Tales of the City, by Armistead Maupin, was a groundbreaking series of novels about LGBTQ San Francisco, which first debuted in the 1970s as a serial column in the Pacific Sun and the San Francisco Chronicle. Tales offered readers an unprecedented look at the city's queer residents. It was also one of the first written works to address the AIDS crisis.
These stories marked a milestone in queer representation in America — particularly after a miniseries, starring Laura Linney as straight newcomer Mary Ann Singleton and Olympia Dukakis as her transgender landlady, Anna Madrigal, premiered in 1991 on PBS and brought gay and lesbian characters into living rooms across the country.
Despite these victories in visibility, Maupin had regrets about the lack of representation of people of color at 28 Barbary Lane. At an Outfest Q&A in 2017 for his documentary The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, the author called Tales of the City's all-white cast a "mistake," after an audience member noted how they did not feel seen in the series.
"I was scared as a writer that I would look uncool if I tried to represent people who were not of my race and didn’t do it well. That’s just stupid. I took on lesbians, and I didn’t think I knew anything about them. As I said in the [documentary], it’s about the human heart, so that was a mistake on my part," Maupin responded.
"We are really remedying that in the new Tales of the City, the new [Netflix] television series," promised Maupin. "If I’m given credit for educating the rest of the world, I’ve also been educating myself in this whole process. But yeah, I agree with you, and we’re gonna do something about it."
The Netflix revival of Tales of the City will premiere June 7. The first episode, screened at a Tuesday preview at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, does indeed show a more diverse Barbary Lane.
Although many of the central characters are still white — Linney and Dukakis have returned to reprise their roles, Murray Bartlett has taken on the character of Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, and Ellen Page is an addition as Shawna — the new Tales also features trans actors and actors of color, among them Garcia, May Hong, Christopher Larkin, Ashley Park, and Charlie Barnett. Bob the Drag Queen, a RuPaul's Drag Race alumnus and comedian, also has a role as a sharp-tongued bartender.
At a panel following the screening moderated by The Advocate's feminism editor, Tracy E. Gilchrist, Barnett — who portrays Ben Marshall, Mouse's love interest — was asked what it meant to bring black and gay representation to Tales of the City and the media landscape at large.
"It’s incredibly amazing of course," Barnett responded. "I was at home with my partner going over this question trying to figure out how to ... answer it. It’s incredible and I think we all know that, having that opportunity."
However, Barnett also noted it was "a lot of pressure" to bring LGBTQ representation in an arena when, even in 2019, many "voices aren't being heard," and "our entire community wants to see it reflected." He expressed sympathy for showrunner Lauren Morelli (Orange Is the New Black), for taking on that "kind of weight."
Barnett, a 31-year-old actor known for roles on Chicago Fire, Russian Doll, and an upcoming part in Netflix's You, knows the importance of representation firsthand. One of the first (and few) times he felt like he saw himself onscreen was Basquiat, a 1996 biopic about the black queer graffiti artist of the same name played by Jeffrey Wright.
"It was the first time I saw a man who looked like me and he was definitely open about his sexuality," Barnett said, adding, "That person understood who I was and I understood who they were. It gave me so many stepping stones to understanding my own emotions."
Barnett, who said he came out at 13 after his parents "basically sat me down and were like, homie" — a remark that drew laughter from the audience — cited his gay identity as one of his strengths as an actor.
"I’m incredibly thankful to have been born this way, it’s given me unbelievable gifts, and I know that each of my characters that I work on that are gay have some of those things that we would have to fight for — even today that I would have to fight for," he said. "It’s built up a certain kind of ability in myself as an artist that I’m forever fucking grateful for."
Tales of the City, a ten-part series, will drop June 7 on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.