Thirty-one years ago the San Francisco Chronicle published the first fizzy chapter of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, a serial set in sexually free-wheeling 1970s San Francisco. The characters were gay men, ladies who lunch, ladies who had once been gentlemen, and bewildered straight-arrows from the Midwest. The original Tales spawned five popular sequels, and a hit miniseries; Maupin is about to release Michael Tolliver Lives, the first update on his much-loved characters since 1989. EW talked to Maupin, 63, in the shingled San Francisco bungalow he shares with 35-year-old web producer Christopher Turner, whom he married in Vancouver five months ago.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you prefer ”queer” or ”gay?”
ARMISTEAD MAUPIN: Either is fine. And I don’t have a problem with ”faggot.” Words are all about the tone in which they’re spoken.
So, is it really true that your family only learned you were gay by reading Tales?
Pretty much. My mother knew before I knew that she knew because a girlfriend of mine — who apparently was expecting to receive a proposal from me — found out when she came to visit. So my mother knew and was creeping off to the stacks of the library in Raleigh, N.C., to study the subject without telling my father. Then, in 1977, I had Michael Tolliver write a letter to his parents, and that’s when I date my personal statement to my parents.
It’s all about how you define coming out.
There are celebrities who say, ”Well, I’ve never been in the closet!” because they have a circle of friends who have made them feel safe. But they’ve never declared themselves to reporters and go to great lengths to avoid those questions. There are whole P.R. phalanxes organized to take care of those questions. Does that mean we cater to it? If a movie star were to conceal his Jewish origins because they felt bigots might not go to their movies, we wouldn’t tolerate that. The message that’s being sent by these stars who remain silent is that there’s a dark secret that must be protected at all costs, and that perpetuates the stigma of homosexuality. It’s that simple, as far as I’m concerned, and I have no respect for it.
But there’s nothing new in that, right?
The situation in Hollywood is far more contemptible today than it was in the days of Rock Hudson. Rock was a friend of mine, and he didn’t bother to get married again after that first beard marriage. He took young men to restaurants in Beverly Hills and he was relatively protected by the industry. Now the industry can’t protect anyone from the press, so stars get married, have kids, and create a completely fake life for themselves, often with the help of the Church of Scientology. But we’ve got Rosie [O’Donnell], we’ve got Ellen [DeGeneres], we’ve got a lot of great smart folks. By the way, have you been catching Rosie lately? Whoo! She’s good.
Do you watch a lot of TV?
I can tell you this: I’m going to be watching American Idol tonight. I’m torn tremendously about American Idol because I hate the moments when they mock the bad singers and weird people. On the other hand, I’m very touched by the process of watching these kids work their way toward their dreams and fall in love with each other in the process. Their tears seem to be genuine. And it’s one of the few places on television where you can see a variety of young people. They’re fat, they’re skinny, they’re of every race. And there seem to be a few gay people in there, though it’s never talked about. They don’t look like the kids on The O.C.
Now for books: Have you read anything lately that you liked?
I really loved a memoir called I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. And I love the books of Stephen McCauley. He writes from the heart with great intelligence and restraint and sweetness.
You were one of the first fiction writers to address AIDS — in Babycakes, which was serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1983. What kind of a response did you get?
A lot of people criticized me for interrupting their morning entertainment. A lot of gay people! They said I was pursuing a political agenda and Tales was supposed to be about entertainment. Of course it was really supposed to be about life, and that’s what life had thrown us and I saw no way I could NOT write about it.
Unlike the other Tales novels, this one is written from one character’s point of view: Michael’s. Why the change?
I was interested in pursuing the life of an aging gay man, and I knew he would be the perfect vehicle. However, as soon as I started writing about Michael I found that one by one all the other characters stepped forward and asked to be present. And it felt natural, so I went with it.
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