Father Figures: On Armistead Maupin’s ‘Logical Family’


Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City  broke ground in perhaps the most satisfying way: sexually brazen and politically stealthy, with a healthy dose of humor.  His recent memoir, Logical Family, tells the tale of Maupin’s youth, and many of the personal stories behind his beloved Tales.  As Maupin remembers, fiction hadn’t run in a daily newspaper for more than 100 years when in 1974, the San Francisco Chronicle hired him for weekday installments of a series on avatars of local types, scheduled to run indefinitely.  Maupin was a young journalist new to fiction, but he greeted the challenge.  The saga quickly won plenty of fans, neutralizing the requisite scolding subscribers.  Average readers soon became attached enough to the characters to sympathize with their loves, losses, and personal awakenings.  The column also became a conduit to process collective hardships like AIDS, the killings of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and anti-gay initiatives.  The Tales ran for more than 10 years and took on a life of their own—collected in books, adapted for TV, sometimes even set to music—and Maupin became an icon of queer storytelling.  He continued the series through subsequent novels; the ninth and purportedly final volume came out in 2014.  A documentary, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, supplements the release of his memoir.

Roughly, the memoir covers Maupin’s childhood in the South, service in the military, move to San Francisco, and life as an author.  Substantively, it dwells on certain motifs: his parents and grandparents, Southern culture, various late 20th-century gay touchstones and the Tales series itself.  It does not dwell in specificity on the concept of chosen or “logical” family, which disappointed me—especially after a clarion call in the prologue:
Some children…grow up another species entirely, lone gazelles lost among the buffalo herd of our closest kin.  Sooner or later though, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.  We have to, if we are to live without squandering our lives.
By the book’s end, it seems Maupin is referring simply to his own experience coming out, letting go of his parents’ expectations, and embracing life as a gay man.  I’m aware it wasn’t easy, however pleasurable–and Maupin delights in relating that pleasure.  People of my generation tend to take for granted the comparative ease of living queer now.  But perhaps because of this, those of us yet to reach middle age often lack a template for a more robust kind of “logical family:” what it looks like to live, love, struggle, and age together without traditional family ties.  Within the community, some will say that marriage rights have obviated this need.  It’s easier than ever for diverse couples to marry, parent, share property, execute medical directives, and take part in mainstream rituals of all kinds.  Indeed, Maupin himself is married.

Others believe that assimilation co-opted a vibrant liberationist movement whose members invented their own lives.  Maupin first produced the term “logical family” for the characters in his Tales: Anna the witchy landlady and her brood of tenants on Barbary Lane, the fictional home in the stories.  Mary Ann Singleton, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, Mona Ramsey, and others weren’t only lovers or friends; they were family.  The places they’d come from weren’t ever home.  Their blood relations couldn’t accept who they were.  Society around them didn’t offer suitable options for life as an independent woman, a Southern gay man, or elderly single person.  For many of us, it still doesn’t.  Yet early on in the stories, Mona and Mouse shared their fear that one would pair off and opt out of a shared life.  These tensions, between romance and loyalty and between blood and true affinity, run through the series, but Maupin leaves them sadly unexamined when discussing his own life.

There are moments in which Maupin’s alienation growing up feels familiar, and others that feel quite foreign to me.  We both came from conservative families, but mine was the religious kind, while his had been Confederate gentry.  In my case, gender compliance would never feel like a viable option, however drastic the maternal enforcement.  Maupin was more tenacious in his filial pursuit; throughout his memoir, he invokes a desire for his “un-Reconstructed” lawyer father’s approval.  He cites this desire as spurring pro-segregation editorials in his college paper, his work for Jesse Helms soon after, his brief stint in law school, volunteer Navy enlistment and subsequent deployment to Vietnam.  After collecting groovy adventures in his cushy officer’s post, he volunteered again: this time for a group of young vets returning to build houses, a Nixonian PR stunt to counter Vietnam Veterans Against the War.  Maupin proudly posed for a photo with Richard Nixon, and displayed it on the wall of his new home until noting how it disturbed his conquests.

Those conquests took place in San Francisco, where he moved shortly after Vietnam to take a job with the Associated Press.  In between though, he spent a brief stint at the naval base in Charleston.  This part of his story is the most interesting to me, when he was, as he eloquently puts it, “no longer one thing and not quite the other…in transition, foolish and floundering.”  It was where at 26, he had sex for the first time, having known he was gay all his life.  He wouldn’t come out until moving to San Francisco, at which point he became somewhat militant about requiring others to do so.  But it was in Charleston that he began to envision a life he could live outside his parents’ world.  Up to that point, his main sense of one came from a few “fairy godmothers” who could dig his artistic, sensitive soul.  They seem to have been very good ones, in fact; I found myself feeling envious, not having had those guides myself.  One was his free-spirited, suffragist grandma, who became his main model for Anna Madrigal.

Ultimately, what Maupin cultivates for himself is a network of friends and occasional lovers, orbiting his married domestic life.  The “logical” father figure he does eventually invoke is Christopher Isherwood, whom he met at an Oscars party for Saturday Night Fever.  In my experience, it’s rare for established authors to engage so meaningfully with up-and-coming ones, however kindred.  As have their respective books, Maupin’s life has had a very different texture from Isherwood’s.  The latter was a dedicated seeker who almost became a Buddhist monk.  His stories are sometimes melancholy and occasionally jaded, but always feel generous in their appeal to a deeper meaning.  Maupin’s fiction remains highly accessible, but his personal angst feels uniquely American, perhaps rooted in his biological family’s Confederate history.  But Brit-turned-Angeleno Isherwood historicized their friendship and “tribe” by summoning Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster, and W. Somerset Maugham (he had known Forster in England).  Maupin makes a point of encouraging others to be mentors too—though there may be another dimension in these men’s case.  As Maupin is now, Isherwood was partnered with a much younger artist, 18 at the start.  The Untold Tales reveals that Maupin found his on “daddyhunt.com;” the younger man founded the site.

The other person Maupin cites as “logical family” is Laura Linney, who played Mary Ann in PBS’s Tales of the City miniseries in 1993 and 1994.  Linney later rode with Maupin when he marshalled San Francisco’s Pride Parade, and eventually used “Armistead” as her child’s middle name.  Having been young for the miniseries when it came out, I hadn’t known it was a target of the Republican push to cut public arts funding.  Watching the series today it feels quaint in its re-creation of 1970s California, but a happy antidote at a time when TV’s main event was the O.J. Simpson case.  In a filmed interview, Olympia Dukakis is refreshingly candid about her initial cluelessness being cast as (spoiler!) trans woman Anna.  She immersed herself deeply enough to create a timeless, magical role—just one indication of why cast and crew were so heartbroken when PBS canceled the second book/season in 1996.  The show had been an overwhelming ratings success and a major critical hit too, like a grown-up, soapier Sesame Street.  Indeed, it won the coveted Peabody Award.  Linney believes if it hadn’t been for the American Family Association’s campaign in Congress, the audience who saw the first gay kiss on TV would’ve gone on to see one of the two men later survive HIV.

The memoir’s emotional heart is that of the Tales, the “Letter to Mama.”  In it Mouse comes out to his parents, and thus the author came out to his.  The text, which ran in the Chronicle in 1977, is reprinted here as an epilogue; in the documentary participants including Maupin, Ian McKellen, Linney, and Dukakis read it aloud in moving composite.  Perhaps Logical Family’s biggest surprise is the longevity and depth of Maupin’s hunger for his parents’ approval—not satiated when his folks joined him at Harvey Milk’s vigil and smoked a joint with his gay friends (as his mother was dying of breast cancer, no less).  It seems he wanted his father to personally confront Jesse Helms about his cruel response to AIDS, and his father failed in this respect.  But the younger Maupin closes the book with his father’s deathbed blessing on his union to his husband, at which point the famous author was 60.

If I have one technical complaint about the book, it’s that for such a reliably linear storyteller, Maupin seems heedless of derailing his own story repeatedly.  Once he reaches the point of his first collection’s release, the timeline he keeps in the memoir breaks down too much to preserve the episodic narrative.  Lest this worry potential readers though, know that Maupin rewards with color commentary on sex with Rock Hudson about midway through.  If one phrase carries on from the memoir, let it be “lost boner rodeo.”

The author expresses some dissatisfaction with the San Francisco of today, though just how much might depend on his mood.  In the memoir, he’s unmistakably angry about what the tech sector has done to push out artists and most anyone else who isn’t rich.  In the film though, he professes not to mind about things like “the Google bus” when friends didn’t live to see it at all.  Surely both can be valid, both a sense of thankfulness and a desire to protect the place from pillage.  To the extent that the city has constituted a family home, shouldn’t elders seek to guard it for their younger counterparts?  Other Untold Tales interviewees include fellow San Francisco literati Kate Bornstein, Amy Tan, and Margaret Cho (Cho’s parents ran a Castro bookstore), but they all discuss the city in its past tense.  No one I know can afford to live near it now, neither my transplant queer artist friends, nor my Bay-bred evangelical cousins.   

In the most recent Tales, Maupin had Michael, Mary Ann, and Anna at Burning Man and on Twitter, but these felt more like concessions to the present than a real reckoning with it.

Rumor has it that Maupin, Linney, and Dukakis have agreed to a Tales revival for Netflix, with Michael Cunningham as lead writer.  My hope is that given such an opportunity to reach a younger audience, Cunningham will push the series beyond a legacy act to show what logical family might mean today for the characters’ wider communities: how to move on from past battles while holding onto their lessons, and fashion something new, both adaptable and lasting.

The Ballad of Thom and Joseles: Communities of the Carnal Heart


1. Joseles’s Song
Yo canto historias
De nuestros cuerpos
Durmiendo en la luna
Que nunca se olvida…

… no me dejes solo
como un pajarito
enamorado con aire
pero sin sus alas
My friend Joseles died last summer.  He went missing near Palm Springs in mid-June, and turned up behind a strip mall there in July.  An off-leash dog found his body.  A lot still isn’t clear about how Joseles landed naked in an alley, but what does seem clear now is that he’d been partying at a nearby gay resort, or boys’ club.  Since I embrace the utopian potential of spaces like the bathhouse, I felt an especially pressing need to understand the tragedy, its causes and implications.

Joseles and I became friends in college.  We belonged to the student labor coalition, formed a protest affinity group for direct actions, and played in a feminist punk band on campus, Joseles on guitar and myself on bass.  In San Francisco, where Joseles worked for a low-income housing clinic and I for a service workers’ union, our crew made up the membership of Pride at Work, a queer-oriented team of activists for economic justice.  We still played music sometimes; I kept my bass amp at the home Joseles shared with a handful of our friends, where he wrote the song above.  While I lived in a collective nearby, Joseles’s housemates went further: they combined all their possessions and organized the place accordingly, right down to communal beds and lubricant.

Our circle from the Bay dispersed; I left years ago, and others followed.  It felt impossibly surreal to see everyone again outside the church, dressed in black in the desert heat.  I spent time with my old friend Diego, reconnecting and piecing together Joseles’s final months.  I learned that Joseles had been ill, jobless, and essentially homeless.  His boyfriend had kicked him out, after which he had couch-surfed until moving back in with his mom there, in Cathedral City.  He’d begun to pursue teaching credentials before he disappeared.

Meth spread through gay party culture not long after effective HIV medication; apparently Joseles started slamming up north.  His last boyfriend came down for the funeral, and learned from someone at the boys’ club that Joseles had been there the weekend he vanished.  His host at the club claims to have dropped him off at a bus stop after a weekend of partying, but he also claims not to know about the drugs on which the coroner eventually blamed Joseles’s death.  I’m angry that the police and even a private detective stopped short of determining how his body ended up behind a furniture store.  News reports kept repeating that he “was using gay dating app Grindr,” as if to say, “but of course.”

Even without knowing exactly what happened, my greatest anguish was the idea that we as a community failed Joseles.  And it was worse because to an extent, I understand what he might have gone through.  My work in San Francisco had already placed enormous stress on my body and mind, but within nine months of leaving for a new, related assignment, I’d landed in a hospital myself.  I only told a few people what I was dealing with, none of them from our circle back in the Bay.  And it wasn’t just me.  Diego told me he had also endured a mental health crisis, sometime between mine and Joseles’s.  The three of us thrashed about in different directions; Diego bounced back more quickly than I did, but I can imagine how Joseles didn’t manage.  I found myself wishing that even if we couldn’t all have stuck together, we could more easily have plugged into other communal structures that would have seen us through.

In a twist Joseles would’ve loved, our friend’s small dog shat all over the church floor, at which point the whole pew of us had to stop crying.  Now his online presence consists mostly of death records, but for a while one could still see traces of his life: fundraising in drag, advising Tenderloin tenants, identifying as a “border Xer.”  And there’s this, which he pinned on the Christian Left Facebook page a few years back, expressing an ideal of bodily and spiritual integration:
When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below and the below like the above, and when you make the male like the female and the female like the male, then you will enter the Kingdom. — Jesus in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas
2. Thom’s Verse

In a disturbing coincidence, Joseles’s death echoed that of fellow Stanford poet Thom Gunn.  Gunn too died using meth and was left by an unknown witness, likely a lover.  Joseles and I were in college then, but Gunn, 72 when he died, had a penchant for exactly the type my friend would become: unemployed and semi-homeless, with a habit.  Yet those supplying Joseles were likely Gunn’s own sort: successful, white, and older.  Gunn’s final book, Boss Cupid, includes a handful of poems on seduction and speed with young partners.  In “Front Door Man,” he asks Cupid about one such visitor, “Are you appointing me/ To hold him safe tonight/ Or use him for my delight?”  Gunn died in his own room, unnoticed by his housemates until later in the day.

Gunn and his partner, Mike Kitay, met at Cambridge.  Gunn came west for Kitay’s military service, and to Stanford for an M.F.A. in 1954.  He joined the Berkeley faculty in 1958, but gave up tenure there in the ‘60s to escape department meetings.  Starting in 1971, Gunn and Kitay lived in the Haight on Cole Street, sharing a house with lovers and friends.  Until Gunn died, and later Kitay, residents faithfully adhered to a schedule of designated cooking nights, eating together each evening.  Edmund White considered them “commune dwellers,” and poet August Kleinzahler called it “an unusually stable domestic situation by any standards.”  In his 1992 book The Man with Night Sweats, Gunn depicts that sense of tight-knit community as expanding well beyond his home:
The warmth investing me
Led outward through mind, limb, feeling, and more
In an involved increasing family.

Contact of friend led to another friend,
Supple entwinement through the living mass
Which for all that I knew might have no end,
Image of an unlimited embrace.
Gunn uses the past tense because as in many of the book’s poems, he goes on to mourn the ravages of AIDS.  While the literary world had often dismissed his earlier volumes on gay life in San Francisco, this one was a hit.  But following it with Boss Cupid, Gunn reminds his readers that the entwined limbs’ embrace was an unapologetically erotic one.  In “Saturday Night,” he laments the passing of that age, when bathhouses represented a “community of the carnal heart.”  He writes of that time,
If, furthermore,
Our Dionysian experiment
To build a city never dared before
Dies without reaching to its full extent,
At least in the endeavor we translate
Our common ecstasy to a brief ascent
Of the complete, grasped, paradisal state
Against the wisdom pointing us away.
3.  A City Never Dared Before

Gunn lived much of his life by the principle of free love: a deliberate transcendence of socially prescribed coupling practices.  Communal play settings can be a part of this and often are — but for those of us eschewing the nuclear model, chosen family like Gunn’s is essential.

The concept of free love has an estimable past.  Historically it has revolved around rights for women and gays.  Many of its advocates have associated marriage in particular with colonial-style social control.  Free love (also called sex radicalism in the past) was especially fundamental to communally- and culturally-minded feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, Natalie Barney, and Lou Andreas-Salomé.  All of these women prized both their personal independence and their close ties to lovers and friends.  Wollstonecraft and her partner William Godwin lived separately in their shared Polygon home.  Expatriate Barney hosted legendary Left Bank salons at the Villa Trait d’Union, a similar conjoined domicile with lesbian partner Romaine Brooks.  Andreas-Salome, a pioneering psychoanalyst of women’s sexuality, set out to found the Winterplan commune with Friedrich Nietzsche and Paul Rée while declining to marry either.  In her anarchist classic Marriage and Love, Emma Goldman made a passionate case against hegemonic monogamy and the bourgeois family unit.  Bolshevik diplomat Alexandra Kollontai promoted free love while founding the Soviet Women’s Department (unsurprisingly, Joseph Stalin put the kibosh on that message).

Leading up to the 1967 “Summer of Love,” the cause gained greater traction.  Seeking to cross received boundaries, thinkers, artists, and activists advanced what Michel Foucault called “a different economy of bodies and pleasures.”  In the popular narrative of Aquarian-era free love, men abdicated responsibility while women bore the costs of family planning.  Certainly this is a constant from Hester Prynne to Billie Jean.  But back in the Bay Area, a number of projects more seriously explored different styles of intimacy.  One of these was San Francisco’s Kerista group, which practiced a regimented form of communal relationship: four clusters of six or seven people sharing flats in the Haight, rotating partners according to a schedule.  Keristans widely publicized ideas we now associate with polyamory.  Beyond that, the men obtained vasectomies and received nine-point tutorials on cunnilingus.  As a clan they put out comic books, engaged in public “Gestalt-o-Rama” rap sessions, and ran a successful tech business.  Another East Bay group has since the ‘70s lived in purple-painted buildings it calls the “MoreHouses.”  They held the first public demonstration of a female orgasm, and still host related workshops.

While the gay bathhouse may have entered the public consciousness in the Stonewall period, records in the U.S. date back over 100 years, when the Gershwins managed one such New York facility.  The baths grew in popularity over the midcentury — and in the ‘70s, with sites like the Barracks of Gunn’s poem, the BDSM club took root.  Fetish art, commercial dungeons, and a gay leather scene had all existed underground.  But determined sex radicals like Cynthia Slater brought kink practices into the light, amid scorching controversy within the LGBT and feminist movements.  San Francisco’s early gay pride parades banned nascent SM groups like Slater’s, and feminist conferences splintered over the subject of power play.  Noted personalities like Foucault and Robert Mapplethorpe patronized the exclusive Mineshaft in New York and pansexual Catacombs in San Francisco.  Painfully though, by the time the close community understood HIV well enough to effectively quell its spread, Foucault, Slater and Mapplethorpe had all succumbed.

Apps like Grindr have changed bathhouse culture, moving more action to private venues, while kink is available for mass consumption at San Francisco’s annual Folsom Street Fair.  Meanwhile in the ‘90s, all-night discos morphed into circuit party club-crawls, like Folsom’s Dore Alley for men and Palm Springs’s Dinah Shore week for women.  In Cape Cod, early artists’ colony Provincetown has become legendary for gay tourism and festivals.  The fall Women’s Week, for instance, pitches itself “between a safe haven and a party.”

At the same time, mixed households of polyamorous individuals are dotting major cities’ landscapes.  While providing an accepting environment for residents’ relationship choices, complexes like the Bushwick Hacienda function less like cooperatives than adult dorms.  Burning Man, or as Joseles called it, “white people act crazy week,” is basically a circuit party with many straight attendees: sex, drugs, and copious spending.  He once went with only a shopping cart, making a salient point about the so-called “gift economy.”

Viewed from one angle though, Burners descend from Kerista.  The Keristans believed in science, and took up early Apple computers as a way to generate income for the commune.  They rented the machines out of a shop they called Utopian Technologies, and soon offered training, support, and repairs.  By the late ‘80s the business, then called Abacus, became Northern California’s top Macintosh dealer.  The commune shared the profits equally among members, but plenty of Keristans still identified less as techies than hippies.  Many removed themselves to more tranquil lives in the redwoods or Hawaii, but some remained in San Francisco and joined other companies.  The wider shift to yuppie swinger culture, along with the AIDS epidemic, points toward the state of the scene today: a reorientation of free love from a communal commitment to a transactional experience.

Thom Gunn’s household lived on in the Haight, but other gay libertines found life in the cities too compromising.  With family roles a feminist battleground, groups of radical lesbians had moved to rural areas to develop land trusts and invent a shared life.  One contingent of gay men followed a similar path, and might hold inspiration for a carnal community future.

4. Entering the Kingdom

Harry Hay was a sailor, stunt-rider, Stanford dropout and Kinsey subject active in the Communist Party.  He founded pioneering gay rights group the Mattachine Society in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, in 1950.  In 1954 he met his life partner and took on a role in his kaleidoscope business, and in the 1960s they helped start the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO).  After Stonewall birthed the Gay Liberation Front, Hay chaired its Los Angeles chapter, coordinating events like a “gay-in” at Griffith Park.  He and his partner spent the 1970s in New Mexico, where they were involved in gay and indigenous causes.  They returned to LA in 1978, and planned a gay retreat to Arizona for the following year.  The ashram space they booked there was for 75 men, but three times as many came.  Participants found the four days transformative without drugs as Hay urged them to “throw off the ugly green frog-skin of hetero-imitation.”  The men studied botany, health and healing practices, and spiritual matters, joining in performance art and erotic rituals, dressed in little but bells and rainbow makeup.  They called themselves Radical Faeries.

The next year they convened a group of 400 in Colorado, where they discussed a desire for their own communally held land.  An existing leftist collective at Short Mountain in Tennessee had mostly dispersed; the Faeries took to the spot and created a community land trust.  The group continues to inhabit the location, and more recent transplants there have found ways to protect the land and care for aging communards.  Today, about 20 men live in home-built cabins on site and hold major gatherings twice annually.  They have a network of outposts in other states and countries, and a neighborhood of other queer collectives — younger and more diverse — has sprung up around them in middle Tennessee.  The Faeries there use solar power, spring water, and wood fires, grow their own food and eat nightly meals together, operating on consensus.

Before I left San Francisco, my fellow radicals and I had talked about eventually creating a settlement where we could provide shelter and fellowship to each other and others.  Rather than the countryside, we hoped to set up somewhere more urban, believing that together we could do more for people around us.  Soon our lives pointed too many disparate ways; we were in our mid-20s.  Maybe that particular group wasn’t designed to last.

Yet life’s crises aren’t all behind any of my friends or me.  Most of us will face infirmity of one kind or another, regardless of habits or careers.  Those who reject the sequestration of the patriarchal-style family can’t just replicate it individually, where isolation is even more dangerous.  Social events and hookup apps might offer chances for play, but without a net of close, caring companions, they can never suffice.  We have to carve out communal space for our own ways of living and loving.  We might not all share sex toys or go off the grid, but we can save economically and environmentally by aggregating supplies and equipment.  We can facilitate exchange of ideas in a way that benefits our wider community, and collaborate on projects without having to run a start-up.  We can share aspects of our play without needing to all sleep together, and cultivate honesty free of judgment.  We can look out for each other’s health, and if we worry for someone, seek to reduce harm.  And if one of us dies in our 70s pursuing a good time, at least we will have made it that far.

We have nothing to lose but our frog-skin.