‘Tales of the City’ taught me the importance of finding your chosen family when you’re LGBTQ

As a young gay man feeling lost in New York City, Alim Kheraj got a glimpse of the future he wanted for himself in Armistead Maupin's beloved short stories. Years later, he realised he'd found it.

Mica Murphy/Penguin

While native New Yorkers attempt to leave the city’s swelter every summer, tourists like to flock there. The summer I finished school, I was among them, hungry for that kaleidoscopic feeling of opportunity and freedom New York can be infused by. 

It was the first time I would be free of the safety net of my parents for several weeks, and it got off to a rocky start: I was held at JFK for five hours owing to my Muslim name. By the time I arrived at my rented apartment, I was deflated. Thankfully, that’s when Mary Ann Singleton and Tales of the City came into my life.

Written originally as a newspaper serial and later published as a novel, Tales of the City is the first volume in Armistead Maupin’s ten-book series about the residents of 28 Barbary Lane, an apartment building in San Francisco, and their enigmatic live-in landlady Mrs Anna Madrigal. Beginning in the late 1970s, the novels span a period of nearly 40 years, and introduced the world to a whole coterie of colourful and unforgettable characters, including the sardonic bisexual Mona, the swaggering Brian and the loveable gay man Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver.

In Maupin’s books, queer people weren’t sad caricatures, but fully realised characters with hearts that love and break

Mary Ann is our entry point into Maupin’s world. Arriving fresh from Cleveland, Ohio, she is a naïve and conservative foil to the freewheeling, sexually liberated city at the heart of the books. In Tales… San Francisco is magical, a utopic American experiment where traditional social mores are unravelled and liberalism prevails. It’s also queer as hell, and from the gay bars of the Castro to the supermarket aisles of the Safeway, LGBTQ folk don’t live in the shadows. In Maupin’s books, queer people weren’t isolated loners or sad caricatures, but fully realised characters with flaws, histories and hearts that love and break.

Maupin is also an expert plotter. His characters constantly cross into one another’s lives, often with surprising, ridiculous and wickedly funny results. Like an outlandish soap opera mixed with a game of six degrees of separation, Maupin’s eye for serendipity, red herrings and coincidence leave you feeling like you’re privy to the best gossip around.

During those first few days in New York I felt a kinship with Mary Ann as we both acclimatised to our new American metropolises, and as my time in America progressed so did my consumption of Maupin’s novels. While I found myself in trysts with inappropriate boys, Mary Ann was embroiled with the philandering Beauchamp.

When one night, against my knowledge, my friends put my name down to sing an Elton John song at a famous gay piano bar, I took strength by remembering that time Michael won an underwear dance contest and sang my heart out. Like the Castro in San Francisco, New York’s West Village and Lower East Side offered a physical manifestation of the queer community that I had never experienced before. As Maupin taught me about the queer community at the beginning of the 1980s, New York sucked me into that world three decades later.

More than anything though the books, with their bounty of LGBTQ characters and their allies, made me realise how much I needed my own version of 28 Barbary, less a building than a family. With Barbary Lane, Mrs Madrigal created security for her tenants: they became her children and each other’s confidantes. I craved that. I had friends, but very few were queer, and no matter how close you are to your straight loved ones, being LGBTQ others you. Reading Tales of the City left me bereft for something I’d never had. What I was missing were my people.

‘No matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us,’ Maupin would later write in his memoir. But I had still not found queer people who could give me that feeling, so I revisited the one created by Maupin instead.

Reading again, a few years older, I drew less from Mary Ann’s wide-eyed naivety and aligned closer to Mouse. In Tales of the City, Michael is lovelorn and hapless. But in later books, Maupin builds him up. His now famous ‘Letter to Mama’ in More Tales of the City is one of the most poignant coming out narratives ever put to page. Surviving the AIDS crisis didn’t leave Michael bitter, despite his own, great personal losses. His story taught me that an impactful and happy life could also be a quiet one; for me he represented the sort of gay man I could become. Without a logical family, though, I knew that such a life would evade me. I would have to actively build my own.

Over the past seven years I have done that. I now have a group of inspiring and supportive LGBTQ folk who I can call family. I’m even part of a book group with a few of them, and we had the opportunity to read Tales of the City together, many of them for the first time.

I did finally visit San Francisco with one of my logical family. Although the city is very different now, visiting the Castro and the Mission felt like I’d stepped right into the books, and we spent our days searching out various spots from the novels or lounging in the sun in Dolores Park.

It was a trip up Russian Hill to Macondray Lane, the real-life inspiration for Anna Madrigal’s home, that really made me feel like my life had completed a journey that began with that visit to New York nearly a decade earlier. This time, I didn’t feel disorientated or displaced by my visit to America. Instead, I felt bigger. I was there with a member of my chosen family. I was at Barbary Lane.

This article was originally published in April 2020. It has been updated to mark the release of Armistead Maupin's latest novel, Mona of the Manor.

Read the 'Tales of the City' series in order

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more