Although in many ways a delightful read, Armistead Maupin’s novel Significant Others, the fifth entry in his Tales of the City series, is troubled by the author’s good intentions. We suspect it’s the kind of book Maupin thought would build bridges between gay men and women, but if carefully read, its potential unfortunately lies more in furthering misunderstandings.

Maupin, an openly gay writer who has reveled in being described as such, enters stormy waters when, in interview after interview (including comments in both the mainstream and gay Chicago media), he describes Significant Others as his first “lesbian novel.”

This description, in both the feminist and literary community, can be easily viewed as a gauntlet dropped. After all, what in heaven’s name is a “lesbian novel”? Is it a story about lesbians? Is it a story by a lesbian? Or, like the pulp novels so popular in the 1950s that were rarely written by gay women, is it merely a book for a lesbian audience?

In the case of Significant Others, the matter is further complicated because what Maupin has actually written–no matter what constitutes a “lesbian novel”–is quite the opposite: this is a story about male friendships, male loves, male relationships; in short, male bonding.

That most of the significant action is anchored by a lesbian couple’s first trip to a women-only festival does not make them the heart of the story. After five books featuring lesbians only as a side attraction, perhaps Maupin felt he had mined gay boy life just a little too long and needed a break. Or maybe gay male life has changed so dramatically in the years since he began telling his tales, it became difficult to continue in the same flippant vein. Then again, maybe he just thought writing about lesbians would be easy for a gay man with lesbian friends.

In Significant Others, much of the joie de vivre of his past books is gone. It is not a lack of talent on the author’s part, but the fact that the community he has turned to so often for the wit and wisdom of his tales is now suddenly under siege. As AIDS takes its toll, many of the more outrageous aspects of gay male culture have become morbid.

There has been one unlikely, and very positive, side effect to the AIDS crisis: relations between gay men and lesbians haven’t been better in years. Even though gay women appear to be virtually invulnerable to the AIDS carnage, the lesbian community has responded to the epidemic in a multitude of supportive ways: fund-raising, serving as volunteers in AIDS hospices; organizing blood drives and political action; taking care of dying gay male friends; helping to define AIDS as a public health and civil rights concern.

Maybe Maupin just wanted to get closer to his gay sisters by featuring them in his new book; but after finishing Significant Others we might well ask: if Maupin had chosen a pair of black persons as leads, would he have dared call this his first “black novel”?

The comparison is important, not because white people don’t have the right to write about blacks, or because gay men don’t have the right to write about lesbians. It’s important because, since lesbians (like blacks) as a community don’t enjoy much mainstream attention, what little appears in the spotlight can set precedents.

In the literature of the oppressed, there is a tremendous emphasis on the authenticity of voices. We listen to Paula Gunn Allen’s stories about American Indians not merely because they’re well written, but because they give us an insider’s view of a culture into which we would otherwise have little or no entry.

For Maupin to write about lesbians is not outrageous or odd. But for Maupin to present his writings as an authentic view of lesbian culture invites questions about his sense of responsibility to the very people he says he cares so much about.

Lesbian culture is like a labyrinth, more subdued and more oppressed than gay male life (because lesbians endure the double whammy of female and queer), and therefore all the more mysterious. It’s not that lesbian society is “closed”; rather, because of its vulnerability, it’s necessarily protective. (While it’s rare for men to be attacked by women, it is not uncommon for women–especially gay women–to suffer abuse at the hands of men, even gay men.)

When a gay man writes about his gay sisters, the situation can be additionally problematic because of two elements: (1) the mainstream world will assume the story carries a certain authenticity; and (2) lesbians may feel hesitant to criticize a gay man in a nongay context, i.e., outside the lesbian and gay press. This may be especially true when such a well-intentioned writer is behind the pen.

In gay literature, there is a long history of negative portrayals, at the hands of both gay and nongay alike. (Hardly anyone will argue that Radclyffe Hall’s Steven in The Well of Loneliness is anything but a poignant collection of internalized homophobic notions.)

It is this legacy of lies that demands truth in the telling of modern gay tales. The genre’s imprimatur is that truth will encourage understanding, and understanding, in turn, will diminish prejudices. Admittedly, this makes almost all lesbian and gay literature written after the Stonewall riots (widely recognized as the birth of the modern homophile civil rights movement) almost political by design, so the issue of authenticity is a potent one. When Armistead Maupin writes, he is not only writing about gay life, he presents himself and is perceived as an author who writes about real gay life.

So should he write about lesbians? Sure, after all, this is America and he can write about anything he wants. But the simple problem is that he lacks both intimate knowledge of the culture and the sensitivity to realize his limits. He embarks on his lesbian journey with the same cocky aplomb that he used in his gay boy adventures, and it doesn’t work. While his approach was charming when dealing with madcap gay male life of yesteryear, it’s condescending and smug in a lesbian context. Maupin’s sexual universe is a place uniquely if not delicately balanced. Everybody–gay boys and straight boys, gay girls and straight girls–loves and hates, displaying their beauty and prejudices in plain view. Maupin doesn’t dwell on anybody’s sexual orientation: there’s a story, or a slew of stories, to be told and he spends no more time setting up gayness than straight novels do heterosexuality. But when Maupin’s worldview tips, it is always (more often than not benignly) toward the male side; even when he explores heterosexual marriage, as he did in much of Babycakes, the penultimate book in the series, he did so primarily through Brian, a hyper-horny society dropout turned modern househusband.

In Significant Others Maupin sets up nearly symmetrical gender scenarios that beg comparison. His straight, gay, and lesbian worlds do not converge, but exist separately. He literally segregates his male characters in one camp and his female characters in another. This is accomplished through parallel story lines that take place at the Bohemian Club, the real-life, male-only retreat for the rich, powerful, and dangerous (it’s said the atomic bomb was cooked up here), and Wimminwood, a fictitious women-only festival supposedly based on a plethora of such events but clearly meant to be a spoof of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.

While Maupin may never have been to the Bohemian Club, he does have intimate knowledge of male-only interaction, and that familiarity comes through. It’s in his fascination with Wimminwood that the trouble lies.

Obviously, Maupin has never been to one of these festivals–as a man, no matter how sensitive or feminist or even politically lesbian, he simply couldn’t pass through the gates. And so, by his own admission, he must rely on descriptions of these events, and of women-only interaction, given to him by lesbian buddies. Sad to say, something got lost in the translation. As a result, there’s no subtlety or nuance to Maupin’s Wimminwood. It’s all broad strokes, and unfortunately, Maupin gets flippant: he caricatures the women’s festival so much that it slides into parody. Eventually, it becomes grotesque.

Like most men, gay or not, he has no idea what women do when they’re alone together, and assumes that they spend most of their time obsessing about men one way or another. If heterosexual women ponder the pitfalls of loving men (to which gay men can, on some level, relate), then lesbians must, in Maupin’s view, spend their time pondering the joys of hating men. That women may be sharing among themselves a bed or a recipe must seem to him either unfathomable or terribly dull.

In the final analysis, the Bohemian Club is a warm and brotherly place, innocent and free; Wimminwood is fascistic, a gathering for women whose common bond is the fear and loathing of men. This is an unfortunate, and inaccurate, portrayal of reality. These festivals struggle with such a variety of issues–onstage, in workshops, and in the festivals’ very administration–that it is incredible that Maupin should present such a narrow (and false) perspective of what takes place. It is also sad that it’s a gay man who’s perpetuating this horrible lesbian stereotype.

In fact, in Significant Others, all of the male characters find serenity with their brothers, but sisterhood is unanimously miserable. The point is hammered home again when Edgar II, the eight-year-old son of the two lesbian principals, secluded in the all-male day-care compound off the women’s land, is the only one affected positively by the festival. Incredibly, Maupin even develops a relationship between Edgar II and Booter, his grandfather of sorts, based entirely on their solidarity against women.

Even Maupin’s narrative descriptions in Significant Others reveal his bias: There are detailed portraits of Brian and Thack, who with Michael, Maupin’s alter ego, make up an attractive male trio. These men are not only physically drawn, but they have personal signatures in gestures and mannerisms. The women, on the other hand, suffer by comparison: instead of having personalities, they have fashion sense. D’Orothea emerges as attractive, and that by implication more than description; DeeDee is nondescript; the most specific is Polly, an easy tomboy stereotype. Rose is much worse, a neurotic man-hating bulldagger.

Perhaps what’s most disturbing, however, are Maupin’s choices for his lesbian leads: DeeDee the debutante and D’Orothea the model are atypical at best. Together they live an endowed and leisurely life-style. Neither of them works. Neither one has any strong friendship with other women, and neither one has any relationship to other lesbians or the lesbian community. These gals don’t go to bars, bookstores, potlucks, or even bad poetry readings. There is nothing about them, culturally or personally, that defines them as lesbians other than the fact that they share a home. And is that enough to make them the focus of what the author describes as a “lesbian novel”?

This “orientation” blindness ignores the realities of lesbian life and belittles gay women’s real struggles. In fact, D’Orothea’s gender could probably be changed with only minor adjustments and her relationship with DeeDee might ring just as true as that of a young, unmarried heterosexual duo. (Which might bring us back to the original question: What is a “lesbian novel,” and what makes this one, in Maupin’s eyes?)

On the other hand, Michael is a gay everyman. A kind of lovable peasant, he enjoys deep, caring relationships with women and with other men, both gay and straight. Unlike the lesbians in this story, Michael interacts with the gay world; these interactions give the book a feeling of authenticity and community.

All of Maupin’s books, and Significant Others is no exception, share rapid-fire dialogue that would make Frank Capra or Billy Wilder proud. The cinematic comparison is deliberate, because Maupin reads like tightly edited little scenes with penciled-in angle shots and close-ups. Although Significant Others has a more leisurely pace than its predecessors, in part because it struggles with so many AIDS-related pains, it still moves along at a Thin Man clip.

Ironically, although he shoots too wide in the lesbian characterizations, he doesn’t disappoint in the authenticity of his characters’ lexicon. Frankly, the lesbianese is vintage.

“She relates to my energy,” D’Orothea tells DeeDee about another woman who might or might not be interested in her. “She thinks we knew each other in a past life.”

Later, DeeDee checks out some Wimminwood workshops, including “Your Diet Cola Is Oppressing Me: How the patriarchy kills fat wimmin through dieting and harassment,” and “Dowry Dykes Support Group: A chance for wimmin with money to share with each other their feelings about the personal and political issues connected with inherited wealth.”

This is playful fun that Maupin does well. Frankly, he might have easily lifted those two workshop descriptions right out of the Michigan festival program book.

To want to further understanding among gay people is an honorable goal. But for Maupin, or any other writer, to accomplish that, it seems necessary to understand that not all will in fact be understood. Much may lie forever beyond total comprehension. What seems infinitely more important is that gay men and lesbians accept one another, making acceptance by the mainstream a lot easier.

Significant Others is an interesting enough book–it’s quite funny and warm, but its best moments–both the ones that draw the laughs and those that spark insight–have to do with Maupin’s home turf: men being intimate with men, men sharing with men, men being comfortable with the good and bad of being men. No matter how hard he tries, Maupin simply can’t do that for lesbians. Fortunately, there are plenty of lesbian writers out there who can, and do.

Significant Others by Armistead Maupin, Harper & Row, $9.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.