Fifty years ago, when I was but a toddler in a bayou town along the Florida Panhandle, an uprising at a nondescript Manhattan bar changed my life. On Jun 28, 1969, patrons of Stonewall Inn, a hangout for some of the city’s most marginalized populations did the unexpected, striking back rather than complying when police raided the establishment. For reasons even participants could never fully explain, frustration and anger from years of ongoing harassment suddenly erupted. Over the course of several hours, what began as a clumsy operation to clear the bar grew into an open rebellion, drawing hundreds to the streets of Greenwich Village in protest. When the dust settled two days later, the queer community found an instant rallying point which would propel its members from the closet to the front lines of an ongoing civil rights movement.
But public incidents, no matter how epic they may feel in retrospect, rarely change any given individual’s mind or touch one’s heart. As a child of the Deep South, I wouldn’t even hear of Stonewall until two decades later. So while I am grateful for their act of defiance all those years ago, and for the many struggles – and successes – that followed, stories from Stonewall were not key to my personal evolution as a gay man, at least not emotionally. That I owe to the talents of a writer on the opposite coast a few years after the events of 1969. That man is Armistead Maupin, and the weekly serial he crafted for readers of the Pacific Sun and later the San Francisco Chronicle became the beloved Tales of the City book series.
Coming to terms with my sexuality while serving as an Air Force officer, Tales offered a glimpse of a world in which being gay need not define me, dictate some hopeless fate or dominate my thoughts as it so often did at the time (the closet can be like that). Maupin’s characters were funny and flawed and imminently human, living their fullest lives with zeal. And though the narrative was as breezy as a beach read, when it dove into deep emotion, the words rang true, offering profound insights on the human condition. In ways I didn’t realize at the time, his stories gave me a blueprint for how life could operate if I opened my heart and let myself breathe. In essence, his writings gave me the freedom to be myself.
Great stories can do that. They open a window to a broader world and provide a microscope for examining our innermost feelings. Now that I am a writer as well, one still striving to achieve Maupin’s skill at developing a compelling cast of characters with tightly woven arcs, I have a theory that every writer has an “origin source,” the read that first opened their eyes to who they are or aspire to be, and which act as touchstones through the years. To explore my premise for this post. I asked other writers about the reads that stick with them, the stories they feel reflect something fundamental about who they are, as individuals and as writers. Here is what a couple of them had to say.