Happiness is a Warm TV

Armistead Maupin talks about growing up gay and conservative in Raleigh in PBS documentary

Armistead Maupin at the San Francisco Chronicle.
Armistead Maupin at the San Francisco Chronicle. Courtesy of KQED

In archival footage at the beginning of a new documentary about his life, famed author Armistead Maupin politely corrects an interviewer: “I’m a writer who is gay, not a gay writer.”

It’s perhaps a subtle distinction, particularly considering Maupin’s legacy as a pioneer in LGBT rights, but it also speaks to the contradictions and inner turmoil of Maupin’s early life.

The documentary, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin,” debuts under the Independent Lens label Jan. 1 on PBS and examines Maupin’s life and work, starting with his childhood in Raleigh and the pressure of growing up gay in a prominent – and very conservative – Southern family. The core of the documentary is a series of recent interviews with Maupin, supplemented with archival interviews and photos, clips from his famous “Tales of the City” miniseries, and interviews with family, friends, actors and members of San Francisco’s LGBT community.

It’s a fairly deep dive into Maupin’s life, though perhaps little of it new information to those who have read his recent memoir, “Logical Family” (Maupin returned to Raleigh in October for a reading at Quail Ridge Books).

His stories about encounters with famous people might make you lean a little closer to the TV (the Rock Hudson parts of the documentary are especially juicy), but local folks will find his stories about Raleigh equally fascinating. Maupin is frank about his family’s background, referring to them as “southern aristocracy” but also calling his lawyer father, Armistead Maupin Sr., a “white supremacist.”

A young Armistead Maupin in cap and gown in his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. Courtesy of Armistead Maupin

“We lived in a suburban ranch house that looked kind of like a Howard Johnson’s, but we were very aware that we had good blood,” Maupin says.

Maupin admits to embracing conservatism in his youth – even writing for Jesse Helms at WRAL, volunteering to serve in Vietnam and meeting Richard Nixon – all because he was “terrified” of who he was: a gay man from the South.

When Maupin came out and moved to San Francisco, he says, “I finally became myself as a person and my heart opened up.

“Everything I’d ever been taught was falling away . . . and that made me examine all the little prejudices that I’d been given when I was growing up. It wasn’t just racist stuff, it was my family telling me that I was better than anybody because it was in my bloodline, you know. Just nonsense. And it made me into a writer.”

The section of the documentary in which Maupin talks about taking his husband, Chris, to meet his dying father in Raleigh in 2005 is especially poignant. He describes Chris driving his drastically mellowed-out father around Raleigh to see the old family home on Hillsborough Street and the family graves at Oakwood, and then his father finally accepting the two of them as a couple.

“You take care of that boy,” Maupin Sr. said to Chris as they parted.

“Untold Tales” is alternately touching and funny, and turns out to be not just an interesting look at one man’s life, but an engrossing primer on one of our country’s most enduring culture wars.

Watch ‘The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin’

“The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” airs at 10:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 1, on UNC-TV.

The documentary will be available for streaming on pbs.org on Jan. 2.