Now that LGBT kids as young as 12 can safely come out in conservative suburban schools across America and — sometimes, anyway — feel supported by families, friends, and teachers, it’s increasingly difficult to imagine a time when San Francisco was truly an anomaly. Once, it was full of gay people who’d come here hoping to make a life for themselves, and, upon becoming firmly established, wrote long letters to their parents, revealing the truth about themselves.
The emotional high point of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City involves exactly that. Michael Tolliver, a sweet-tempered gay man looking for love in all the wrong places — including the Marina Safeway — eventually comes out to his Southern parents, an action that no doubt resonated across late-1970s San Francisco.
An assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ramzi Fawaz has written about how the figure of the comic-book superhero became a vehicle for radical politics after countercultural readerships nudged comic-book writers and artists in that direction. He’s spending the summer in San Francisco working on a book tentatively titled Queer Forms, one chapter of which looks at the “lived experience” of Tales of the City readers during the series’ 1976-83 run in the San Francisco Chronicle (and, later, the Examiner). Fawaz wants to glean the ways people encountered and interpreted Maupin’s serialized account of life at the mythical 28 Barbary Lane, where Michael, an uptight girl from Ohio named Mary Ann Singleton, and various other characters figured out their lives under the watchful eye of Anna Madrigal, the wise landlady who taped joints to their doors. If you were a Tales reader back then, Fawaz wants to hear from you. (He’s also planning a summer reading group that will meet twice each month in San Francisco, to discuss the first three books.)
Fawaz’s thesis is that the act of consciousness-raising, a “central conceit of the women’s liberation movement,” was equally applicable to the emergent LGBT-rights movement of the 1970s, and that serialized fiction like Tales of the City is deeply enmeshed in the creation of gay identities and in the act of coming out.
“Coming out is both ‘punctual’ and ‘durational,’ Fawaz says. “It’s punctual in the sense that in that one instant you tell somebody, “I’m gay,” but you have to do it over and over again over time, and it’s something you have to live. … In the ’70s, in the wake of the immediate moment of gay liberation, people in San Francisco were incredibly drawn to serialized gay narratives like Tales because those narratives modeled for them that oscillation between coming out and being queer. Every daily installment was punctual, but it had to unfold over time.”
So far, his research has borne this out. People have told him about riding Muni on Polk Street and turning the pages of the newspaper in such a way as to make it obvious to potentially gay fellow passengers that you were reading Tales, thereby telegraphing to them that you, too, were queer. Not every reader was gay, of course, and Fawaz has been struck by the breadth and diversity of people who’ve written to him, including Ph.D. students at UC Berkeley or Stanford and people who as teenagers found their parents’ Chronicle subscriptions lying around the house.
It’s odd, Fawaz says, that since reading can feel “as automatic as picking up a fork to eat,” we don’t always think critically about how we read and under what conditions. This is especially notable given that, as bourgeois subjects of late capitalism, we often assume that the mere act of reading imparts factual knowledge and makes people into more ethical citizens. (This may in fact be the ultimate liberal piety, as the 2016 election laid bare.)
“Reading a book doesn’t make you a good person and it doesn’t make you a bad person,” Fawaz says. “It can produce such a wide range of effects, but it’s unpredictability is what makes it compelling. While we may say that reading something doesn’t make you more ethical, it’s possible that it could, under certain conditions. Politicized writers think about how to produce those conditions.”
He continues, “What’s interesting about Tales in its original format, and it’s had so many lives — it’s been novelized, it’s been on PBS, it’s been on Broadway — it was lived out in a very particular way, where it mapped onto people’s lives that were coming out as queer, or straight but in a queer city. There’s something distinct about that that needs to be understood, so inquiring as to how people read it and why is incredibly powerful, and makes people feel that their lived experience matters. People wrote me saying, ‘Thank you for caring.’ ”
In essence, Fawaz’s work is a social history that asks readers very basic questions about how they read the series, who their favorite characters were, and why. He also spoke to Maupin — now 73 and living in the Castro with his husband. Calling their conversation “hugely generative,” Fawaz recalls discussing the relative lack of overt politics in the narrative. Harvey Milk never appears, and HIV/AIDS only becomes a focal point late in the series.
Maupin’s explanation surprised Fawaz. In essence, the purpose of Tales was to “underline the pleasures of a queer San Francisco,” and to discuss such weighty matters was outside the series’ “emotional orientation.” Eventually, Maupin decided he couldn’t not talk about HIV, and the newspaper series wound down. Tales continued through the ’80s in book form, but by 1989’s Sure of You — intended as the final installment, until Maupin dove back in 18 years later — much of the lightheartedness had evaporated. By then, Michael was HIV-positive and haunted by his own mortality, and Mary Ann had become a careerist local celebrity.
Fawaz professes a certain love for Mary Ann, who can be almost a villainous character at times.
“What I love about Mary Ann is that in her opening outward and loosening up, she actually maintains a deep commitment to uptightness as a way of life,” he says.
As a professor, he contends with politicized students who become invested in tearing pop-culture artifacts to shreds over their deficiencies. Tales of the City comes in for criticism over its alleged lack of engagement with racial issues. But, Fawaz says, “it’s one thing to say the book doesn’t deal with race. It’s another to say you don’t like the way it deals with race.”
He points out how in a city with a huge Asian population, Asian characters are few and marginal. But there’s also the fascinating figure of D’Orothea Wilson, a lesbian fashion model who shuns her working-class parents and, in the vein of Iman, uses her easily exoticized racial ambiguity to climb to the top of her profession.
“She becomes upper-class by inhabiting Blackness,” Fawaz says. “This demands analysis!”