Tales of the City: I Read It, Finally!

posted by Madame Bubby

Oh wow, this summer has certainly been a summer or reading for me, in addition to the process of assembling many of these blogs into a book format. I guess I am lucky, to enjoy such large amounts of time to sit there and read. For hours.

As usual, I am way behind the trends. I tend to get interested in media after it is popular (for example, I only got interested in Seinfeld in reruns). I've known about Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City for some time, I know there was a miniseries in 1993 based on the books, and now there's one on Netflix (I don't get it, yet). But I just wasn't that interested.

Until a friend loaned me a huge volume that contains the first three novels, Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, and Further Tales of the City. I read all three Sunday night through last night. For someone who reads much dense scholarly material, it was a quick read, and I don't imply it is superficial. It actually read much like a screenplay, and I mean that as a compliment; less is more in the description, and the dialogue shapes the characters and moves along the action.
 

Cover of Maupin's 28 Barbary Lane

The 1978 one, the first one, was most interesting, as it really gave one a slice of the “sex and the city” life in San Francisco during the swinging seventies. The place was certainly comparable in some ways to the “blue bubble” cities (a scary thought in hindsight) of today.
 

Ad for 21st St. Baths, captioned Definitely for the Discriminiating Male
Ad for gay bathhouse in Mission District, definitely for the discriminating male, from: http://www.missionmission.org/2010/09/17/the-21st-street-baths-were-definitely-for-the-discriminating-male/

But it wasn't just LGBTQ persons who flocked to the city like the young ones did in the 1960s to the Summer of Love; they often were persons perhaps a little more daring than Mary Tyler Moore (who ended up in Minneapolis, not exactly the Babylon of Sodom of the 1970s) trying to figure out how to shape an identity that didn't necessarily conform to that of their Greatest and Silent Generation parents, who themselves, especially if they had the money to do so, were swinging themselves in their suburban sprawl.

But by 1978, the Summer of Love had degenerated into drug abuse, Milk had been assassinated, and Anita Bryant was vomiting her orange juice of bigotry on a national level. Liberation had come at a cost, but Maupin explores these times in a range from biting satire to gentle humor to bittersweet melancholy. Ultimately, the tales are about persons caught up in the wildest and even dangerous escapades (Jim Jones did not die at Jonestown? Oh, that's in the the third one I read) but still, somehow, never losing their ability to laugh at themselves.

One incident in the first novel that happens to the oh so hot straight guy who lives in the wonderful building of Mrs. Anna Madrigal at 28 Barbary Lane (Maupin gives us so many titillating descriptions of him sliding in and out of jeans and various forms of undergear) I found most interesting. Apparently, in San Francisco at that time, “the tubs” or the gay baths weren't the only places to enjoy no strings attached sex. Brian goes to some kind of co-ed bathhoue on Valencia Street. And there was The Party on Monday night, and also that night women were admitted free.
 

Valencia Street, San Francisco in the '70s
Valencia and Market Streets, San Francisco, 1970s, from: https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/northern-california/san-francisco/1970s-san-francisco/

He does meet a woman in her private room, (she invites him), but she assumes he is at least bi, and she builds on the fact that most of the guys who go to this bath are bi or gay (but of course!). And I find one ends up feeling sorry for Brian. Yes, he is the heterosexual equivalent of a gay “slut" and he knows it, and he want to get laid, not psychoanalyzed at the baths.

But Maupin's description of the main space is telling, perfectly selective detail, with a real zinger at the end:

There were twice as many men, mingling with the women in a space that seemed strangely reminiscent of a rumpus room in Walnut Creek; rosy-shaded lamps, mis-matched furniture, and a miniature electric train that chugged noisily along a shelf around the perimeter of the room.
A television set mounted on the wall offered Phyllis to the partygoers.
On the opposite wall a movie screen flickered with vintage pornography.
The partygoers were naked, though some of them chose the shelter of a bath towel.
And most of them were watching Phyllis.


Yes, Phyllis, a spin off the Mary Tyler Moore show. Mary's middle-aged friend Phyllis Lindstrom played by Cloris Leachman ends up in San Francisco after her husband dies to start over. And it's got one of the campiest beginnings to any sit com, ever. (Think the big number Hello, Dolly reworked by someone on acid.)
 

Phyllis oepning credits
Phyllis opening credits

But that allusion pretty much says it all about Maupin's take on the topsy-turvy, paradoxical yet also wild and wonderfully campy world that was San Francisco in the late seventies. A world where persons of any orientation could still afford to live in an apartment with a view of the wharfs and where they party with the neighbors and go out to diners at all hours and their landlady tapes a joint to the front door as a welcoming gift.

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The Sears Catalog

Sears department store exterior

Sears has been dying for some time, and after its recent filing for bankruptcy, it’s self-evident: the former retail giant will be as dead as a doornail.

Many folks of my generation remember the Sears catalog, especially the Christmas Wishbook edition. In fact, Sears began as a mail order outfit only, appealing to a mostly rural America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Those isolated on homesteads could order items from a catalog; imagine the thrill of a package arriving in those days!
 

Sears Christmas Wishbook, 1964

As Americans became more citified and then suburban, Sears built department stores, and then became the main anchor in shopping malls. Now Americans with their ubiquitous automobiles could now travel to a consumer’s mecca and buy appliances for their newer homes designed to accommodate washing machines, refrigerators, and television sets.
 

Sears department store opening advertisement

Yet the catalog remained, and one of my memories as a young gayling was that catalog, and it wasn’t because of the underwear models (that dynamic arrived later). No, it was because of the home décor. I was fascinated with the living room sets Sears sold in the catalog, especially the French provincial and Early American lines. (No, I exhibited no intention at that age, even subconsciously, of becoming the clichéd gay decorator.)
 

Sears furniture in catalog, 1970s

Confined to mostly interior activities because of lack of athletic skills, I would cut up older catalogs and create my own rooms. I remember a sofa with a brown slipcover that featured prominently in my fantasy rooms, next to a ginger jar lamp. I guess I may have been going for a more lower middle class look than I had intended (think Roseanne, definitely taking place in a Sears household), but home for me equals comfort, sinking into a cushy sofa in a room softly illuminated by lamplight.
 

Ginger jar lamps

When puberty hit, I was drawn to the catalogs for another reason: the macho mustached guys wearing plaid shirts, Levis, and boots. That was the style of the time, and Sears sold “gay macho” wear because its customers were actual construction workers or even cowboys. I really like the pictures of guys posing in tight jeans and boots with clunky heels. And they were usually posing together, as clothing was sold in the catalogs based on gender. Yet the groups of good-looking, well-built guys hanging out together could produce a definite homoerotic vibe. For example, I remember one ad featuring guys leaning against a fence, that pose drawing the eye to the bulge in the jeans. I cut it out and pasted into a secret notebook.
 

Sears catalog cowboys

There’s more going on than just nostalgia for an American icon. I do find it brutally ironic that the supposed “making American great again” does not include the return of Sears, in so many ways a symbol of a time when a strong, blue-collar (and mostly white) middle class made good. But their descendants now shop at Walmart and/or Amazon, or, in some of the areas that suffered the most economically, dollar stores.

And the new generation of gaylings don’t have to stealthily cut up Sears catalogs to express forbidden fantasies. They can use phone apps, but most significantly, they don’t have to hide their artistic and sexual interests in a world where girls were girls and men were men. Yet I still feel like the effort involved in cutting up those catalogs stimulated creativity. I had to work for my fun. And part of the fun was the work involved in attaining it.
 

Sears catalog '70s fashion
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The Gay and Lesbian Softball League Phenomenon

Gay softball players in Chicago

As in most sports, my youthful experience was negative or at least ambiguous. Perpetrating the stereotype that lesbian or “masculine women” and nuns (often equivalent in many eyes to lesbians) play softball, the principal of the Catholic school, the formidable pantsuit-wearing Sr. Judy was obsessed with softball. She claimed I was not playing with enough enthusiasm (she wielded the same accusation during volleyball practice), and I was banished to right field. I purposely let the ball hit me when it flew toward me, and I was banished to the sidelines. And I thought softball would be easier than baseball, because the ball was bigger and softer and supposedly easier to hit and catch. Oh well …

Fast forward several years later, and a work friend told me her easygoing, sports-loving husband saw a group of guys near the lake playing softball. He, like many (or most) straight males, was socialized to join guys playing games outside, and he asked if he could join them. He played with them for a while, really enjoying himself, but after a guy patted him rather too enthusiastically on the ass, he realized he was playing with members of the local gay softball league. He was not homophobic about it, but he was just surprised. Or maybe just a tad homophobic, perhaps, because he was subscribing to the stereotype that gay men did not play sports.

Instead, lesbians did – especially softball. This stereotype persisted, even as recently as the time Elena Kagan was nominated by President Obama to the Supreme Court. The Honorable Ms. Kagan was not married, and she played softball. Therefore, she must be lesbian.
 

Elena Kagan playing softball
Elena Kagan playing softball

And around that time, in an article in the New York Post, the token straight gal (gay teams have rules limiting the number of straight players) on an all-lesbian softball team, says (I don't think she was being homophobic, but I wonder) that her teammates were “so husky you might wonder whether they have a beard to shave.” Yikes. And she says one teammate offered her a toaster to “switch hit.” (What brand? I might do it for a four-slot Kenmore that takes bagels.)

It's a shame that stereotypes obscure the truth about these leagues, that “LGBT sports clubs and events provide an opportunity for individuals to experience a sense of pride, a safe and welcoming environment, and feelings of belonging to the larger gay community” (Sara Mertel in her dissertation on the sociology of an LGBT softball league, summarizing an article by Elling, Knoop & Knoppers). I consider these leagues comparable to the gay chorus movement, which has allowed gay men to teach and learn as musicians on both amateur and professional levels in an inclusive environment. Talent is talent, art is art, but in this context, they become vehicles of liberation and, some might, argue assimilation.

In fact, in the early heady days of gay liberation, gay and lesbian softball leagues sprang up very quickly, beginning in San Francisco in 1974 with the formation of the Community Softball League, which eventually included both women's and men's teams. These teams actually competed against each other and, quite telling, against the San Francisco Police softball team (quite a revolutionary moment, to say the least, given the history of victimization by the police).
 

Gay team vs. police team San Francisco softball game
Gay team vs. police team San Francisco softball game

In 1978, an international organization called NAGAAA (North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance) was formed to govern the many leagues participating in gay sports. According to a piece in Outsports, this organization was a realization of the vision of Chuck Dima, a New York bar owner, who orchestrated a tournament where the gay softball teams from San Francisco and New York played each other. The first women's team competed in 1979. Today, the NAGAAA incorporate 41 individual softball leagues, and hosts the Gay Softball World Series, first held in Los Angeles in 1980.
 

Gay softball game in San Francisco, 1977
Gay softball game in San Francisco, 1977

Now, ironically, the gay softball world faces another challenge, and it's not the holy haters. In 2011, three guys on their gay softball team sued the NAGAAA after they were determined to be non-gay (one was apparently bisexual), and their team was stripped of its second place finish. The National Center for Lesbian Rights backed the men. The Court upheld the straight limit, dismissing the discrimination claims. In the settlement, the players were reinstated and their second-place finish is now fully recognized, while NAGAAA maintained the Constitutional right to limit the number of straight players on a team.
 

NAGAAA North American Gay Softball Division logo

There's the tension: assimilation and identity in a world that doesn't just tolerate LGBTQ persons, but even sees them as exemplars of strength and talent. I don't think I will go out and join a gay softball league (I might get banished to the benches too based on my skill level). But I would certainly watch, and not only the softballs. Or maybe, just maybe, the hot young studs would let me be the “water boy” … hmm …

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LOOKING FOR LOVE IN ONE'S GAY TWENTIES

“His friends decided that Ken had fallen into the trap that had snared so many beautiful gay men. In his twenties, he had searched for a husband instead of a career. When he did not find a husband, he took the next best thing – sex – and sex became something of a career. It wasn't love but at least it felt good; for all his time at the Cinderella ball, the prince had never arrived.” – Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On

I've heard about (and read about) that adolescence for males especially extends until one's late twenties these days. Now, these days is kind of vague, so maybe I am thinking more about millenials, but the reasons for this extended adolescence aren't just psychological stereotypes (guys take longer to grow up than girls, and some never do), but also economic. The rising cost of living and increased compeition for jobs that can launch one into a secure middle-class income are factors that often keep the guys living in their parents' basement playing video games.

The game many guys played in their twenties in the 1970s was the sex game (not that guys haven't done it since time immemorial). Guys had been playing it more brazenly in the 1960s, and many women played along, and as they did so, started to make their own rules, and the win did not always have to occur before an altar.

Gays and lesbians, who for so long had to play in the closet, emerged militantly in the heady days of the seventies, especially in urban meccas. Some lesbians found a home (spiritually and physically) in various waves of feminism, but many gay men fled their tastefully decorated homes and entered palaces – sex palaces, bathhouses, movie theaters, back rooms of bars. I am not saying that no one was looking for love, but the love that used to dare not speak its name was more often than not during that time more like a moan in an orgy room. It was as if men became fertile, and multiplied (not in the procreative sense).
 

Gay men in the 1970s dancing

Steamworks, Chicago bathhouse poster

In the quote above, men like Ken (one of the first victims of AIDS), certainly grew from strength to strength, but for many men at that time, coming out still mean choosing between one's sexuality and a career. Thus the gay life became for many guys a sex life in specific, segregated milieu. Their Land of Goshen was ironically a release from bondage. Until the plague …

When AIDS started smiting these men down like that last plague of Egypt, gay men rallied together, but there was no singular Moses like Harvey Milk to guide them. They survived united, and survived divided. For a while the sex palaces remained open, despite an uncaring Pharaoh like Reagan and his Moral Majority priests with their rhetoric of sin and punishment. Yet that plague, with its relentless physical linkage of sex and death, changed everything.
 

AIDS activists hodling banner that says Fighting for Our Lives

Ken's generation saw death daily; the succeeding generation (in their twenties during the height of the plague) saw death, but many of them survived to explore and enjoy if not a cure, then a way to live, not die. The life was not just medical, but eventually legal, climaxing when Love Won in 2015. 2015 brought out the monogamous couples who had found their princes even before the days of liberation and the plague.
 

Person holding gay pride flag at protest in D.C.

Did the plague in some way make many gay men grow up? Not that gay sex, or any sex for that matter, is in itself an immature, irresponsible act? By its very nature it breaks boundaries, liberates, and orgasm is “the little death.” Growing up is experiencing sex, but maturing is understanding sex and the wisdom to know when sex and love intersect, and when they don't.

For gay men, this process was always more fraught because it did not conform to the social norms that heterosexual men and women usually conform to: in one's twenties, one finds a mate and a career, not always in that order, and it's no longer an either/or proposition. One produces children. One's career climaxes as one's children grow up. The cycle continues. Within that norm, one can usually choose.

Yet gay men who lived in the 1970s, who had lacked so many choices, plunged into a world with a bewildering variety of choices. Now with other freedoms (and in this day and age, still endangered) available beyond sexual choice, are gay men in their twenties at another crossroads?

I just hope many of them realize their prince is not an image on Grindr, and that even the image of a prince doesn't last. But if you are lucky, your prince may grow up to be a king.
 

Grindr profile image
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