Armistead Maupin finished writing his bold memoir, Logical Family, months ago. He couldn’t have foreseen just how relevant his searing reflections on growing up in the deeply conservative, racially divided South would be.
In Logical Family, Maupin, a longtime LGBTQ rights advocate and the author of the groundbreaking series Tales of the City, lays bare his own struggles with self-acceptance and making peace with his past. BookPage spoke with Maupin by phone the day after the violence in Charlottesville that stemmed from protests surrounding Confederate statues.
“It was horrifying to see that much hate made visible,” Maupin, 73, says from his home in San Francisco. “When I was a boy, I got into a fight with my best friend, Eddie, because Eddie was a Yankee. He disapproved of the statues. He said, ‘You lost the war and you were fighting for slavery—why should you have a monument?’ It’s taken 50 years for this to come back up again. Stop tormenting our African-American citizens this way and stop celebrating what should be a public shame.”
Just as he is in conversation, Maupin is unflinchingly outspoken in Logical Family. The book title is based on a term he coined 10 years ago in his novel Michael Tolliver Lives. “[Logical family] is the family that makes sense to you; the family that supports you and loves you unconditionally,” he says. “How many people gripe about having to go home for Christmas and sit with some Trumpy old aunt—yes, I said Trumpy—and bite your tongue? I’ve stopped trying to win the approval of my family. Gay people have spent way too long being good little boys and girls and not relying on the strength of their real families.”
Logical Family opens with Maupin as a young boy in Raleigh, North Carolina. His father was an unapologetic racist who proudly displayed furniture made by “slaves in our family,” and his mother was a Southern belle. In this environment, Maupin developed strong conservative beliefs, at one point even working for notorious segregationist Jesse Helms. “I was trying to please my father,” Maupin says. “Even though he was teaching me some terrible things that I had to unlearn, on the other hand he had a ribald sense of humor and loved to tell stories.”
Given his upbringing, Maupin was deeply conflicted about his homosexuality and remained a virgin until his mid-20s. “Thank God that sex came along and saved me,” he says. “You can’t roll around in the dark in the bathhouse and not bump into somebody who’s nothing like you, but very much the same because tenderness and sweetness and passion are all the same.”
Maupin speaks matter-of-factly about his relationship with his biological family, without a trace of bitterness or regret. Regret, it turns out, is not something he has much use for. “I’m sorry that I was a virgin for so long. That’s my real regret!” he laughs. “I missed the opportunity for youthful lust. The real honest answer is we have to go through what we have to go through. I’m just glad we got through to the other side.”
A generous portion of Maupin’s memoir is devoted to his time serving in the Navy, stationed in Saigon during the Vietnam War. “I found whole stacks of letters from me to my mom during that time,” he tells me. “It was fascinating to reread and research my own history. To be perfectly honest, writing is never a whole lot of fun. To be done writing is fun. Writing is a process of slow, tedious self-doubt.”
“The thing I feared was the thing that ultimately brought me the most joy in my life.”
Maupin also recounts writing the Tales of the City column in the 1970s for the San Francisco Chronicle, which became the basis for his pioneering book and TV series featuring a transgender character. The column was a sensation in a city that was at the heart of the gay rights movement.
But Maupin is modest about his role in helping move our society toward acceptance of people who are gay, bisexual and transgender. “I’m very proud of my role in changing people minds, but there are others who have done much more in changing laws,” he says. “The best thing I’ve done in my life is help gay people change their minds about themselves. To find their own dignity and their own voice, to grow impatient with their own oppression. It just started out as fun, telling stories about my own self-discovery. But you dig as deep as you can in your own heart, and you come up with something others will get. For years I lived in terror of expressing anything in regards to myself being gay. The thing I feared was the thing that ultimately brought me the most joy in my life.”
To complement the memoir, a documentary, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, directed by Jennifer M. Kroot, came out this spring. Maupin had previously admired Kroot’s work on a 2014 documentary about George Takei. “Any illusion you’ve ever had about your personal beauty is shattered when you see yourself on screen,” Maupin says with a laugh. “But I trusted her. I could open up to her in a way I might not have with other people. I said yes on the spot.”
Maupin has found his own family, and he has delivered a generous, deeply satisfying memoir. “I made an effort at poignancy and humor and honesty,” he says. “I always like to take people on a roller-coaster ride. Make them cry one minute and belly laugh the next. That’s the most satisfying thing in the world. Humor is healing.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Logical Family.
Author photo by Christopher Turner.