In the mid-1980s when I was still working in theatre I was usually unable to go a week without seeing the name of someone I knew, my age, in the obituary columns. Some weeks of course there was no one, but other weeks were really bad when every day brought someone new. Anybody who worked in the arts during those years probably tells the same story because so many brilliant lives were cut short because nobody gave a damn that gays were dying.
As long as AIDS remained something that only killed gay men, who cares? They were only reaping the whirlwind of their own perversion. It was only when so-called "innocent victims", children and others who had received tainted blood and began contracting the disease, that governments got off their sorry asses and started to do something about it.
Like any community during a pogrom, gays across North America closed ranks and began taking steps to both ensure their survival and to demand their rights as human beings be respected. Ever since the 1970s and the gay sexual revolution, when closets were being kicked open all over North America, their community had been subject to harassment from politicians and conservative religious leaders.
It was pretty hard to find anyone in those days who was willing to cast a positive light on gay men, but one of the few voices out there was author Armistead Maupin. Over the course of six novels set in San Francisco, collectively referred to as The Tales Of The City Series, he charted the lives of a group of gay and straight friends as they revelled in the good times and suffered through the hard times, just like anyone else.
From the early days of the seventies until the dark days of the eighties he wrote about these people like any author would write about any group of characters, except that most of his were gay. Just like everyone else they were in search of sex, love, companionship, and everlasting relationships.
Twenty years later he picks up with one of the lead characters from his former series, Michael Tolliver, in his new book published by Harper Collins Canada, Michael Toliver Lives. The title can be looked at in a couple of ways. One, that Michael is a 55-year old gay man who had developed full blown AIDS and was preparing to die, only to have his life saved by some of the new drugs that came on the market. That he lives at all is a miracle and worth proclaiming to the stars.
But the title could also be in reference to the fact that, unlike a lot of his contemporaries who have just been content to survive the plague years, Michael still wants to live. For Michael that means finding a partner to spend his days and nights with, more than just sex but a husband. When the opportunity arises he jumps in headfirst and falls for a younger man, Ben.
In fact, during a brief period when gays were being allowed the right to marry in a few cities in the United States, he and Ben had been joined in a civil ceremony. But they are living in the Brave New World of George Bush Jr.'s America where being gay is an aberration for the man in charge and he's doing his best to strip people like Michael and Ben of any rights they have gained.
This being 20 years later, everybody from the original series has aged considerably, and the gay community has expanded to include people who are transgendered both ways – women who have turned themselves into men and are gay, and men who have turned themselves into women. As Michael puts it, some people find them too queer to be queer, but he has always been comfortable with the idea.
When he first arrived in San Francisco his original landlady had not always been a lady, and Anna had become like a second mother to him when his own fundamentalist Christian family turned more than the other cheek to him. Oh, they didn't completely disown him, but they let him know that they were praying for him to find his way back to the fold.
When both Anna and his mother fall sick he comes to terms with both his blood and non-blood families. Instead of being the dutiful son and running to his mother's bedside when she's on her last breaths, he stays in the city when Anna falls into a coma after a heart attack. It's a testament to Maupin's writing ability that neither of these scenes ever descends into sentimental crap.
There's no deathbed reconciliation between mother and son, save for a final acceptance of who he is via a photo sent by email of his mom sitting in her bed, smiling and waving, holding a picture that been taken of him and Ben on their honeymoon. Touches like that are what have always made Maupin's books wonderful. He has the ability to take potentially trite sentimental moments and give them genuine emotional depth.
Anna's recovery is a wonderful thing, but it also reminds Michael of who and what he is: a fifty-five year old, HIV positive man living with a man twenty years younger then him. Ben has promised him that he will stay with him no matter what, even if it involves having to bury him. Maupin is such an honest writer that he doesn't let his characters off the hook with pat happy endings like that. Michael knows he's blessed, but it doesn't stop him from feeling guilty and worrying about what will happen to the man he loves when he passes on.
Michael Tolliver Lives has of course a third message to the world: That the gay community is here to stay and nobody is going to push them back into the closet. These are real human beings in this book. Just like other people, some gays are assholes, liars and cheats, while others are kind and descent folk. Maupin writes about his community with honesty, affection, and humour – and in doing so he continues to put the world on notice that it is going to have to grow up and accept gays as part of society in the same way blacks were integrated.
Most of all Michael Tolliver Lives is a wonderful story about growing old and learning how to be grateful for the small gifts that fortune throws your way, and to deal with the pitfalls with as much grace and style as possible. Gay or straight, that's a lesson for all of us.