Armistead Maupin is among the brightest and most widely known gay writers in American literature. For most of his youth and young adulthood, Maupin lived and worked in the Carolinas. Under the roof of a conservative, Christian family, Maupin grew up in Raleigh under the shadow and tutelage of arch-conservative journalist and TV commentator Jesse Helms. After working for a brief time at a Charleston, S.C. newspaper, he left the Carolinas for an “out” life in San Francisco.
Maupin’s life is full of memorable events, famed loves and friendships (actor Sir Ian McKellen is a longtime friend) and decorated literature. It is also a life full of contradiction. A once conservative North Carolinian with “racist colorations” grew up to become a highly-regarded, prolific writer, a “queer” activist and a liberal ideologue. Certainly, Maupin is a man who, like the lead character in his latest novel “Michael Tolliver Lives,” has seen and done it all.
This October, Maupin returns to his childhood home for readings and appearances at Durham’s Carolina Theatre and Charlotte’s Novello Festival of Reading. Q-Notes spoke to Maupin via phone from his home in San Francisco.
So, you will be attending a reading at Charlotte’s Novello Festival in October. You lived in Raleigh and worked in Charleston. Did you ever spend much time in Charlotte?
I really didn’t know Charlotte very well. Charlotte was the big city; I never travelled there much. We were very provincial then, too.
Well, much hasn’t changed.
Oh, yes. I’m sure. (laughs)
As a young person, did you ever have a sense of any sort of gay community in the Carolinas?
Oh, hell no. (laughs) There wasn’t one to speak of. People met privately in their homes. There wasn’t a gay bar in Raleigh when I was growing up and certainly no gay organizations. I knew of only two examples of gay people when I was growing up. One was my mother’s dressmaker. He was like a Liberace on steroids. But I’m proud to have been a participant in Raleigh’s first Gay Pride in 1981.
The festival in 1981 was when you publicly spoke out against Sen. Jesse Helms’ conservative politics. What was it like working with him when you still lived in Raleigh? Did your opposition to his politics ruin any friendship that might have existed?
I really didn’t have a friendship with him, as such. He was more of a mentor who guided me in the late ’60s and early ’70s. There was no more communication with him after I came out.
I should say that I embraced conservatism [when I was young] because it was one way of pleasing my father, given the fact that I knew I couldn’t please him with my innate sexuality. A lot of people embrace right-wing thought because it is easier to keep the lid on. Right-wing philosophy fits nicely with the closet.
That’s one thing about groups like Log Cabin Republicans. A lot of those guys are products of their own self-loathing. And now we learn that John McCain’s chief of staff in the Senate is gay. The Republican Party has been like this for a long time — privately accepting gay people while vilifying and demonizing them for political advantage. To me, that seems more wicked than simply rejecting us outright.
What was it like growing up in North Carolina during the Civil Rights Era?
I was raised a conservative and still had a great deal of racist colorations in my thinking. My father once walked our entire family out of Christ Church in Raleigh when the minister began to deliver a sermon in favor of desegregation. I had a lot of unlearning to do. Being queer helped me in that process. I challenged my own assumptions about homosexuality and I had to look at everyone else’s oppression.
The label “queer” is used a lot by younger generations today. You embrace the word?
I’ve embraced it for almost 30 years. Christopher Isherwood, the author of “The Berlin Stories” — which later became the basis of the musical “Cabaret,” you know — he was using the word “queer” 30 years ago as a way of describing himself. He said he liked to use the term because it embarrassed our oppressors. When gay people began to claim the word, it took the punch out of it.
So do you think that is where the LGBT community is heading — finding a word like “queer,” one that can describe our entire diversity?
I imagine those definitions will keep changing over the years. The core of it all remains the same — in a free society adults get to choose how and who they want to love and live. We can get too tangled up on PC nomenclature and forget about what is at stake.
What is at stake? What is your opinion on this election season’s presidential race, and who do you think is going to win?
I have all the usual nervousness about the outcome of this election. It is my fondest hope that Obama wins and begins to repair the damage that’s been done over the past eight years by George W. Bush. McCain would just be a complete continuation of those politics and a continuation of the same evil bastards running the government now. It is all about one man — it is about a regime that, under no uncertain terms, has to be thrown out. McCain isn’t a homophobe himself, perhaps, but he has embraced it for political gain. That is one of the reasons why he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate and her homophobia is about all she has to offer him.
When you attended the University of North Carolina, you wrote for The Daily Tar Heel, correct?
Yes. I wrote an opinion column called “The View from the Hill.” It appeared irregularly in The Daily Tar Heel. I took as my inspiration then the editorials and TV commentaries of Jesse Helms.
I don’t think it is possible for younger people to know just how terrorized we were by a society that didn’t recognize our existence. Movies and television and pop music were all completely mum on the subject. When homosexuals did appear on the screen, they were usually destined for suicide or the asylum.
Tell us a bit about when you came out. And, what is your advice for young people today, who are coming out at much earlier ages, even though many youth, especially here in the Carolinas, face some of the same struggles you might have?
Technically, I didn’t really come out until I was 32, when I was clear with my parents. When I moved to San Francisco, I was 27 or so and I came out there. I had come out to a few people when I was living in Charleston. Of course, when I began writing “Tales of the City,” I was out.
In a way it is worse for young people today. The fundamentalist churches have organized so completely against homosexuality. It must be a living hell growing up, living in those families today. I guess I’d tell young people not to waste any time seeking approval from others. The thing that will transform your life will be love. Until you are able to express that and feel that, you’ll continue to be less than a human being. I wasted a lot of time in my youth trying to be a bigot. I would have found my true dignity as a human being sooner, if I hadn’t have been so nervous about what others thought.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the news and journalism industry, as a man who started his career when the industry was still growing?
I think it is a paradigm shift now. I think we have to take our message to the internet, by and large. I published “Tales of the City” serially in a paper and now people can tell their stories serially online.
That’s what people are doing online now, bloggers and all.
Absolutely. I find that encouraging — that people are able to tell their own stories without having to find a publisher. But I’m also discouraged by comments on blogs from people who seem cruel or ignorant and very proud of it. It is very easy to get a low opinion of mankind by reading comments on blogs, and news sites in general, for that matter.
Your latest novel, “Michael Tolliver Lives,” tells the story of a man who has pretty much seen and done it all, now past his middle-age years and living with HIV. How was this book shaped by your experience as an older member of the LGBT community, and how much of yourself do you think shows through?
There’s a great deal of my own life in it. I draw on myself for all of my characters, especially Michael. It is no less an autobiography than it was in the original “Tales of the City.” The strength of my work has always come from my ability to observe what’s going on around me. I had to reflect on the changes in my own life for this novel and my aging process. It can sometimes make me uncomfortable, but in the end it makes me feel better. Readers going through the same thing will tell me so, as well.
Mr. Maupin, thank you for your time.
Yes, you’re welcome, and I hope to see you all in North Carolina.
— Armistead Maupin will appear at two events in North Carolina. On Oct. 15, Maupin will be at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. The following day he will appear at Charlotte’s Novello Festival of Reading. For more information about his appearances, visit www.durhamcountylibrary.org/maupin.php and www.plcmc.org/novello/.