Elsewhere I have often spoken about my family and how grateful I am for my free and open childhood and youth. If my mother gave me one thing, it was always how important family is, but she always emphasized that family doesn’t necessarily mean blood relationship. Today I know what that means, because even though I was and still am very close with my parents, I am not at all close to the rest of the family, especially the German part. They despised me for my queerness because of their strictly Catholic, conservative attitude and didn’t take my artistic life path seriously. Instead, I realized as a child that you can and should choose a family, that for us queer people in particular, a family of choice is more than just a substitute for the family into which we were born.
So my parents had an adopted family that came from many different queer people with different ethnicities and religions during the years in New York. Later in Ibiza it was an international community of hippies. These families of choice have always been more important than my genetic uncles, aunts and cousins. I only had a very close relationship with my grandmother, the dancer, who had also detached herself from her genetic family when they blindly followed Hitler.
When we later moved to Germany, it was bad, not only for me, not to have this chosen family anymore. My mother in particular was never really happy in Germany. There were friends and acquaintances and even though I was accepted and respected by my schoolmates, I was more of a loner because of my riding and especially because of my intensive dancing.
When I came out in 1983 at the age of 14, my mother gave me the first 3 books of Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City that had been available up to that point. I still love these books to this day. The small, colorful family of choice described by Maupin, which trans* woman Anna Madrigal took into her home at 28 Barbary Lane, became my fictional family of choice. For me, that was the absolute soul salvation, because unlike in New York and Ibiza, I didn’t have any queer people I could relate to in the small German town. So I dived deep into the different characters. Of course, as a gay boy, I was madly in love with Michael Tolliver, the main gay character of the story, I found Mary Ann Singleton stupid then as now, but more on that later, and I was fascinated by the story of Miss Madrigal.
When I found out that there seemed to be only 3 books, I started reading the last book only 2-3 pages a day as I was afraid that the story would end and my adoptive family would leave me. Fortunately, a friend of my mother brought the fourth volume from the USA, hot off the press, in 1984. My world was right again for a while. But this story also ended at some point and I had my first boyfriend. In 1986 I went on a student exchange to New York and alongside my school year with a focus on dance I ended up in the ballrooms of Harlem by chance and terribly underage for the first time and felt like I was in heaven. I could dance as I wanted, even if there were rules and competition, but for the first time I felt completely free in my dancing. But most of all, I got to know real families of choice again, like I had known as a little boy in the Village around Christopher Street.
The years 87/88 back in Germany were terrible. I took refuge in my dancing, but fortunately for Christmas 1987 I finally got a new book of the Tales of the City Series.
I’ve always read a lot, but no book as often as the Tales of The City. Books can save lives. Queer themed books can save queer lives. How much I needed a drag queen story hour as a kid and more books starring people like me.
Well, as soon as I finished school I went to New York to study dance. I felt at home in the Ballroom community, even though I worked in the more white Eastvillage. I was a bartender at the Limelight, danced at the Pyramid Club, and hung out with the club kids long before Michael Ahlig went berserk and murdered his dealer. Somehow I was always there, but I was a very well-behaved dance student who didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t take any drugs. Only later did I realize that I was naïve and awful like the awful Mary Ann from the books. Somehow I didn’t belong, but somehow I was there. At some point I have to write down these stories from that time…. will Ms. Shupack (well, who knows who is meant?) like it. I do not know.
But back to the families of choice. As a guest of the House of Ninja – I even shared a flat with Willi Ninja for a while – I got to know what a family of choice can be. Unlike the white privileged slick characters from Maupin‘s books, the people I came to know and love had real problems. They were mostly not white and privileged, but repeatedly discriminated against and despised by society, many were cast out by their families and in addition there was the horror of AIDS, which is no longer present for many young people today. I’ve already written about it here on the blog. The Houses, the families of choice, saved countless young, mostly queer people and still do today. Willi Ninja was the housefather of the Ninjas, for me he was my Miss Madrigal.
If you want to dive deeper into those times watch the movie Paris is Burning or the Series Pose. Pose is a good entry but it’s polished Hollywood, the reality had a darker, less happy face.
I’ll cut something short here.
I read the last book of the old Tales Of The City Series, which was published in 1989, in 1991 during my first engagement at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. In the meantime, as is so often the case in our industry, my colleagues had become my family of choice. At least that’s what we told ourselves at the time. With every new production, we actually always just remained colleagues and persuaded ourselves that we were family. Today I always have to grin when I see how young colleagues follow the same misguided concept and swear eternal friendship after the end of production. Sure, individual contacts and friendships remain to this day, but in the end it’s the same with colleagues as with school friends, you didn’t choose them, just an involuntary family of purpose. Nevertheless, to this day I have a professional and friendly family of choice, a network of colleagues with whom I continue to work to this day, to whom I do not have to explain myself. I can create best in a familiar and trusting setting, much like how RuPaul does work with the same people from his early days to this day. In that regard, I’ve always been the faithful, harmony-seeking Michael Tolliver. My inner Mary Ann Singleton saved me from a lot of stupid things, but a little more Mona Ramsey, another character from the books, would have done me good at times.
The Tales of the city have always accompanied me, they are the books that I have kept with every move. They have often “saved” me in depressive phases or when difficult decisions and changes were pending. 28 Barbary Lane has become something of a mental retreat, like a meditation, where one can invoke a fictional place as a place of refuge and comfort.
In 2001, having lived in Sydney since 1999, I had to go to Germany for a while. After my engagement as one of the choreographers for the Olympic Games ended, my work permit for Australia also expired. In Sydney I had a relationship and lived with him and 3 other gay men in a house. After 10 years on the restless journey from job to job, I finally had arrived, had a family of my choice again, which I should now leave again?
At the same time, the queer Film Festival was taking „Verzaubert“ took place in Cologne. The Tales Of The City, books 1-3, of which were filmed for television, were also shown on several days. I sat for hours in the „Residenz“ cinema and felt at home, in fact some of the characters were portrayed the way I had imagined them. Only the first Michael Tolliver, I didn’t like him. Fortunately, the actor was later replaced.
Somehow this adaptation gave me tremendous power. I knew I had to fight for my adopted family and in fact I managed to get a new work and residence permit. I was able to go back and became one of the artistic directors for the openings and closings of the Sydney Gay Games, choreographed drag shows and dance theatre, taught and even received awards for it. My personal 28 Barbary Lane was at 82 Annstreet.
Looking back I can say that the time in Sydney was one of my happiest.
Unfortunately, family dramas can also happen in families of choice, my ex became addicted to drugs and aggressive, friendships broke up, and to save myself financially I had to flee to Germany to a lesser extent. What I saved from my possessions were the Tales Of The City books and the videos of the TV series, which I had acquired in the meantime, my treasure, which I still look after today.
I’ll again shorten the story a bit here.
Then in the mid 2000s there was Queer As Folk, which I really liked and gave tremendous visibility to our community at the time, but it was too cis gay for me. I could identify more with Michael Novotny (even better in the English original Vince), actually a male Mary Ann 😂. I never wanted to be Brian Kinney or Stuart Allen Jones. Only the character Debbie Nowotny still makes me smile, because she reminds me of my mother in many details. However, my mom’s Lemon Squares recipe is better.
Both the Takes Of The City and Queer as Folk recently experienced a sequel. Queer as Folk isn’t necessarily really bad, but it’s also not really good and can’t get close to the original. The Netflix Tales of the City mini series is based on the last few books Maupin wrote in later years, but the TV script and execution are terrible. What is good about both productions are the more diverse queer characters, unfortunately it all seems a bit too intentionally diverse.
But it doesn’t spoil my love for the Tales of the city and I still believe in the concept of family choice. Today, however, I’m neither Michael Toliver nor stupid Mary Ann. I would like to be like Anna Madrigal, the person who gathers everyone around her. On the other hand, I also like to be alone and I don’t have my house in Barbary Lane yet.
By the way, last year I fulfilled a dream and visited Macondray Lane in San Francisco, which was used as a model for the fictional Barbary Lane.
As I climbed the big wooden stairs I felt like Mary Ann walking up there for the first time.
Many of my queer friends grew up with the Tales Of The City and I can only recommend the books and TV series to queer kids and everyone else. It’s queer history. Get to know Michael, Mary Ann, Miss Madrigal and the other residents of 28 Barbary Lane.
The concept of family of choice is a concept of community. Maybe that’s why I still feel so comfortable on Ibiza to this day, because friendship and community are a social foundation on this island, even beyond the borders of the queer bubble.
I would like my adopted family to meet more again. The digital world makes us a bit sluggish and, despite social media, uncommunicative.
Happy Pride Month.
A wonderful Song about Barbary Lane and the power of books
About the Clubkids
about Michael Ahlig
Partymonster – Film about the ClubKids Drama
Documentary about Clubkids and the murder
Tales of the City TV Series
More Tales of the City
Further Tales of the City
The bad Netflix Production of the modern Takes of the City
Queer As Folk UK
Queer As Folk USA
Queer As Folk 2022
Ballroom Culture & Houses
Paris Is Burning
How do I Look