boys) had radicalized the young Christopher about his newfound identity. It would have stuck in his craw, he later explained, to make Bradshaw/ Isherwood heterosexual. On the other hand, a homosexual narrator would have been unthinkable in those days and would have distracted severely from the other portraits of Berliners on the fringes of society. So our hero ends up a neutered observer, alone in his room at night while randy youths in the street whistle up to their girlfriends to throw down their keys. In real life, of course, some of those whistles were meant for Isherwood.

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The author examines all of this and more in Christopher and His Kind, a 1976 memoir that serves as a fascinating companion volume to The Berlin Stories. Here, through the eyes of a wry and self-effacing septuagenarian, we learn the full story of Isherwood’s four years in Berlin. He tells us, for instance, that his reasons for moving in with strapping, young Otto Nowak and his family in Goodbye to Berlin were not financial but romantic and that Otto’s mother knew of their relationship and was not in the least shocked. This revisionist approach to his own material, far from diminishing the power of the original, offers a singular glimpse into the working process of a novelist, the ways in which remembered events are altered or erased altogether in service of privacy or vanity or the story itself. Few writers have ever been so generous with their trade secrets, so willing to undercut their own well-honed mythology in the name of telling the truth.

In the end, The Berlin Stories can withstand anyone’s scrutiny, even Isherwood’s. These trenchant, funny, heartbreaking vignettes of a city already doomed to fascism still dazzle us today, thanks to the author’s abiding fascination with the particular and the personal. He is also that rarest of creatures, an esteemed “literary” writer who refuses to inflict upon his readers a single word he does not need or mean. Make no mistake, the raw simplicity of these pages took work, but Isherwood was always too much of an artist—and a gentleman—to let it show. He understood instinctively that crisp, unhysterical prose would best contain the horrors unfolding around him, that understatement, in such a brash and gaudy setting, would pack a more powerful punch.

I met Christopher Isherwood by chance at a Hollywood cocktail party in 1978 when he was in his mid seventies. My first novel was only months away from publication, so I screwed up my courage and asked him to read it. The blurb he so graciously provided likened my work to that of Dickens, though he could not have overlooked how strongly I’d been influenced by The Berlin Stories. While set in San Francisco in the seventies, my story also involved an apartment house with a motherly landlady and her one-of-everything tenants, a microcosm of the freewheeling society that contained it. What’s more, my title—Tales of the City—intentionally echoed The Berlin Stories in its suggestion that the city itself was the main character of the piece. I’d even been so brazen as to name one of my characters Bradshaw—just for luck, I suppose.

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Once I’d come to know him, Isherwood proved as vivid in life as he had been on the page. I still picture him in blue jeans and loafers, bouncing on his heels like a schoolboy, his brambled eyebrows cavorting as he tells a story Like many young queers of that era, I regarded him as a sort of spiritual grandfather. (He used the term queer himself, way back then, explaining with a conspiratorial wink that “it embarrasses our oppressors.”) He’d been officially out of the closet for at least five years—ever since a memoir called Kathleen and Frank—and had landed on the shores of his happy ending in Santa Monica with the artist Don Bachardy, thirty years his junior.

This was the man he’d described in the closing paragraph of Christopher and His Kind, “the ideal companion to whom you can reveal yourself totally and yet be loved for what you are, not what you pretend to be.” To see those two together, still blissful after twenty-five years in their house above the sea, was to imagine a happy ending for yourself.

In 1985, for the Village Voice, I spoke to Isherwood and Bachardy for what would prove to be the writer’s last interview. Though struggling with cancer himself, he offered fighting words to the legions of young men already dying of AIDS. “They’re told by their relatives that it’s God’s will and all that sort of thing. And I think they have to be very tough with themselves and really decide which side they’re on. You know, fuck God’s will. God’s will must be circumvented if that’s what it is.” It was just that kind of straight talk that made Isherwood so loved. It embarrassed some of his more “discreet” Hollywood friends (most of them younger than he) but it was a battle cry for some of us-and for once, miraculously, it was coming from an elder. More than anyone of his generation, Isherwood reminded us that gay self-respect came with its own noble lineage.

I felt the tug of that lineage just this morning when I asked Don Bachardy about the dolphin clock that Isherwood mentions on the second page of Goodbye to Berlin. Contemplating his landlady’s “unnecessarily solid, abnormally heavy” knick-knacks, the writer asks slyly: “What becomes of such things? How could they ever be destroyed? They will probably remain intact for thousands of years; people will treasure them in museums. Or perhaps they will merely be melted down for munitions in a war.”The clock, as irony would have it, eventually survived a bomb blast with barely a scratch and, even more ironically, ended up in Isherwood’s hands.

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He tells us in his 1954 preface to The Berlin Stories that his former landlady—by then in her seventies—had presented this sturdy object to her famous tenant on a recent visit to Nollendorfstrasse. “It stands now on my writing table in a Californian garden-and I like to think it will survive me, and anything that may be dropped on this neighborhood, in the near or distant future.”

“So what did you want to know about it?” Bachardy asked when I spoke to him this morning.

“Is it still there?” I asked. “Do you still have it’?”

“Oh, yes” It’s on Chris’s desk I’m looking at it now.” He paused as if to emphasize the final irony. “It will probably end up at the Huntington.”

That joke about museums had been right on the nose.

Armistead Maupin
San Francisco
June 2008

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On April 22, 1979, after a century of speculation, the day had finally come for a time capsule to be exhumed from the base of a statue in Washington Square. It was raining hard, but nearly a thousand San Franciscans stood in rapt silence as Mayor Dianne Feinstein snipped open an 18-inch lead cube to reveal what treasures had been entombed there in 1879.

The ceremony held a special significance for me. My recently published novel, Tales of the City, was to be interred that day in a new capsule, earmarked for the citizens of 2079, along with such items as a pair of Levis, a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, and a record by the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils. I remember feeling proud that I'd contributed something to the future that was unapologetically queer. I didn't count on being upstaged by something from the past.

Most of the items from the 1879 capsule turned out to be disappointingly bland: a string of buttons, various temperance tracts, a dress catalog, assorted photographs, newspapers, a fork. But a modest pamphlet entitled The Great Geysers of California, and How to Reach Them by Laura De Force Gordon offered an intriguing bonus. Scribbled on its flyleaf in a spidery Victorian hand was this message:

“If this little book should see the light after its 100 years of entombment, I would like its readers to know that the author was a lover of her own sex and devoted the best years of her life in striving for the political equality and social and moral elevation of woman.”

“A lover of her own sex?” Was Laura De Force Gordon trying to tell us something; Was she coming out in another century because she couldn’t do it in her own; Or was that phrase, as some have suggested, merely an idiosyncrasy of 19th-century speech? Either way, I felt a curious kinship with the woman behind that lovely, yet satisfyingly sturdy name. I pictured her in her tailored tweeds and a wide-brimmed hat, striding through a thicket with another Geyser Gal on her arm. Could she have ever imagined that a woman mayor would open the time capsule? Or that one day gay people would become a major political force in San Francisco?

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The matter of Ms. Gordon’s sexuality may always be a mystery, and that is nothing new. Two thousand years of Judeo-Christian suppression have made gay people the world’s most invisible population. Our lives and dreams and contributions have been systematically obliterated—sometimes at our own hand, sometimes at the hand of others. Until very recently, proof of our existence could be found only in court records and journals of pathology. It took a new breed of archivists, openly gay and actively curious, to begin the process of excavating our past.

Witness this book, the first-ever effort at compiling a queer history of San Francisco. It tells a remarkable story that spans two centuries-from the cross-dressing practices of Indians at the Mission Dolores to the signing of a municipal transgender rights law in 1995. The story is all the more compelling because it isn’t driven by war or money or politics—the way most histories are—but by the basic human need to find love and self-fulfillment. It’s a chronicle of quiet courage and noisy protest, one so richly varied that it transcends the usual boundaries of race, class, and religion.

For a while now, the press has dubbed San Francisco the “Gay Capital of the World,” a label most of us wear as a badge of honor. This city has long been the cradle of American cultural change—from Bohemians to beats to hippies to hackers—so it was probably always destined to lead the century’s last great fight for human rights. Though conventional lore dates the modern gay movement from New York’s Stonewall Uprising of 1969, a quick glance at this book reveals a more complicated truth: San Francisco activists were scrapping with police—and even running for office-years before anyone thought to pick up a rock in Sheridan Square.

Never mind. We’re a small town, really, and we’re used to seeing others take our “wacky” ideas and run with them. It’s enough to know that the values of freedom and tolerance nurtured for so long in this beautiful place have sooner or later helped change the minds of people everywhere. It’s certainly enough for me, and I expect it would be for Laura De Force Gordon.

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“LETTER TO MAMA,” More Tales of the City, 1980

Dear Mama,

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write. Every time I try to write to you and Papa I realize I’m not saying the things that are in my heart. That would be OK, if I loved you any less than I do, but you are still my parents and I am still your child.

I have friends who think I’m foolish to write this letter. I hope they’re wrong. I hope their doubts are based on parents who loved and trusted them less than mine do. I hope especially that you’ll see this as an act of love on my part, a sign of my continuing need to share my life with you.

I wouldn’t have written, I guess, if you hadn’t told me about your involvement in the Save Our Children campaign. That, more than anything, made it clear that my responsibility was to tell you the truth, that your own child is homosexual, and that I never needed saving from anything except the cruel and ignorant piety of people like Anita Bryant.

I’m sorry, Mama. Not for what I am, but for how you must feel at this moment. I know what that feeling is, for I felt it for most of my life. Revulsion, shame, disbelief —rejection through fear of something I knew, even as a child, was as basic to my nature as the color of my eyes.

No, Mama, I wasn't “recruited.” No seasoned homosexual ever served as my mentor. But you know what? I wish someone had. I wish someone older than me and wiser than the people in Orlando had taken me aside and said, “You’re all right, kid. You can grow up to be a doctor or a teacher just like anyone else. You’re not crazy or sick or evil. You can succeed and be happy and find peace with friends—all kinds of friends—who don’t give a damn who you go to bed with. Most of all, though, you can love and be loved without hating yourself for it.”

But no one ever said that to me, Mama. I had to find it out on my own, with the help of the city that has become my home. I know this may be hard for you to believe, but San Francisco is full of men and women, both straight and gay, who don’t consider sexuality in measuring the worth of another human being.

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These aren’t radicals or weirdos, Mama. They are shop clerks and bankers and little old ladies and people who nod and smile to you when you meet them on the bus. Their attitude is neither patronizing nor pitying. And their message is so simple: Yes, you are a person. Yes, I like you. Yes, it’s all right for you to like me too.

I know what you must be thinking now. You’re asking yourself: What did we do wrong? How did we let this happen? Which one of us made him that way?

I can’t answer that, Mama. In the long run, I guess I really don’t care. All I know is this: If you and Papa are responsible for the way I am, then I thank you with all my heart, for it’s the light and the joy of my life.

I know I can’t tell you what it is to be gay. But I can tell you what it’s not.

It’s not hiding behind words, Mama. Like family and decency and Christianity. It’s not fearing your body, or the pleasures that God made for it. It’s not judging your neighbor, except when he’s crass or unkind.

Being gay has taught me tolerance, compassion and humility. It has shown me the limitless possibilities of living. It has given me people whose passion and kindness and sensitivity have provided a constant source of strength.

It has brought me into the family of man, Mama, and I like it here. I like it.

There’s not much else I can say, except that I’m the same Michael you’ve always known. You just know me better now. I have never consciously done anything to hurt you. I never will.

Please don’t feel you have to answer this right away. It’s enough for me to know that I no longer have to lie to the people who taught me to value the truth.

Mary Ann sends her love.

Everything is fine at 28 Barbary Lane.

Your loving son,

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