By Alyssa Rosenberg
August 20 at 3:35 PM
Inspired by Michelle Goldberg’s recent feature in the New Yorker about a splinter group of feminists who seem determined to discredit themselves through their ongoing hostility to transgender people, I recently decided to revisit one of the longest-running chronicles of transgender life in American culture. The roots of the hostility Goldberg describes are in the second-wave feminism of the 1970s, and I was curious if Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series, about the marvelous transgender landlady Anna Madrigal and her tenants, reflected any of those hostilities.
Maupin’s nine-book opus, which came to a conclusion this year with the publication of “The Days of Anna Madrigal,” is a magnificent and moving experience for readers. Maupin’s vision of characters as they work through tectonic changes in the American understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity is a tremendous exercise in empathy, and a significant cultural contribution to what seems to be a potentially seismic movement in the movement for transgender rights.
To the extent that tensions between transgender women and feminism do appear in “Tales of the City,” they are exceptionally mild. And the conflict is not over whether trans women carry male privilege into their new lives, but over whether transgender women are reinforcing gender stereotypes that paint women as girlish and helpless.
This kind of thinking did show up in Nora Ephron’s review of “Conundrum,” Jan Morris’ memoir of her gender transition. “Jan Morris is perfectly awful at being a woman,” Ephron wrote. “What she has become instead is exactly what James Morris wanted to become those many years ago. A girl. And worse, a forty-seven-year-old girl. And worst of all, a forty-seven-year-old Cosmopolitan girl.”
A lighter, much kinder version of that idea shows up in a conversation Mrs. Madrigal has with her daughter Mona in “More Tales of the City,” when she explains that her chosen name turns out to be an anagram for “A man and a girl.” “God…it’s so…sexist,” Mona tells her mother. “Girl…You’re a woman!” “You’re a woman, dear. I’m a girl. And proud of it,” Mrs. Madrigal replies.”My own goddamn father…a sexist!” Mona grouses. “My darling daughter,” Mrs. Madrigal corrects her, “transsexuals can never be sexists!”
The sort of rigidness about maintaining woman-only spaces with a rigid definition of what it means to be a woman shows up, with different application, in “Significant Others,” when DeDe and D’or, a lesbian couple go to Wimminwood, a festival that is loosely based on the real-life Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.
First, their young son is deported from their tent to a separate camp for boys. Later, Rose, the head of security takes Booter Manginault, a wealthy businessman (and DeDe’s stepfather) who falls asleep in his Bohemian Grove canoe and accidentally finds himself beached on Wimminwood grounds, prisoner. The sense that Booter is a threat is tangled up with Rose’s objections to his business and Republican politics. “Rose says you make instruments of war,” one of Rose’s lieutenants tells him. “I make aluminum honeycomb,” he protests. “She says you went to Bitburg and laid wreaths on Nazi graves,” the young woman tells him. “That was a reconciliation gesture,” Booter tries to explain.
But other than these vignettes, anti-transgender and anti-male feminism is marginal to Maupin’s series, as that strain of thought is to contemporary politics. Maupin instead frees himself to focus on a variety of trans experiences, and on the relationship of trans people to the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities they are so often grouped in with.
Jake Greenleaf, a young transgender man who comes to work for one of the series’ protagonists, Michael Tolliver, in his gardening business, experiences both the pleasures and limitations of San Francisco as a safe haven. In the Bay area, Jake is not alone, and he is supported in having the surgeries that help bring his body into alignment with his understanding of himself. But even San Francisco is still adjusting to the idea of people like him.
“He had thought that would change once he’d made the leap, but so far, claiming another gender–even the one that came naturally to him–had merely offered new ways to feel alienated, new opportunities for humiliation,” Jake reflects sadly in “Mary Anne In Autumn. “A lot of bio guys were just in it for the novelty, losing interest altogether once their curiosity was satisfied. As for other trans guys, they were either cruising the Lone Star for liquored up bio bears or flirting with the femme dykes down at the Lexington Club. They weren’t looking for Jake.”
Michael himself is trying to adjust to the emergence of trans men in the gay community. He and Jake initially meet in a bar, where a fellow patron takes smug pleasure in warning Michael that Jake is transgender, just as another man once informed Michael that he was flirting with someone HIV positive. These attitudes strike Michael as evidence that a community that used to pride itself on its liberation has developed its own censorious attitudes about gender and sexual responsibility.
But even as Michael tries hard to avoid falling into such attitudes himself, he admits that men like Jake pose a challenge to him. “The world is changing way too fast for me with its Podcasts and pregnant strippers and macho manginas,” he reflects in “Michael Tolliver Lives.” “No sooner have i mastered one set of directions than another comes along to replace it. It’s getting harder and harder to keep up with what’s going down. My only solace lies in something Anna once told me: ‘You don’t have to keep up, dear. You just have to keep open.’”
In a tender, absurd twist that is vintage Maupin, Jake eventually develops an erotically-charged friendship with a young Mormon missionary who hopes to rid himself of his attraction to men. “‘Hear me out, dude,” the missionary, who does not realize that Jake is transgender, tells him. “You’re one of the manliest guys I’ve ever met. Not just in appearance but…your manly heart and your compassion. You’re the real thing, dude. You’re man enough for any woman.” Jake’s reaction is both conflicted and sensible: “He felt flattered, insulted, humiliated and validated all at once.”
And Jake comes to value aspects of himself that once made him uncomfortable, achieving a new synthesis in his understanding of his identity. As he prepares for his hysterectomy–a procedure that is much easier for him to obtain than Mrs. Madrigal’s surgeries were in previous decades– “He wondered if losing his uterus would eliminate that, and if, in fact, he even wanted it eliminated anymore. He wanted all the man stuff, for sure, but he wouldn’t mind keeping the blushing. It was his heart doing semaphore.”
Jake is lucky to have Anna as a mentor, and he ultimately becomes her caretaker in the final years of her life. Among the loveliest parts of the later books in the series are meditations on trans people’s experiences of aging.
In Maupin’s “Sure of You,” Mrs. Madrigal has a relationship with a wonderful Greek man while on vacation with her daughter Mona, but chooses to return to the United States to attend to the younger people she has considered her children. “You’ve spent your whole life telling other people to live and be free,” Mona protests.
“Why don’t you stop blowing smoke and take a little of your own advice?” Mrs. Madrigal acknowledges that she would enjoy the man’s companionship, but she is old enough to have set her priorities. And she does not need a partner to be complete. In “The Days of Anna Madrigal,” the last novel in the series, Mrs. Madrigal reflects that “She had assumed the Mrs. upon her return from Denmark in the 1960s not only to imply a respectable history but also to invent a shadow companion for her daunting new journey. She had married herself, in essence, so she would not be alone in her skin.”
In that book, Jake comes up with a plan to honor her at Burning Man for her contributions to the wider trans community. One of his friends, a transgender woman named Lisa, breaks down when she finds out that she is actually going to get an opportunity to meet Mrs. Madrigal:
Lisa placed her wide, sturdy hand on her heart, as if to keep it from escaping, then lowered her voice. “Is Anna Madrigal in there?” Brian smiled at her. “The one and only.” “Oh my Jesus f—— God.” The words were uttered reverently, like a prayer of adoration. “She saved my life in Eye Rack.”…”You must be thinking of someone else,” he said. “Anna’s never been to–” “No, man, she was right there on my iPad in Eye Rack…There was an article about her on this transgender blog, and–she made me see how I could be old and happy. She made me want to live and come home to Sunnyvale and…be myself.”
I was reminded of this passage in the novel when reading Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s profile of CeCe MacDonald, a transgender woman who killed a man who attacked her in self-defense. “You rarely hear of a trans woman just living a long life and then dying of old age,” MacDonald told Erdely. “You never hear, ‘She passed on her own, natural causes, old age,’ no, no, no…She’s either raped and killed, she’s jumped and killed, stalked and killed – or just killed.”
Maupin did not capture all transgender experiences: he is writing mostly about two very specific transgender characters the city that is most welcoming to them. But in imagining a transgender pioneer who does not just survive into old age but thrives in it, Maupin gave all of his readers, no matter their gender identities or sexualities, a tremendous vision. Mrs. Madrigal’s lessons about family, womanhood and freedom are a gift, and a call to build a world where men and women like her can offer them up to each other and the rest of us in safety.