If the conversation going on behind me was any indication, it was going to be a very gay night. The couple in the row directly behind me—two middle aged women with short gray hair and non-ironic mom jeans—were catching up on a little bit of dyke drama before the event began. The one on the left (let's call her Nancy) was talking about her ex (let's call her Barb), who just would not stop calling. "She wanted to process over and over and over," Nancy told her companion. "But it was never going to work out. Our dogs didn't get along. What's there to talk about?"
It was an appropriately homosexual conversation to precede the main event—novelist Armistead Maupin in conversation with Seattle Review of Books editor (and former Stranger writer) Paul Constant at Benaroya Hall. The audience, a sea of bald and gray, would have looked at home at a gay night at a Prairie Home Companion taping. And gay was the recurring theme of the evening. Best known for Tales of the City, a fiction column that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle beginning in 1976 and was later turned into a series of nine novels (and a TV miniseries), Maupin captured queer life in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, from before anyone had heard of this mysterious "gay cancer" through the graveyard years and beyond.
The occasion for the event was the recent release of Maupin's new memoir Logical Family, which covers not just Maupin's queer misadventures (and there are plenty), but far more embarrassing times, like his stint as a conservative. Maupin even worked for Jesse Helms, a North Carolina senator who once called gays "weak, morally sick wretches" and attempted to defund the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting Robert Mapplethorpe. Maupin, looking like Mark Twain after a few decades in the Castro, wasn't conservative for too long: By the time he was 30, he'd left the South, moved to San Francisco, and come out.
"We grow up another species entirely," Maupin told the crowd, comparing queer people to lone gazelles who eventually join the "gay diaspora." Maupin was talking about the 1970s, and while times may have changed—we are more likely to find each other on queer apps than in queer bookstores these days—the gay diaspora still exists. Today, we call it chosen family. Or, more often, #chosenfamily.
Maupin, the first openly gay writer to hit the mainstream, certainly comes from another era. When speaking about an upcoming Tales of the City series on Netflix (which will star Laura Linney, who was in the original 1993 miniseries), Maupin said the new story will have "at least 7 or 8 different sexes." The audience laughed, and I wondered how well that would have gone over had the median age not been somewhere in the 60s.
That wasn't Maupin's only foray into identity politics: When asked by an audience member who he admires now, he mentioned Jil Soloway, the creator of Transparent, who identifies as non-binary and goes by the pronoun "they." "The pronoun thing, that's hard to do," Maupin said, "it's hard to remember." But, he added, he admires it. "It's people defining who they are and what their own destiny is," he said. Later, he recited a limerick about an Olympic athlete who, after her death, was revealed to be intersex: "The late Stella Walsh was a man / She never sat down on the can..." he said before seeming to realize that he was teetering into dangerously politically incorrect territory. Still, there was no gasps from the audience, no angry tweets that I saw—just a couple hundred old queers, who, from the standing ovation at the end, seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Had this taken place on a college campus, the reaction, I think, would have been far different.
Maupin was candid, generous, quick-witted, filthy, and as charming as expected from his work. He told stories about picking up boys, about losing friends, and a few about getting older. At 73, Maupin remains sharp, vibrant, and seems unlikely to slow down. "I don't want to be that old guy saying, 'In my day we had to walk 10 miles just to suck a dick in the snow,'" he said. But still, time was a spectre underlying the evening, at least from my perspective in the crowd: Maupin isn't a dinosaur, but he is getting up there, and based on his language, he's not entirely woke to the latest in queer politics. Does this make him problematic? Maybe so. But he was also unabashed, unapologetic, and truly a pleasure to see. "My transgression is that I've never taken myself that seriously," Maupin said. Today, that may be the wildest transgression of all.