Wednesday, June 1, 1988

Growing up Gay in Old Raleigh

This article was written by Armistead in June of 1988 for The Independent, a free weekly newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina. Armistead and Terry went to Raleigh to march in their first annual gay pride march.

Growing up Gay in Old Raleigh

By Armistead Maupin

When I was a teen-ager in Raleigh my friend Clark told me I could get a girl horny by putting cigarette ashes in her Coca-Cola. "You just flick them in," he explained on a camping trip to Confederate Dam. (It's gone now, gobbled up by the Beltline.) "Wait till she goes to the john, and give it a flick or two. She'll be all over you, man. I swear."

From my standpoint, there were three drawbacks to this scheme:

1. The taletell taste.

2. The fact that I didn't smoke.

3. The fact that I wasn't attracted to girls.

Clark didn't know about that third thing, of course, because he was my best buddy, and I didn't want to disappoint him. He had a generous, exuberant heart and he saw himself as my mentor in the Ways of Women So l listened and nodded and leered brutishly in all the right places, and kept it up all the way through college, where Clark became increasingly concerned about my virginal state.

"I'm saving it," I told him.

"Saving it? You're crazy. For what?"


"Oh, sure."

Glancing down at my Weejuns, I tried to look cavalier but conscientious. I don't believe in premarital sex."

"Shit, man, I don't, I believe you! With all the woman around hereÉ"


"Sex is great," he laughed "And you're a fool."

I remained a fool, too I didn't go to bed with anyone until I was 26.

Feeling "funny"

I think about my friend Clark every time Jesse Helms gets all het up safe-sex literature and the ways in which it might help to "promote" homosexuality, if sexuality could be promoted, Clark would have made a straight boy out of me back in 1962! Lord knows he tried hard enough.

I don't know what made me gay, but I can safely assure Senator Helms that it wasn't a pamphlet or illustration or even one of those dirty movies he takes such delight in being disgusted by. As far as I'm concerned, I came into this world gay, and l shall leave that way, God willing, and no amount of "promotion" will alter my fundamental nature.

I knew this when I was 14 and thought I the only person like me in Raleigh. True, my parents were friends with a bachelor professor who taught at State and bred day lilies behind the Y, but he wasn't really "that way" -as my mother used to put it -he was "just sissy."

Some perfectly normal Southern men those mannerisms, she said, because they were raised by large households of women (mothers, aunts, maids, and the like) and this tended to make them effeminate. But that didn't mean they were "funny." So many of them were married after all.

The only gay person I knew about for sure was a math teacher I had at Braughton who was arrested for Crimes Against Nature. One day he was teaching class and the next he wasn't, and, his mystified pupils learned why the following day on the obituary page of The News and Observer (the man wasn't dead, mind you, but the implication was that he might as well be.) Since his transgression at a state park, I felt almost certain that a Crime Against Nature had something to do with defacing trees. A classmate set me straight.

Well not straight enough, obviously, but I got the; message anyway: My feelings about other boys were not only unnatural and disgusting; they were punishable by law, I was in deep trouble.

When would it begin to show? I wondered. When would my voice crack, my hips start swiveling? How long could I reasonably delay before people got suspicious and called me a Fairy Nice Fellow (a euphemism my father employed for some of my mother's fellow actors at the Raleigh Little Theatre)? What if I just remained a debonair bachelor like Bob Cummings on "Love That Bob"? Would anyone be fooled?

My father, as it happened, was compiling a family history at the time, a Herculean feat of research in which he held forth on a variety of topics, including the worldly fate of Maupin Men throughout history. Looking to it for guidance, I found this:

"They are lawyers and doctors, planters and merchants generals and privates...If you go far enough back into the dim past, there appears to be a small amount of royal blood -and there most certainly is the blood of at least two pirates... One thing is certain, and that I is wherever one of these men met success, there was a self-effacing and goodly lady at his side."

So there I had it. There were no bachelors in my family-no successful ones, at any rate. Even the pirates had goodly ladies on board, which, once I'd thought about it a while, was certainly not my idea of how to run a pirate ship.

Firing the first shot

Four years later, when I enrolled at Chapel Hill, I learned to muffle my sex drive with extracurricular overachievement. I was the token conservative in Student Legislature (this being the '60s, after all) and wrote a column for The Daily Tar Heel, which strove to be a jaunty mixture of Art Buchwald and William F. Buckley, Jr. I went out with girls, but they were all just buddies, so my sacred virginity was never really at risk.

Then I moved on to UNC law school, imagining myself as my father had imagined me - a trusted junior partner in his Raleigh firm. This vision began to collapse, however, as tort piled upon dreary tort and I learned the literal meaning of "bored to distraction." At the end of my freshman year, after being elected president of the class, I took one look at the single question on my Equity exam and hitchhiked home to Raleigh. I can still remember how good it felt to walk out.

By this time the Vietnam War was raging full force, so I applied for Naval Officers Candidate School to avoid being drafted as a field soldier. I was accepted, but I had to wait five months before beginning my training in Newport. In the interim, I took a job as a reporter at WRAL-TV, a station then under the executive management of Jesse Helms, a longtime friend of my family.

Jesse saw me as a kind of protege, I think, and I was a willing pupil. Conservatism appealed to me at the time not only because it was the creed of my family, but because it claimed to champion the rights of the individual, And I was feeling more individual by the minute.

One day, when the station sent me to interview the imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, I came back with some footage which stopped Jesse cold. I had asked the I.W. what he thought of the recent marriage of Dean Rusk's daughter to a black man. He had replied, rather calmly, that it didn't surprise him at all, because the Secretary of State was a woolly liberal and a practicing homosexual.

Jesse was horrified. He himself didn't care much for Rusk, but this was nothing short of libelous-even for a liberal-and the station simply couldn't run it. Homosexuality, he told me, was the most heinous sin a man could commit. I nodded dutifully and kept my mouth shut.

When I finally acted on my feelings, I was a boot ensign stationed on a destroyer tender in Charleston. My partner in this awkward adventure was a man I met one night on The Battery - the very spot where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. (Even at the time, this felt curiously appropriate, for my great-great grandfather had been a Confederate general, and my father flew - and still flies - the Rebel flag in his den.)

As romantic escapades go, this one wasn't that much to speak of, but I think of it now as the moment when I finally became human. Reporting for duty the next day, I felt so utterly relieved, so completely transformed by the experience that I feared it might show somehow Ñ like a "Scarlet H" on my forehead.

No one even noticed.

Telling the truth

After a tour of duty in Vietnam and a stint as a reporter in Charleston, I was offered a position with the Associated Press in San Francisco. Having seen the city on my way home from Vietnam, I had already been struck by its physical beauty, but the word of mouth was even better. "You'll have a wonderful time," a friend whispered as I left Charleston. "They have gay bars there." To which I replied somewhat primly: "Oh, I would never go in one of those." Of course, I was in one of those the night I arrived.

I also found something else in San Francisco: a climate of tolerance which I had never experienced in the South. My first good friend was a 30ish straight woman with a husband and two kids. We were so close that I hated the idea of deceiving her, so one night I downed three mai tais after work and steeled myself to tell Jan the awful truth.

When I arrived at her house, I must have looked so unhinged that she hurried the children off to bed and plopped me down on the living room sofa. "Babycakes," she said, "what in the world is the matter?" I hemmed and hawed for a while, then looked at her dolefully and said: "I'm homosexual."

Jan blinked at me once or twice, then knelt in front of me and took both my hands in hers. "Big fucking deal," she said, smiling.

From that moment on I resolved make those three little words my answer whenever someone questioned my right to exist. Bit by bit, I began to construct a life for myself which was based on shared honesty and personal freedom individualist ideal I had looked for in conservatism but never found.

There were wonderful side effects, too. As my heart grew and prospered my imagination took flight and I discovered my calling as a storyteller. Drawing on my own life for color and content, I created a daily, fictional serial for the San Francisco Chronicle which has so far been collected into five novels with an international following.

It was through that serial - Tales of the City - I finally "came out" to my parents in 1977. Using the voice of a fictional character (who is writing to his own parents), I explained it the gentlest way I knew that I was happy being gay, that it had made me a wiser, stronger man, that it was no one's "fault," and that I loved them more than ever. "Please don't feel you have to answer this right away," I wrote. "It's enough for me to know that I no longer have to lie to the people who taught me to value the truth."

My father, who had been following the serial on a regular basis, received this news with some consternation, though he told me later that he had suspected as much from my earlier stories. ("I wondered," he said dryly, "how an Eagle Scout knew such things.") When the dust settled, his old cavalier spirit took charge and he began bragging to selected friends that he had "Three fine children - one of each."

My mother, it seems, had known I was gay for years, and had made herself an expert on the subject by sneaking into the stacks of the Olivia Raney Library. My revelation drew us closer than ever, I think, and it got to the point where her only concern was finding me a suitable partner.

Several years later, after a brave bout with cancer, my mother died at the university hospital in Chapel Hill. She spent her last day on earth trying to fix me up with her orderly.

Fighting back

Every story needs a happy ending, so here is one my mother would like: I'm 44 now and no longer a bachelor, having settled down in San Francisco with Terry Anderson, a Southern boy I met during a speaking engagement in Atlanta. I'm a committed homebody but I travel extensively on behalf of gay rights.

I might have bowed out of this effort years ago if it weren't for the fact that I still remember how much it hurt to be 14 and feel utterly alone in the world. There are kids like that everywhere suffering more than I did, because it once unmentionable Crime Against Nature has a name and a face to it now.

Four or five years go I returned to Raleigh public appearance on behalf of the North Carolina Human Rights Fund. The event was held at a gay bar called Glenwood Park, next door to the Five Points theatre where I had watched Roy Rogers movies as a child.

The men and women who showed up that night ran the gamut of Southern humankind. There were journalists and lawyers, working mothers, construction workers and closeted scions of "Old Raleigh" families. Some of the older people regaled me with personal ancestors "I knew your mother," one of them told me warmly. Another had taught me Sunday School at Christ Church. Still another had been a friend of my family's genial, wise-cracking pediatrician - a lesbian. it turned out. I was flabbergasted. Where had these folk's been all my life? Why had I not noticed at the time?

The question is rhetorical, of course. Fading into the woodwork is a lesson most gay people learn remarkably early in life. The twin issues of acceptance and survival reach us to mask our true natures even from those who might be our friends. The result is often a life of laborious "discretion," all endless cycle of apology and deceit.

I was past 30 myself before I discovered the simple way out of this mess: If you don't want to be told on, tell on yourself first. The best way to take charge of your life is to abandon your secrets.

Some of the people at the bar that night had already figured this out. Others, sadly, never would, forever indentured to a system which has trained them to be ashamed, to toe the line, to lower their voices - even there - when they spoke the word "gay" in public.

Since then, I understand, the social climate has changed dramatically in North Carolina. Faced with virulent anti-gay attacks from Jesse Helms and others (as well as increasing of outright brutality and murder) lesbian and gay men here have begun to fight back with a determination that is unequaled in America.

In the past two years the state has seen the formation of activist groups in Asheville, Greensboro and the Triangle area. Gay organizations are in the works in Charlotte and Winston-Salem, and a new state coalition convened for the first, time several months ago. Perhaps the most heartening news to me was that Raleigh, the hometown I share with Jesse Helms, has followed the lead of Chapel Hill and adopted an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It's appropriate, then, that this June 25 Raleigh will be the site of the annual North Carolina Lesbian & Gay Pride march. Terry and I will be present for that event, making our way down Hillsborough Street, to the monument my great-grandmother erected "To Our Confederate Dead." We are doing this because we know the world won't change until gay people become visible and proud. We are doing it because we have our own dead to honor now, and their blood is on the hands of the indifferent.

When I was in college the scourge of integration was Jesse Helms' main obsession, the commie-stooge demon he railed against nightly on WRAL-TV Then, lo and behold, the times changed on ol' Jesse, leaving him one less minority group to kick around in public. I suspect he feels a certain embarrassment now about those early racist editorials.

Is it too much to hope that he'll live long enough to experience the same discomfort about his current vendetta against "sexual deviates?" Gay people, after all, are part of his constituency, too. They can be bullied and insulted just so long before taking him to task for his ignorance.

© 1988 Armistead Maupin. © 1999-2001 Literary Bent LLC. All rights reserved.