There is a generation of gay men whose stories will always have a deeper poignancy than most. They grew up in a world of cruel and hypocritical conservatism. They were called pansies, faggots and queers. Fearing exposure they lived half their lives in the shadows, lying, equivocating and endlessly delaying telling the truth. But suddenly, sometime in the 1970s, freedom beckoned. They discovered sex in abundance. They gave “pride” and “queer” a new meaning and pouted and paraded with abandon.
Then, just as suddenly, came a disease that dragged thousands of young men to the grave with astounding ferocity. They worried about whether to take “the test”, knowing that a positive result was a death sentence. They anxiously watched their friends to see if they had lost weight too fast, they learnt about opportunistic infections, pneumonia, Kaposi’s sarcoma and T-counts. They became their lovers’ carers unto death. They clamoured for funding for research and they breathed a sigh of relief when medicine finally found a sort of cure and same-sex marriage was legalised.
Few have charted that passage from conservative old South to rainbow-waving San Francisco, through the chasm of self-doubt and tragic illness, more elegantly than Armistead Maupin. Born in 1944 and brought up a right-wing segregationist in North Carolina, Maupin served in the navy in Vietnam (his mother didn’t tick the box marked “Homosexual Tendencies” when filling in his application) and worked as a journalist before moving to San Francisco in 1971, not long after his first sexual experience. Three years later, aged 30, he came out and started the Tales of the City series, which rapidly became part of that moment of liberation.
Set in San Francisco and suffused with a breezy Californian sunfulness, they featured openly gay characters living lives that were, well, remarkably normal. They were funny and soulful and held a mirror up to a world that had never before dared show its face. The heart-wrenching coming out letter (included in this memoir), for instance, that his character Michael Tolliver wrote to his mother in response to her signing up to the homophobia-filled Save Our Children campaign drew many a tear at gay rights rallies I attended in the 1980s.
Maupin’s title for his memoir, chosen by his photographer husband Chris, comes from one of his glorious creations, Anna Madrigal, who cherished the “logical family” she created in her Barbary Lane guesthouse, as opposed to her biological one. Yet much of Maupin’s tale is about his blood relatives, whom he portrays with what feels like immense honesty: his ultra-conservative lawyer father (whose love Maupin admits he always craved); his mother who lends him her “mad money”; his palm-reading “Grannie”; and his Confederate General ancestor. As for his “logical family”, it is striking how many of the Grand Old Queers appear. Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Harvey Milk, Rock Hudson, Ian McKellen, and Liberace (if he really counts) are joined by straight Vietnam veterans.
There is plenty of tragedy: a series of friends die of Aids, Milk is murdered, a Vietnam comrade dies of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma from the use of Napalm authorised by his father. But all this is spun into the cocoon of Maupin’s gentle optimism. There are villains, too: senator Jesse Helms reveals his white racism as Maupin’s boss at a radio station in Raleigh, a closeted clergyman sacks him for being out, and Richard Nixon leers creepily at a young woman.
There are things that younger British gay men may find magnificently incomprehensible. With luck they will never have to choose between their logical and biological families because they can have children of their own and enjoy their parents’ love without being accused of living in “pretend family relationships” (as in Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28). In the UK we have no political party to speak of that opposes gay marriage, yet even today Maupin is at loggerheads with his brother Tony who voted to ban gay marriage in North Carolina and celebrates the ascendancy of Trump (“a new fascist regime in Washington that has left our country more divided than at any time since the Civil War”, in Maupin’s words).
Maupin’s decision to out Hudson and throw John Travolta ambiguously into the mix might raise an eyebrow or two. And sometimes he is so defiant about it all (including the bath houses, the cruising spots, the joints, the orgies and the blowjobs) that he seems rather self-righteous. But he soars above the facts with a beautiful eye for the tiny details that tells a deeper story – and he writes with an infectious hopefulness.
Above all he gives the ultimate answer to those who fret about coming out; Michael’s “Letter to Mama” finishes: “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.”
Logical Family: A Memoir
Doubleday, 304pp, £20
Chris Bryant is MP for Rhondda and author of “Entitled: A Critical History of the British Aristocracy” (Doubleday)
This article appears in the 03 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old