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17 November 2017

Among green-faced witches and Corpse Brides, I felt the love of a family

Glitter appeared, and was thrown in the air, and we made our way to the dancefloor.

By Tracey Thorn

“I hope you’ll be proud to hear that I was dancing in a gay club till 3am on Saturday night” read the text I sent to my daughter on Monday. It was one of the best nights out I’d had in a while, though it all started very decorously, with an early dinner and a literary event.

I’d gone down to Brighton for the weekend to attend the lit salon hosted by Damian Barr at the Theatre Royal, in which he interviewed Armistead Maupin. The theatre was packed; the crowd of 700 very gay, and very much of a certain age – ie my age.

Maupin’s Tales of the City books began as a serial in the mid-70s San Francisco Chronicle – one episode appearing every day – before being published in book form. I started reading them around the same time many others in the UK did, back when we were all young in the mid-80s, and they reflected real life as it was happening – the dating scene, and the gay scene of San Francisco, politics and celebrity culture – with stars appearing under easily- guessable pseudonyms.

They are knowing, and funny, as I was reminded when I re-read them this summer. In one early scene, Mary Ann goes to a disco called Dance Your Ass Off and is pestered by “a long-haired man in a Greek peasant shirt” who asks her, “‘What sign are you?’ She wanted to say ‘Do Not Disturb’.”

Maupin himself grew up in the conservative world of North Carolina, and conformed utterly for the first part of his life, before ultimately finding, in San Francisco, his salvation and his “Logical Family”, the title of his new memoir. For many in the crowd you could sense that the books had been a salvation too, essential reading in those pre-internet years.

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During the interview, Damian mentioned one passage in particular, the letter that Michael writes to his mother, and said that many people have told him they used it as a template for their own coming out. Written to a not-yet-accepting parent, it comes from a place of love, but displays a refusal to be cowed. Its tone is not so much one of defiance, but a straightforward assertion of self-worth, and in it Michael says that in San Francisco he found a welcome and a community:

Men and women, both straight and gay, who don’t consider sexuality in measuring the worth of another human being. 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.

It’s the open-hearted homeliness of this writing that I think is what made these books so popular. They don’t shy away from other truths – from sexual experimentation, or loneliness, or the coming of the AIDS crisis – but they frame it all within a context of inclusiveness. Barbary Lane is the place where outsiders find a home, a place to belong and be accepted. We can all read that and feel a nostalgia, perhaps, for a home we never had – an idealised, understanding family.

And if the books are a hymn to San Francisco, you could write a similar one to Brighton, another city that embraces its LGBT residents. It was Halloween, and so the streets were full of fancy dress, though perhaps only a little more so than on any normal weekend. A crowd of us went to Bar Broadway – where there were green-faced Wicked witches, and Corpse Brides, and Frank-N-Furters – and sang along to a soundtrack of show tunes.

Throughout the evening, we kept bumping into friends, some of whom we hadn’t seen for years, which made it feel even more like a homecoming. Glitter appeared, and was thrown in the air, and covered us all, and we made our way to the dancefloor at Legends, where we sweated into the early hours, until the glitter was stuck fast to our faces, clinging to our hair.

Later, when I got home, and for days afterwards, I kept finding it: inside my socks, which had been inside a pair of boots. Even inside my bra. I wondered if at some point I’d stripped naked. Anything seemed possible.

This article appears in the 15 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit