I recently discovered that if you ever need to remind yourself just who you are, where your life has been, and where you’re going, nothing does that better than the simple act of unpacking your stuff after you’ve moved. While sifting through boxes, which included boxes I never bothered unpacking the last time I moved, I happened to uncover something that brought back memories of a very interesting time in my life. My most treasured possessions and what inspired me to pursue my love of writing and story telling.
The first gay themed books that I ever bought myself.
The year was 1994 and I was sixteen years old. Many of you already know that that was the year that I came out. That happened later. This was early January. I was sitting at the kitchen table working on homework when something in the newspaper lying next to my stuff caught my attention. "LOCAL PBS TO AIR TALES UNCENSORED". Hmmm? What was this all about?
Apparently, this miniseries, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was really pushing a lot of people’s buttons. Stations across the country were debating whether to let it be, edit it, or cancel it all together. Why? Well, as the blurb went on to say, because of its “frank depiction of the homosexual lifestyle in San Francisco circa the 1970’s, strong sexual content, and nudity.” Just when I thought I’d chuckle at the thought of there being “strong sexual content and nudity” on PBS (What would they think on Sesame Street?), the other part of that statement froze me in my tracks...
“Depiction of the homosexual lifestyle.”
I had known since well before puberty that I wasn’t “like” the other boys. But when you’re that young, what the hell do you really have to compare or relate life to? Now days, everything has a gay sensibility, but in 1994, well, we had RuPaul and Jerry Springer. So the prospect of anything even remotely resembling my feelings was exciting and terrifying. Was there really a world out there with people who felt like I felt? According to the ink used to write about this upcoming miniseries that people were up and arms over, there was. Hold on a second. I didn’t have to wait for that, did I? It’s based on a book, right?
I must have this book NOW!
That, dear readers, is exactly what happened.
I ran down to the local bookstore intent on finding “my world”. What I hadn’t considered was how I was going to summon the courage to waltz in and get it. Some of you may remember the days when all of our books were isolated at the bookstore in a section who’s label screamed, HOMO’S YOUR BOOKS ARE HERE! Maybe my memory is more dramatic than the reality of it, but HELLO! I WAS 16! My balls were only so big. The walk from the front of the store to the back of the store seemed like miles. You would have thought I was trying to score crack I was so nervous. So of course my way of getting in and out of this section with the book I was looking for was to take a deep breath, close my eyes, and make a run for it. I kid you not. This would have been perfect had I not mowed over a sales associate in the process.
“Honey, are you okay?” the older male employee asked me, more concerned about my well being than his, leaving me caught off guard by his sensitivity.
“I’m so sorry, sir,” I offered meekly. “I’m okay. Are you okay? I’m sorry I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
“Well,” he started laughing, “that’s kind of hard to do when you’re running with your eyes closed. Speaking of which, why are your running with your eyes closed?”
“I was, you know, running and stuff cause, well, um, I’m really, really sorry about knocking you over and stuff, but I’m looking for um, a book, and it’s, well it’s,” and I whispered and motioned grandly this next part, “over in that section over there.”
“Why are you whispering?” he asked, whispering back.
“Because I’m kind of embarrassed,” I answered softly.
“Oh, nonsense,” he replied full out. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. There are many spectacular works and gifted authors in that section. Ethan Mordden. Rita Mae Brown. Who are you looking for?”
“Tales of the City,” I blurted out.
“Ah, Armistead Maupin, You’ve no doubt heard about the miniseries and want to read the book first. Excellent choice. I usually do the same. You know, I don’t want to make you feel worse than you already do, but because of the miniseries, we actually have a table display at the front of the store.”
Of course they did.
“You may not know this, but there is actually six books,” he began, walking me over to the table display. And for the next thirty minutes, he proceeded to give me a little background on how the books originated (a serial column in a newspaper!), what order to read them in, and spoiler free, but interesting tid bits about the books that convinced me to buy the whole set.
“Good. You’re one of us, then. Welcome to 28 Barbary Lane,” he smiled as I collected my copies.
“Huh?” I asked.
“It’s from the book. Great scene.”
As I finished gathering my purchases and headed for the cashier, I thanked the man for his help.
“Yes, you should,” he replied.
On noticing another confused look on my face, he added, “another great line from the book.”
What a strange, but interesting man I thought myself.
But he was right. In time, I was one of them.
I devoured these stories. How I loved them. Even though they chronicled the lives of these eccentric characters, some gay, some straight, that were older than I, living in a time and place I hadn’t, and living lives I, at that point, could only dream of, I found myself IN these books and knowing these characters. I WAS MaryAnn Singleton, making a fresh and independent start for myself. I WAS Michael Tolliver, reconciling my homosexuality with other aspects of my life. I AM Mona Ramsey, an opinionated individual, though slightly eccentric and a little left of normal, fiercely loyal and protective to those I love.
I was and to this day still am inspired by Armistead Maupin, his characters and his stories. He (and that nameless sales associate) provided me my introduction into this world of gay-themed storytelling, which I am so proud to support and even in my small way be a part of, and for that I have much gratitude.
Essential Download: "You Sexy Thing"
Artisit: Hot Chocolate
Available On: The Full Monty
Originally published in the September 2006 issue of The Empty Closet, New York State’s Oldest Continuously-Published GLBT Newspaper, published since 1973 by the Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley.