March 05, 1990 12:00 PM

Best-selling novelist Armistead Maupin spent the first 26 years of his life trying to prove that he was a man. He joined the Navy and volunteered for Vietnam. “I tried to put myself in the front lines,” he says, “because I thought getting shot at would be a sure sign of manhood.” To clinch his macho image, he made sexist remarks about women as often as possible. “It’s an old gay trick,” he says. “You turn to another man and say, ‘Look at the knockers on that one.’ That’s all a straight guy needs to think you are heterosexual.”

There was one thing Maupin didn’t try, however, and it was the one thing he now realizes was essential: facing the truth about his sexuality and admitting it to the world. “Coming out is really the final act of manliness,” says Maupin, who ultimately took that step in 1974. “It means you are willing to say, this is who I am, I’m not ashamed of it.”

It is the credo he has lived by—and urged others to follow—ever since. Beginning with Tales of the City in 1978, Maupin has written six comic novels about the interactions of the gay and straight communities in San Francisco. And, says Jay Leno’s wife, Mavis, a longtime fan, “like Charles Dickens, Maupin invents characters who would be real to anybody at any time.” The most recent installment, Sure of You, hit the best-seller list last year. “It focuses on what I see as the extraordinary hypocrisy of closeted celebrities,” Maupin says. “They’ve structured an elaborate network of lies to protect their careers and in doing so have cut themselves off from friends who are in life-or-death situations with AIDS.” (Maupin urged his friend Rock Hudson, without success, to go public long before the actor’s illness and personal life became common knowledge.)

Maupin, 45, has particular reason to decry gay silence and hypocrisy these days. Terry Anderson, the lover with whom he shares his spacious San Francisco penthouse, tested HIV-positive in 1986 and has been taking the drug AZT to forestall onset of AIDS. Both Anderson, 30, and Maupin, who has so far remained HIV-negative, believe strongly that more could be done to stem the AIDS epidemic if gays in high places were to speak out rather than deny their own sexuality.

It is that shared commitment to gay rights and responsibilities that drew Maupin and Anderson together. They met in 1985, when Maupin spoke at Georgia State University, where Anderson headed the gay student alliance. “Ten minutes after he picked me up at the airport, I was aware that he was a person I could talk to about anything,” says Maupin.

“Before I met Armistead, I had never known anyone who believed as adamantly as I did that gays should be open about their sexuality,” says Anderson, who had never even heard of Tales of the City. (“I pretended I had,” he says. “I didn’t want to say, ‘I haven’t read your work, sir.’ “)

When they decided to move in together, the first step, for them as for any responsible gay couple in the late ’80s, was to take AIDS tests—even though both men say they had practiced safe sex for some years. They were stunned when Anderson tested positive. “He said to me, ‘Here’s your chance to get out of it,’ ” remembers Maupin. “I said, ‘I’ve got no choice, I’m in love with you.’ ” Already pledged to monogamy, the two men also accepted constant sexual caution as the price of their relationship. “We know the way the virus is spread, and our sex doesn’t take that form,” says Maupin.

“I was glad he stayed,” says Anderson, now Maupin’s manager and business partner, “but at the same time, I was wondering if I didn’t want to get out myself. I was worried that, because of my situation, our relationship would slowly fall apart.”

Instead, it grew stronger. “One of the things I try to capture in Sure of You,” says Maupin, who based a major character in the novel on Anderson, “is this very strange combination of feeling that this is the happiest time of your life and also the scariest. I feel a little bit more in love with Terry every day, and every day I worry whether he’s going to be here next year. When you live with it all the time, it stops being so horrible. You get extraordinarily matter-of-fact about life and death.”

Both men attribute Terry’s years of good health to AZT, to his frequent workouts at the gym and, not surprisingly, to honesty. “I think stress is a big factor in the progression of the disease,” asserts Maupin. “A person who is open and expressive about himself has a better chance of fighting it off than someone who is cowering in the closet.”

Both Maupin and Anderson grew up in environments that might easily have bred permanent cowerers. Anderson, the son of a carpet company owner, was born in the conservative Christian town of Marietta, Ga., and “didn’t even hear the word homosexuality until I was 15,” he says. It was before that, though, that his mother sensed the truth about him. “When I got to be 12, she realized I was a sissy and not the little man she wanted me to be,” he says. “She started acting cold and disapproving just like Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People.”

Without the sexual revolution of the ’60s, Anderson believes, he would never have found the courage to come out, as he did, at 17. His parents responded by cutting him off financially and barely speaking to him for years. He worked his way through college and immersed himself in gay activism.

Maupin, the product of a less liberated generation, spent much longer in denial. The son of an archconservative Raleigh, N.C., lawyer and his wife, he told himself for years that increasing attraction to men would disappear “if I just met the right girl. That’s the prevailing mythology of homosexuality.”

A high school English teacher ignited his passion for writing. (“When I had a book-signing in Raleigh, she was there in line—right behind a guy in black leather,” he says, grinning.) But Maupin, determined to please his father, enrolled in law school; when that proved dull, he enlisted. He even worked as an aide to North Carolina’s reactionary Sen. Jesse Helms. “I was an utterly different person 20 years ago,” he says. “I couldn’t sit in the same room with me then.”

It was sex—”the simple joy of pleasure with another human being,” he says—that ended his Marlboro-man charade. He thinks of his first experience, at 26, “as the moment when I became human.” Soon afterward he moved to San Francisco and rediscovered writing. “My talent developed after I came out of the closet, because I was able to look into every corner of my heart and see what was there,” he says. In 1976 the San Francisco Chronicle began serializing his stories, which evolved into Tales of the City.

But it was another year before he talked to his parents about being gay. “Later my father told me he was sorry he hadn’t discussed homosexuality when I was a teenager,” Maupin says. “He’d had suspicions then and felt it would have made life easier for me if I’d talked about it. Underneath all the macho, he is a very sweet man.”

Anderson’s parents have been slower to change, but even they are beginning to bend. After years of refusing to accept his way of life, says Anderson, “now when my mother sends Christmas cards, she puts Armistead’s name on them too.”

—Kim Hubbard, Vicki Sheff in San Francisco

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