On February 13, Nueva hosted a living San Francisco legend and LGBTQ+ icon, Armistead Maupin, who visited two English classes, and spoke to the entire Upper School at an afternoon assembly.
Maupin’s novels have long been heralded for their part in making LGBTQ+ lives and concerns accepted and celebrated in our greater society. He rose to fame with Tales of the City, which first appeared in the late 1970s in serialized form in the San Francisco Chronicle. His novels are famous for celebrating the inclusive, bohemian, and queer culture of San Francisco in the 70s and 80s, while also addressing then-taboo subjects such as AIDS, transgender identity, homosexuality, and more. For a generation of LGBTQ+ people, Maupin provided a sense of pride and belonging through his words and encouraged many to live their lives openly and without shame.
“It was such an honor to have Armistead Maupin visit Nueva,” said Alegria Barclay, Nueva’s PreK-12 Equity & Social Justice Director. “He stands among the LGBTQ elders—Audre Lorde, Harvey Milk, Miss Major—who bravely and brilliantly imagined a world where queer folks could live lives unfettered by shame, violence, rejection, and pain. His groundbreaking novels centered the stories of marginalized voices with joy, humor, and love, celebrating the diverse, multi-faceted, and resilient communities of San Francisco."
“Armistead's ideas about literature, the value of every person and life, and the ways we find our logical families – all expressed with so much candor and humor – really resonated with our students, and they responded with joyful engagement,”
–Matt Berman, Director of the Nueva Center for the Humanities
Captivated by His Charm
With a welcoming smile and quick wit, Maupin’s informal question-and-answer format drew students and faculty into many touching moments of his life: his youth and early career as a journalist in the conservative south, his move to San Francisco, and his personal experiences as a closeted, and then openly gay man. Speaking to both small classes, and the large assembly of 400, he developed immediate intimacy and connection through dialogue that gave extraordinary insight into both his work and humanity.
“Armistead's ideas about literature, the value of every person and life, and the ways we find our logical families – all expressed with so much candor and humor – really resonated with our students, and they responded with joyful engagement,” said Matt Berman, Director of the Nueva Center for the Humanities.
Maupin brought a little mischief with him, too. When he overheard an offhand comment made by Camille G., a Nueva eleventh grader, Maupin initiated a little one-on-one banter that had everyone laughing.
“He was really funny in the moment, and even though he called me out, I felt it was coming from a place of love,” Camille said. “He was so unapologetically himself, and while I know he went through his struggles, it seems like he is living his best life. That was so beautiful to see.”
Sharing His Writing Craft
Maupin’s anecdotes illustrated how his art reflected his life, and his simple yet profound theories about writing. He explained that his writing evolved, beginning when he pitched his idea to the Chronicle. “I always loved telling stories. I didn’t know Tales would be my vehicle for coming out until I sold the idea of the newspaper serial. I realized I could tell stories about my life, and people like me, and I could tell it all.”
Maupin expressed his observations of San Francisco’s social phenomena of the time through his richly developed characters, many who shared aspects of his own personality. “I would let my spirit of the day color the characters, whether I was feeling optimistic or not,” he reflected. “The characters changed, but it felt organic because they were growing as I was growing. When people see themselves in a work of art, they really love it.”
Indeed, one of his most famous pieces, Letter to Mama published in 1976, was deeply personal and many people around the world have credited it for giving them the words to come out to their own families. “I came out of the closet while writing this thing,” Maupin shared. “Letter to Mama was my letter to my parents. It was a moment when my work and my life were concurrent, and I made art out of what I was living and feeling. I only wish that for any of you who become writers.”
Sharing his creative approach with Nueva’s aspiring writers, Maupin described writing as “an act of empathy.” When a student asked how to insert depth of feeling in characters, he replied, “The only way to really convey emotion is to feel it yourself.” Maupin went on to say, “I think there’s value in looking for the gentle story within. Moments of revelation of truth can arise from something simple. The more microscopic you get with your own emotions, the closer you get to attracting your readers.”
As someone who loves to write, Camille reflected on the inspiration she gained. “Sometimes I struggle as a young biracial queer person today,” she said. “I love writing, and Mr. Maupin became an instant role model to me. He showed you can use humor, and really speak to people as powerfully as if you are angry, and that you can do what you want to do and have success. He was a beacon of hope.”