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)
“MILK: A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF HARVEY MILK” –
Foreword by Armistead Maupin
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.
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
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.
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
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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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.
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?
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
Harvey would have loved them.
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“GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS”
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.
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
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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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.
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.
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.
“TALES OF THE CITY” DVD liner notes, August 2002
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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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.”
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.
“ARMISTEAD MAUPIN’S DESIGN FOR LIVING,” The Advocate, 1985
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.
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
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
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.
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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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
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.
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
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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.’
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,
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
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
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:
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”.
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.
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.
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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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.
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
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.
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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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
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.
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.
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.
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,
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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.
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
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
● 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
● 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.
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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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
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.
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?”
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?.”
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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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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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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.
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?
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:
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
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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
No one even noticed.
Telling the truth.
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.
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
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.
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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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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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“THE ISHERWOOD CENTURY” –
Foreword by Armistead Maupin
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.
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!”
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
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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.
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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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.
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.”
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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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.
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
29 September 1999
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“THE BERLIN STORIES” – Introduction
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.”
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
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.
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
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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.
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’?”
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.
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“GAY BY THE BAY: A HISTORY OF QUEER CULTURE IN THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA” –
Foreword by Armistead Maupin
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.”
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
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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.
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
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.
“LETTER TO MAMA,” More Tales of the City, 1980
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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?
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
I know I can’t tell you what it is to be gay. But I can tell you what it’s not.
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
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.
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.
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
Mary Ann sends her love.
Everything is fine at 28 Barbary Lane.
Your loving son,