“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 12
In June 2019, Netflix released the series, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, simultaneously a return to and reimagining of the groundbreaking nine-book series about queer life in San Francisco. The books, the original three miniseries, and this series all center on the lives of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane. Their landlady, Anna Madrigal, and the apartment building itself, are the lodestars of their lives, reminding them who they were, who they are, and who they could become. Tales of the City, the original book in the series, takes place in 1976, and it and the following eight books take the reader on a decades-long trajectory of these characters’ lives. I have read all nine books in the series countless times, first as a teenage tomboy making sense of my own queer childhood and my place in it. My mom came out as a lesbian in the early 1980s, when I was 6-years-old. My mom and step-mom created a family filled with queer aunties and uncles which enriched my life in immeasurable ways, but was still rare and somewhat taboo, even in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tales of the City mirrored my own family in a way that my hometown did not and gave me hope about a future filled with friendship among people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, sexual awakening, deep love, and home-making. It took me a number of years to accept and relish my own lesbianism, but these books were a crucial step in helping me celebrate my family’s queerness.
The plot and character development of the previous three miniseries stayed very close to the first three books themselves. This new television series, however, is a reimagining, an expansion, and an erasure. I don’t object to new characters, and in fact think that the addition of a more inclusive set of characters is necessary and important. It is the rewriting and erasure of the history of these characters that strikes me. Most jarringly, in this new landscape, Jon Fielding, Michael Tolliver’s long-term lover and partner, who died of AIDS in the liminal space between Further Tales of the City and Babycakes, is not discussed at all, or more likely, never even existed.
This health crisis, this plague, is embedded in the emotional geography of San Francisco. But these geographies of loss are not fully acknowledged in these Tales. In fact, the AIDS crisis as a whole, arguably the most transformative event in San Francisco’s history, is glossed over except for a couple of complicated exceptions. The most powerful acknowledgment is a dinner party scene with a group of middle-age gay men, Michael, and Michael’s 28-year-old boyfriend, Ben. It is a powerfully-brittle illumination of an intergenerational chasm between gay men in San Francisco, how different people have different privileged positions that they take for granted, and the prevalence of racism, sexism, and transphobia that exists even in the LGBTQ community. In this scene, a middle-aged party guest, forcefully and understandably called out for using racist and transphobic language, had this indictment of the privilege of being able to reframe a past one wasn’t a part of: “This entitlement you now have to dignity and visibility as a gay person. Do you even know where that came from? Do you know who built that world? Do you know the cost of that progress?” Perhaps because this new series was made for new viewers, many of whom have grown up in a world with antiretroviral treatment that leads to undetectable viral loads, the protection afforded by PreP, and the transformation of the disease from plague to chronic illness, they chose to focus on the present realities of queer life. But in skating over the geographies of loss, they unintentionally participated in the erasure and silencing of queer history.
According to the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR), by the end of 1993, twelve years into the epidemic, in the United States as a whole there were 234,225 deaths from AIDS and 360,909 reported cases. San Francisco was transformed by this epidemic. There is a breathtaking photo of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus taken this same year – seven men in white punctuating a sea of black. The seven men in white represented members of the original chorus who were still alive as of 1993. More than one hundred others represented those who had lost their lives to AIDS — backs to the audience, faces hidden, dressed in black, disappearing into the background. There is a lost generation of gay men in San Francisco, eternally young men who remain in shadow cities, present not only in loved one’s memories, but also in the layers of earth that contain their actual skin cells and ashes.
Invisible geographies and could-have-been atlases
The immensely versatile and talented Rebecca Solnit writes in her reimagined atlas of San Francisco, Infinite City, “[San Francisco is] vast not in territory but in imaginative possibility.” In this atlas, as well as its companions for New York and New Orleans, she contemplates not only this imaginative possibility but also the inherent power of maps. Cartographers decide which place, event, and moment in time to map, and which to ignore. Maps are the official record of a place and time, but who receives and who deserves the authority to say what is present, what is true, what is to be remembered? Solnit says not only does every inhabitant have their own particular map, but in fact multiple maps that change with new experiences, losses, discovery, and the passage of time. Curator and film scholar Dale Hudson highlights the multitudes of overlapping histories and counterhistories when he writes about the concept of invisible geographies. “[They] suggest unmarked or unmapped relationships – or ones that may have been written but have subsequently been erased, obscured, or made illegible… They map what we cannot see or perhaps may not want to see.”
AIDS survivors in San Francisco are mostly gay men – these percentages are very different from the rest of the United States. According to the essay “Last Men Standing” by Erin Allday, approximately 90 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS in San Francisco are gay men. In the United States as a whole, the percentage is closer to 50 percent, with much higher proportions of intravenous drug users and heterosexual people. Because of medical and pharmaceutical advances, the population of people with HIV/AIDS is aging. The San Francisco AIDS Foundation reported that 65% of the city’s residents who are living with HIV are over age 50, a reality that was stolen from many who were born too early.
The mid-1990s marked the advent of more effective and less toxic antiretroviral therapies. These drugs helped turn the tide of the epidemic, and changed San Francisco’s landscape once again. A couple of years after these drugs appeared, the Bay Area Reporter, the Bay Area’s LGBT newspaper, reported a small miracle – for the first time in seventeen years, it did not publish any obituaries. Reporter Timothy Rodrigues wrote in the August 13, 1998 issue, “No obituaries were filed with the paper for this issue, a first since the AIDS epidemic exploded in San Francisco’s gay community… That doesn’t mean that there were no AIDS deaths in the past week; next week’s issue may have more obits than usual… [A]fter more than 17 years of struggle and death, and some weeks with as many as 31 obituaries printed in the B.A.R., it seems a new reality may be taking hold, and the community may be on the verge of a new era of the epidemic. Perhaps.”
I grew up in a queer family in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s and 1990s, but no one in my immediate chosen family lost their lives to AIDS. Timing and fortune were on their side. So, thankfully, I don’t have anyone inhabiting a counterfactual world where he had survived long enough and then had the resources to get access to antiretroviral treatment. I don’t have a shadow loved one who survived long enough to get a typical life expectancy. I don’t have that in relation to the AIDS crisis, but I do understand this combination of celebration of medical advances, longing, and jealousy.
Around the same time I gained my queer family, I lost my father to suicide. I wholeheartedly believe that my dad would still be alive if he were born in 1978 instead of 1948. In 1984, the year of his suicide, the landscape was much bleaker, both in terms of prescription drug availability and the stigma surrounding mental illness. He had quite severe bipolar disorder and at the time lithium was the main available treatment. In 2019, there is still a great deal of stigma surrounding mental illness, but in the 1980s it was much worse. He was the product of a 1950s Catholic home, which just compounded the stigma and shame. I am so happy that people who struggle with severe depression in 2019 have so much more emotional, social, and pharmaceutical support than those who have come before. But I am also jealous and sad that my dad didn’t survive long enough to have access to effective drugs with reasonable side effects, to the demystification of the process of therapy, and to an abundance of public figures and characters on TV and in movies discussing their mental health struggles. Being born thirty years later wouldn’t have saved him from struggling; I am sure that sometimes his brain chemistry would fight against him and tell him lies. But I really believe he would be alive. What would that map look like?
Mapping the epigenetics of a city
According to the National Institutes of Health, epigenetics is the study of “DNA modifications that do not change the DNA sequence [but] can affect gene activity…The chemical compounds of the epigenome are not part of the DNA sequence, but are on or attached to DNA… Epigenetic modifications remain as cells divide and in some cases can be inherited through the generations.” The scientific reach of epigenetics is enormous, but the part that I find most fascinating is related to inherited trauma. A 2013 study by Kerry Ressler and Brian Dias in Nature Neuroscience looked at epigenetics-related intergenerational trauma in mice. In this study, the first generation of mice was given an electric shock while in the presence of acetophenone, which has a cherry scent. This generation of mice understandably started to associate the smell of cherries to pain, and would shudder in its presence, even when the small shocks were not administered. The incredible finding is that this cherry-scent-associated trauma was passed down to both their children and their grandchildren. Even though these two generations were not subject to electric shocks, they were significantly more likely to shudder in the presence of the cherry scent than descendants of mice in the control group. A 2016 article by Rachel Yehuda and co-authors designed the first study that demonstrates the “epigenetic mechanisms in intergenerational transmission of stress effects” in humans rather than animals, using Holocaust survivors and their children as research subjects. They show that even when the trauma doesn’t occur in utero, “our data support an intergenerational epigenetic priming of the physiological response to stress in offspring of highly traumatized individuals.”
Epigenetics helps us understand how trauma can pass down from individual to individual but can there also be an epigenetics of a city? Can we inherit a city’s trauma? Film scholar Dale Hudson muses that “invisible geographies are increasingly mapped onto bodies” but do past traumas also reside in the landscape itself and get passed on to those who live there now? We all have our own maps, parts of which may be hidden from or erased by others. What are the effects of these shadow maps and what can we learn from them? Perhaps, like the Situationists, a group of avant-garde artists and political theorists in the 1950s, we can use an old map of another city to navigate this one in order to summon “psychogeographical pivotal points.” Perhaps walking these streets while remembering histories and counterhistories help heal wounds we didn’t even experience.
In Babycakes, the fourth book in the Tales of the City series, right after Jon died, Michael didn’t want to travel too far away from 28 Barbary Lane, the physical embodiment of his history, his loss, and his love. Mrs. Madrigal understood this need and helped guide him through his grief. “Go… you’re not going to lose him this time. He’s a part of you forever.” In our cells, we carry not only our own memories, experiences, and traumas, but perhaps those of our ancestors, as well. However hidden or forgotten, our environments retain these histories, too. Even though I was somewhat disappointed with this reimagined 28 Barbary Lane, I was also comforted in its presence, this fictional place that has been part of my emotional landscape for decades. One of the newer characters said, “…every minute 30,000 dead skin cells shed off a person and seep into their living space… this place is probably more Anna and Michael than Anna and Michael are.” Even forgotten or ignored, we are present. We remain.