Election 2024

Armistead Maupin says we all think too much about Lauren Boebert

Armistead Maupin
Armistead Maupin. Photo illustration by Kyle Neal.

An infamous law banning the so-called promotion of homosexuality in schools. Panic over transgender women using women’s public restrooms. A notorious Republican lawmaker who makes opposition to equality a cornerstone of his political brand.

The hot-button issues author Armistead Maupin touches on in his new novel are, unfortunately, timeless.

Mona of the Manor, out March 5 from HarperCollins, isn’t set in the present. The tenth volume in Maupin’s long-running Tales of the City series takes place in the early 1990s and finds the 48-year-old former hippie Mona Ramsey — last seen in the sixth Tales novel, Sure of You — presiding over a grand old manor house in the English countryside. 

On paper, that’s seemingly about as far as one can get from the fictional San Francisco apartment building at 28 Barbary Lane that served as the setting for many of the previous novels in the series — let alone from the contemporary issues facing the queer community in the U.S. But the politics that provide the story’s backdrop and occasionally intrude via conversations among its characters echo those that continue to roil queer Americans and our allies in 2024.

Armistead Maupin book covers

Maupin began writing the daily serialized newspaper column that would become Tales of the City for the Pacific Sun in 1974 and then the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976. As a result, the novels borrow, somewhat, from the outlandish conventions of both soap operas and pulp fiction. But alongside the improbable coincidences, romantic and sexual entanglements, and occasional lurid mysteries, Maupin used the columns, and later the novels, as a platform to show how real LGBTQ+ people lived their lives. Simply depicting gay, lesbian, and transgender characters as normal, fully-rounded human beings in a daily newspaper was its own political act. 

As the years went on, Maupin addressed the issues impacting queer people’s lives: how homophobia can shape our familial relationships and the chosen families comprising friends and lovers that we construct in response; the importance of coming out; the devastation, in the 1980s, of the HIV/AIDS epidemic; the hard-won progress of the early 21st century leading up to the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015. In a sense, the Tales of the City novels can be read, in part, as a record of the post-Stonewall experience in America, as filtered through the personal trials and romantic foibles of Maupin’s sprawling cast of San Franciscans, written more or less in real time.

Despite setting Mona of the Manor three decades in the past (by necessity due to the title character’s death between 1989’s Sure of You and 2007’s Michael Tolliver Lives), Maupin hopes readers will nonetheless draw connections between some of his characters’ concerns — transphobia; the U.K.’s Section 28, a Thatcher-era law that banned the “promotion of homosexuality,” which was later repealed; anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers — and those that are top of mind for him today.

“They’re still the same issues,” he said. “We never quite put to bed all of that nonsense. We never have. I was just doing what I could do within the context of what I do. These novels have occupied me for 50 years now, and I’ve tried to let them express the heart of what I believe, and that’s most of what I can do politically. I can make my feelings known. All I can do is tell my story in the way in which I’ve always been telling it.”

‘Real scumbags’

Richard Nixon and Jesse Helms
(from left) President Richard Nixon, Senator Jesse Helms. Maupin says, “Archconservatives are the same thing everywhere whenever they pop up.” Photos by Steve Northup/Brettman/Getty Images.

One story that Maupin has often told is that of his embrace of conservative politics as a closeted young man growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the 1960s. He got his start in journalism working at a Raleigh TV station managed by future U.S. Senator Jesse Helms. A U.S. Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, Maupin was also invited to the White House, where he was photographed shaking hands with President Richard Nixon. Today, he describes both Helms and Nixon as “real scumbags.”

Helms appears, somewhat obliquely, in Mona of the Manor by way of a character who worked on one of the Senator’s rabidly anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns. With vicious anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric resurging in American politics, Maupin sees clear similarities between contemporary Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Helms.

“Archconservatives are the same thing everywhere whenever they pop up. The things that they’re against, the people that they’re against, it’s very consistent,” he says. “They’re all awful. America’s seriously, deeply divided, and the bad guys are very evident.”

At the same time, Maupin resists giving the most cartoonishly villainous Republican lawmakers the attention they so desperately seek.

“Have I given much thought to Lauren Boebert?” he repeats with a laugh when asked about the scandal-plagued Republican congresswoman from Colorado. “You’ve given too much thought to her! Oh, my God, those women! I should be plugging the heroes of the left! Yeah, it’s fun to go after Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, but I don’t think they have a chance of being anything other than whatever role Trump wants to give them when he gets in.”

Maupin admits he’s been something of a distant observer of American politics in recent years. After 40 years in San Francisco, he left the city that inspired the Tales novels five years ago, relocating to London, where he lives with his husband, Christopher Turner.

“We left in part because we were distressed about the way things were going,” he explained. “It was important to us where we are at this point in our lives. I’d lived in San Francisco for 40 years, and I’m not at all happy with the way things have turned out there in terms of the grip that the tech industry has on that city. It’s not as much fun as it used to be. It used to be genuinely bohemian, and I could write about it for that reason. So, those things weighed on us, and we just made the decision to move.”

“It was not specifically about Donald Trump,” he added, though he and Turner have followed the current Republican primary “with some distress, because it looks like he’s gonna be the next president.”

Biden vs. Trump 2.0

Joe Biden and Donald Trump
Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Though Maupin is clear that he’d prefer the current president over the looming alternative, he also suggests the country needs somebody “charismatic and lively.” Photos: Shutterstock.

Like so many American voters (59%, according to a recent Decision Desk HQ/NewsNation poll), Maupin dislikes the idea of a rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Trump. He describes Trump as “heinous” but also thinks that Biden “really should step aside” in favor of a younger, more dynamic Democratic candidate.

“I think [Biden’s] a decent guy,” Maupin said. “I like him in so many ways. His moments of fuzziness are very similar to my moments of fuzziness, so I can identify with him completely. But, yeah, I wish we had younger blood there to lead the way.”

Special counsel Robert Hur’s recently released report addressing classified documents discovered in Biden’s former office and Delaware home added fuel to the fire, with Hur writing that the president’s memory “appeared to have significant limitations.”

Maupin isn’t alone in his concerns. A recent Gallup poll found that “less than a third of Americans say they would be willing to vote for someone nominated by their party who is over the age of 80 or has been charged with a felony or convicted of a felony by a jury,” which doesn’t leave a lot of options.

To be clear, though, Maupin says he would absolutely prefer a second Biden term rather than seeing Trump back in the White House. But he’d like to see California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) step up to “rattle the cages of everybody out there.”

“I think we need somebody charismatic and lively, who has had a very strong record, to take charge. I was flabbergasted when he single-handedly made gay marriage happen in California — a very impressive thing,” he says of Newsom. “I mean, sure, he had a tacky wife who went on to marry Don Jr.; that was depressing.”

The ghost of Anita Bryant

Anita Bryant composite
(from left) An activist at the Equal Rights Amendment March, Washington DC, July 9, 1978; LGBTQ+ opponent Anita Bryant; an activist in San Francisco, June 27, 1977. Photos by Ann E. Zelle/Getty Images.

In 1977, Maupin penned one of his most memorable and impactful Tales of the City columns. Provoked by singer, former beauty queen, and Florida Citrus Commission spokesperson Anita Bryant’s highly publicized Save Our Children campaign against a local Miami-Dade County ordinance banning anti-gay discrimination, Maupin had one of his characters, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, come out to his parents, themselves Florida citrus growers, in a moving letter.

“No, Mama, I wasn’t ‘recruited.’ No seasoned homosexual ever served as my mentor,” Michael writes in the letter, which appeared in the second Tales novel, 1980’s More Tales of the City. “But you know what? I wish someone had. I wish someone older than me and wiser than the people in Orlando had taken me aside and said, ‘You’re all right, kid. You can grow up to be a doctor or a teacher just like anyone else. You’re not crazy or sick or evil. You can succeed and be happy and find peace with friends — all kinds of friends — who don’t give a damn who you go to bed with. Most of all, though, you can love and be loved without hating yourself for it.’ ”

“You can love and be loved without hating yourself for it.”

Armistead Maupin

Bryant receded from public life in the 1980s, but more than 40 years later, the spurious claims about “recruitment” and the threat that LGBTQ+ people supposedly pose to children, which formed the basis of her campaign, have had a major resurgence on the right in the form of rhetoric around “indoctrination” and “grooming.”

 “It’s f**king depressing,” Maupin said of this development.

Michael’s wish for queer mentors and role models remains particularly poignant today, as Republican politicians continue to push laws restricting how and when issues of sexuality and gender can be discussed in the classroom. Even before laws like Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act — colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law — were enacted, a GLSEN survey of over 20,000 LGBTQ+ youth across the country found that only 16 percent said they had been exposed to positive representations of LGBTQ+ people. In recent years, teachers have reported being forced to remove LGBTQ+ safe space stickers from their classrooms, while others say they were fired either because of their sexuality or gender identity or for expressing support for LGBTQ+ students. A recent RAND report found that one in ten teachers fear losing their jobs for violating anti-LGBTQ+ education laws. 

The result of these laws is clear: LGBTQ+ young people are being cut off from supportive adults and examples of the lives they can lead free of shame and the fear of rejection.

One of the far right’s most insidious tools to accomplish this in recent years has been the banning of LGBTQ+ books in schools as well as public libraries. Maupin’s own books have been targeted; most recently, Tales of the City appeared on a list of more than 1,600 titles that were banned in Escambia County, Florida.

Maupin is keenly aware of the effect stories like his can have not just on queer young people but on people generally, shaping their attitudes and, by extension, their politics.

“I certainly know from my own experience with my own books that the relief with which people recognized the arrival of those stories told me that they were needed,” he explained. “That’s the thing I hear most commonly: ‘I’m a straight person, but I read Tales of the City years ago, and it changed how I felt about gay people.’ And I hang on to that. That’s my worth in life, having accomplished that. And it’s the best I could have done, to simply get readers emotionally involved with the notion of gay freedom.”

“We need to have a loving connection with each other — period. Regardless of what our agenda is.”

Armistead Maupin

At the heart of Maupin’s novels is the idea that queer, straight, and trans people, people from different backgrounds and races, can not only coexist but, by mixing, can also create a beautiful community better than anyone could create on their own, by defending one another’s rights and dignity and by investing in one another’s well-being. 

“In America, the division is so enormous right now between the people who believe Donald Trump is the savior and people who don’t,” Maupin said. “We need to have a loving connection with each other — period. Regardless of what our agenda is. And we don’t anymore. I’m not sure how to do it. I think it should be done. I’m not counting on my work making a difference in that regard. Not completely. On my better evenings, I do; I think I’ve changed the world. But most of the time, I think that’s gonna be a long, long game.”

The ebb and flow of progress

Armistead Maupin
Sophie Bassouls Armistead Maupin. Photo by Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images.

What does Armistead Maupin, now nearly 80 years old, think of the state of LGBTQ+ politics in 2024? Things are, he said, “very good and very bad at the same time.”

He’s shocked by the attacks on transgender rights taking place across the country.

On balance, however, he views the long arc of the LGBTQ+ rights movement as one of steady progress — even in the present moment. “I think we have moved, by the very fact of our existence, towards a freer life for queer people,” he said. “Sure, there’s ups and downs and specific political moments that seem discouraging. But I’ve never been discouraged by them, because I feel like they’ve always been moving towards the light. And all we have to do is keep on being ourselves in as public a way as we possibly can. Sometimes that’s hard for people, but it’s not hard for me. It never was, actually.”

And Maupin has a message for younger people who haven’t experienced the same ebb and flow of progress that he has over the course of his long life: “You’ve got to be brave. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be proud.”

And perhaps more than simply proud. Maupin recalled a conversation with his friend, the late, great author Christopher Isherwood. “I said to him, ‘You’ve done a marvelous thing for gay pride.’ And he said, ‘Dear boy, I think of it as arrogance.’ And that opened up my eyes to what our attitude has to be. You have to arrogantly believe that you’re probably better than most of the straight folks you’re gonna meet. You’re better than most of the gay people who are claiming to be part of a movement but aren’t really. It’s stronger to think of it as arrogance than pride. Because you have nothing to be proud of if you’re really just marching in a parade. It will come from a kind of arrogance that says, ‘I’m as good as you are and maybe even better.’”

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