So, I’ve heard through the internet grapevine that Armistead Maupin is moving from San Francisco to Santa Fe, NM.
Armistead, maybe you will find this online. Maybe you won’t. On the off chance that you do come across this farewell, I’m writing this in the second-person. Consider this my love letter to you.
I wish you & your beloved Chris very well on your journey. I hope that you settle into your new home with comfort & ease.
But damn, I am also choked up something awful about your move. I’m taking it very personally for someone who’s only met you once.
Your work has meant so much to me over the years it is a little embarrassing. The BBC production of Tales of the City was the first queer thing I ever saw on television. I grew up in San Francisco, right on the border between The Ingleside and The Lakeview Districts. I was the child of white working-class hippies who loved your work. My parents had read your stories when they were first serialized in The Chronicle in the 70s, and they were beyond thrilled that Tales was being made into a TV show. They watched all six nights like clockwork. (They were especially excited that Country Joe McDonald had a cameo as Joaquin The North Beach Poet.)
It was 1993, so I was either 9 or 10 at the time. I was in the fourth grade at St. Emydius, the neighborhood Catholic school. My hippie parents were not practicing Catholics (though my mom had been raised Catholic). But the tuition at St. Emydius was very cheap, and the school had a generous financial aid program, and it was much safer and smaller than the neighborhood public school. Pretty much all of the neighborhood kids — the vast majority of whom were also not Catholic — went there for K-8. Most of our teachers were young, hip, New School Catholics with fairly progressive ideas about things like birth control and gay people. So we got a… lapsed parochial education, at best.
Maybe all of that contribues to how and why the Tales of The City mini-series became the talk of my fourth grade Catholic school class the week it debuted in The States. Pretty much all of our parents were watching it on KQED, excited or titillated or just plain curious about the San Francisco it captured and broadcast to the rest of the world. Me and my classmates discussed it excitedly over foursquare and fruit snacks: Whose parents let them watch it? Whose parents sent them out of the room, deemed the show forbidden because of the sex and drugs and gayness? Whose parents let them sit on the couch during showtime, but covered their eyes during the bathhouse and pot and poppers scenes?
I’d taken to sneaking into the living room to watch it with my parents, hoping they wouldn’t notice me lurking behind the couch. They actually wouldn’t have cared that I was watching with them, but something about Tales felt very adult and private to me. I wanted to pretend I was alone with it, at least for a minute. I saw parts of my queer and genderqueer self in the work, even at 10. It excited me, but it also made me very uncomfortable.
Pretty soon after watching the series, the Tales novels became some of the first queer literature I ever read. Like I said, my parents were hippies, so I grew up in the kind of household where anything the adults read was also up for grabs for me to read. Of course, a huge percentage of the work went over my 10 year-old head (most but not all of the sex & drug references; pretty much all the 70s cultural references). But that’s unimportant. What I did glean from your work, even as young as I was, was that it was possible to have a happy and fulfilled life as a queer person. And I learned from your very existence that it was possible to make a successful living as an out queer writer. That was no small thing to me, even as a fourth grader. I came out a couple years later, in 1995, and I became one of a few middle-schoolers to attend programs at LYRIC, the queer youth center in The Castro. Sometimes we’d watch Tales there, too, on movie nights, over pizza and popcorn.
I look back on all of this with incredible fondness. But of course, there is also a lot of stuff in your work that I wince at now. Language and story lines about race and gender and size and abuse that feel like they are ultimately well-intentioned, but that also miss the mark and don’t try hard enough. This is complicated by the fact that much of your work was written nearly 40 or 30 or 20 years ago. I’m willing to cut you a fair amount of slack with regards to your earlier stuff, because a lot of what you were doing then was still ground-breaking, even when it stumbled around. But there are also moments in your recent work that have bothered me. I loved much of Mary Ann in Autumn, for example, but, like, you really had to use the word “bio” to describe cis people? In 20-fucking-10? C’mon! And you had to focus on Jake Greenleaf’s gender-confirming surgeries as the Be All & End All of his existence and his manhood? And you had to use that clumsy “sexual abuse survivor unwittingly marries her perpetrator” storyline? For realsies? All of that was disappointing.
But that said? I still go back to your work as Comfort Books and Comfort Movies (kinda like Comfort Food, I guess). When I’m really exhausted, or sad, or in the midst of a bad fibromylagia flare, I pull out Tales of The City or Babycakes (Babycakes is probably my favorite), and I flip through them. I read them straight through, or I read the chapters out of order, hunting & pecking around for my favorite bits. Or I put on the BBC series, to watch it for the 700th time. I know the shows so well now I can recite entire scenes off the top of my head.
When I’m introducing new people to San Francisco, your work is there with me, too. My last boyfriend was an Oklahoma transplant, a queer country boy whom I nicknamed “The Oklahomo.” He landed in the Big Gay Bay all wide-eyed and excited and “Wow, this city is really like that?! I like it here.” He was not unlike many of your characters in that way, actually. And it was such a pleasure to introduce him to San Francisco, and especially, to introduce him to the San Francisco of your books. We watched all three of the Tales series together, dissecting them all the while, talking about San Francisco history & culture. I hadn’t realized till then that your work is an incredible history lesson.
All of which is to say: Armistead, you are a cornerstone and a keeper of this city’s history & culture. San Francisco will miss you. I’ll miss you, even though I don’t really know you. I honestly can’t imagine what the city will be like without you here to write about it. I actually wonder if you leaving will shake things up on some core molecular level.
Also? Thank you, profusely, for being so kind & generous to me that time we read together at Writers With Drinks. I was beyond thrilled to share the stage with you, and having you be so complimentary about my own work was an utter joy. It is a memory I will always treasure.