Wednesday, December 3, 1986

Author chronicles gay life // Witty Armistead Maupin mines rich vein of homosexual humor

Article from: Chicago Sun-Times
Article date: December 3, 1986
Author: Stephanie Mansfield

WASHINGTON He was 13 when he first knew he was gay, and a virgin until the age of 26. He went to Vietnam as a naval officer, served as an aide to Adm. Elmo Zumwalt and won the Medal of Freedom for his volunteer work in Southeast Asia.

Now he's 42, tall and handsome and getting famous as a writer and gay personality. Armistead Maupin - author of the ribald, terminally hip Tales of the City series, who's been compared to Dickens and featured as one of Rock Hudson's San Francisco sexual tour guides in Sara Davidson's best-selling Rock Hudson: His Story - crosses his legs and smiles enigmatically.

Yes, he says, being a gay humorist these days makes him feel a little like Henny Youngman playing Auschwitz.

"In many ways, AIDS has had for gay civil rights the same effect the Holocaust had for Jewish people," he says. The deadly virus - which has, so far, struck down 20 of Maupin's friends and acquaintances - also has affected his work. "It's made it darker and more reflective in a lot of ways. Before, I could go with pure humor, and now I have to show the way humor arises out of tragedy - and that's a tougher job to do. But it does arise."

His stories - which first appeared as serials in the San Francisco Chronicle and later were released in book form - are rich and sentimental, peppered with a cast of gays, straights, bents and outrageous San Franciscans of all descriptions.

There's DeDe Halcyon Days, a debutante turned lesbian, and Mary Ann Singleton, mother of half-Chinese twins. There are gays converging on the Bohemian Grove, the A-Gays, the B-Gays, the National Gay Rodeo. And in More Tales of the City, Maupin introduces the first gay nursing home.

Disgusted by the trappings of modern homosexuality - the requisite T-shirts, shorts and Land's End socks - one character in Further Tales of the City grouses, "There's gotta be another way to be queer."

Says the author: "One of the most maddening things about being a gay humorist is that you're essentially drawing on one of the greatest strengths of gay life, and that is this wonderful, rich, self-deprecating humor that gay people indulge in, and often when that's translated to the world at large, it's used against gay people in a way."

But the humor (his version of Queen Elizabeth dining at Trader Vic's, for example) also has universal appeal.

"What can I say?" Maupin says, laughing. "I'm a human being trapped in a faggot's body."

His series first appeared in the Chronicle in 1976. Last spring, he was lured away to the San Francisco Examiner, where his "Significant Others" column appears five days a week. His work now fills four Harper & Row paperback volumes (sales of 50,000 each) and Home Box Office owns rights for a proposed film.

Much in demand as a spokesman and master of ceremonies, Maupin is a strange sort of celebrity.

"Gay people have been invisible for so long," he explains, "that the sheer novelty of seeing someone who is gay and simply willing to talk about it quietly and humorously has thrust a lot of people into positions of visibility."

But is America ready for gay personalities?

"You got 'em already, honey," he laughs.

"Armistead Maupin has a byline so famous (possibly infamous) in San Francisco that it seems almost silly to have to explain him to the rest of us mortals who live elsewhere," wrote gossip maven Liz Smith. But largely because of the Rock Hudson best seller, Maupin's name is getting somewhat more widely known these days.

He declines to talk about his personal relationship with the movie star who died of AIDS last year. But in 1978, according to Davidson's book, Maupin took Hudson on a sight-seeing tour of San Francisco's trendy clubs, including the Club Fugazi, where a revue Maupin had co-authored, "Beach Blanket Babylon," was playing. The group moved on to the I-Beam, a gay disco, and to the Black and Blue, where a motorcycle hangs from the ceiling.

Davidson wrote:
"A pile of naked arms, legs, backs and wriggling behinds. Armistead and Rock stood against the wall, watching, and Rock thought it was funny. Armistead remembers thinking, `How ironic. I'm standing with the man who was the sex symbol of the world for two decades, and nobody's paying any attention to him. We could walk through this place like two women - completely invisible.' Armistead leaned over and pinched Rock playfully.

" `Is that you?' Rock said.

" `Yes.'

" `Just checking.' "

`It was a real martyr's death," Maupin says of Hudson's battle with AIDS and the resulting publicity. "It made an enormous difference to lots of gay people. Frankly, he wasn't a very socially conscious person in life. In many ways, he ran from his own nature, which made me very sad. But, by God, he made up for it in the last few months of his life. Because he did know what was happening. He knew that that book was going to be the whole truth. I know he was enormously shocked when he found out America had taken him to their bosom and said, `We love you anyway.' It was a point I had tried to make to him 10 years ago."

Although the gay community kept Rock Hudson's homosexuality out of the mainstream press, Maupin wrote about an unidentified "matinee idol" in his 1982 Further Tales of the City. The paunchy star entertained dozens of handsome young men and threw pool parties that lasted for days. "There were so many Speedos hung out to dry," Maupin wrote, "that the Danny Thomases called to ask why we were flying signal flags."

"Shabby genteel" is how Maupin describes his Raleigh, N.C., background. "We had money, but Sherman took it." His great-great-grandfather was a Confederate general who fought at Antietam. Armistead is the oldest of three children. He has one brother and one sister. "My father says he has one of each."

His father, a successful lawyer, is supportive of his son's activist status in the gay community. His mother died in 1979. "We came to terms with it before she died," Maupin says. "She tried to fix me up with her orderly on her deathbed."

He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and finished one year of law school before enlisting in the Navy. He was conservative, and social.

After his tour of duty, which included squiring Zumwalt's wife on Saigon shopping trips, Maupin went back to Southeast Asia on a volunteer basis to build houses for refugees. "It was a stunt by the Nixon administration to draw attention away from the Vietnam Veterans Against the War." (Maupin even sat in the presidential box during the 1972 Inaugural Youth Concert.)

He began his career as a reporter in Charleston, S.C., and wound up with the Associated Press in San Francisco, becoming the darling of the liberal media establishment, which was delighted with his irreverent view of gay liberation.

Maupin describes the 1970s as a heady, decadent decade.

"Most gay men are not permitted a true sexual adolescence in the way straight boys are," he explains. "So straight boys go out and make an ass out of themselves from the ages of 15 to 25. Many gay men don't have any sexual experience at all until they're well into their 20s. It (the '70s) was a lot of people, trying to link up very fast, and not knowing what was required. Sex is a hell of a lot of fun. It can take your mind off anything, including the pursuit of a lover."

Tragically, the decade will be most remembered as the one that spawned the AIDS epidemic. Yes, he says, he is worried. "Every gay man I know, as soon as he has a cold that lasts just a little bit too long, wonders.

"You've got a clock ticking. A sort of incubation clock and you figure `if I completely altered my sexual behavior four years ago' - as I did when one of my dearest friends died, then you might be safe.

The AIDS virus also has served an educational function, Maupin says. "It's sex and death all rolled into one package and it scares the hell out of people," he says. "But homosexuality is not a neighborhood in San Francisco. It's the husband who leaves his wife once a month and goes to a rest stop out on the highway in Virginia."

Maupin has nursed dying friends and knows firsthand the debilitating physical and emotional toll the disease has taken on the gay community. "My father, being the upright old conservative that he is, told me the whole time I was growing up that you never really saw true nobility until you lived through a war. For one reason or another, I never experienced that in Vietnam. But I think I know what he means now. When you watch people tested, you see where the goodness lies."

But while Maupin is a believer in "safe sex," he is not about to suggest monogamy for homosexuals. "Sex is a wonderful God-given thing and to a certain degree this epidemic has desexualized a lot of people, and I'm fighting against that as hard as I'm fighting against the disease."

His own behavior probably would have changed anyway, he says, even without the risk of AIDS. It's called growing up. He shares his apartment with one man now, and says it's love. "It's great. I called him when I got into the hotel last night. Five years ago, I would have been thinking, `Where's the local bathhouse?' "

And yes, he says, he still serves as an unofficial San Francisco tour guide.

"An interesting thing, whether you're straight or gay, is to have a friend from out of town show up and go out immediately and hit the bars and be perfect sluts for three days and at the end of it all, go up to the San Franciscan and say, `This place is just too decadent. I could never live here.' " Thinking about it, Maupin chuckles to himself.

Stephanie Mansfield. "Author chronicles gay life // Witty Armistead Maupin mines rich vein of homosexual humor." Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago Sun Times. 1986.