Family Therapy

Queer intergenerational dialogue is beset with trauma, misunderstanding, and triggers. But Netflix’s Tales of the City shows it’s possible.

A still of Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal, with a still of Garcia, Ashley Park, and Christopher Larkin as Jake, Ani, and Raven, respectively, in the corner.
Olympia Dukakis, Garcia, Ashley Park, and Christopher Larkin in Netflix’s Tales of the City. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix.

This piece is part of the Legacies issue, a special Pride Month series from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read an introduction to the issue here.

To be a cisgender lesbian over 50 is to be in a constant state of anxiety that someone will say something stupid. Hang out with other old homos, and someone will eventually make a dumb comment about trans people. Chill with the youths and prepare to hear that every feminist your age—ex-comrades, former sisters in struggle, maybe even you—is a raging TERF.

I exaggerate. If only slightly. No one in my social circle has ever said anything truly transphobic in my presence beyond a flustered “Can we still say that?” or a wistful “Why can’t they just be butch?” And the existence of trans-exclusionary radical feminists is undeniable, though in my privileged experience, they’re fortunately far less numerous than some people believe. Stipulating—I can’t believe I’m going to type this—that transphobia is all too real, most of what I encounter results from generational miscommunication, a failure to transmit and receive a legacy of activism and understanding.

Netflix’s recently released series Tales of the City strikes me as a model of how queer culture can be passed down to a new generation in a way that honors what came before and updates it in the best way possible. “What came before” in this case is Armistead Maupin’s series of nine novels focused on San Francisco’s 28 Barbary Lane and the straight, gay, bi, cis, and trans people who have lived there since 1972, as well as the three previous attempts to bring the series to television.

In the 10 new episodes—all written and directed by queer people—three cast members reprise roles they played in the 1993, 1998, and 2001 versions of the show. If you haven’t seen those earlier iterations, the experience of seeing Laura Linney, Barbara Garrick, and Olympia Dukakis as Mary Ann Singleton, DeDe Halcyon Day, and Anna Madrigal, respectively, will surely be less thrilling. But if, like me, you’ve been reading the books and watching the televizations for decades, it’s like reconnecting with old friends you’ve known forever but haven’t gotten to hang out with in years. It’s familiar and comforting, but … also kind of problematic. After all, bringing back Dukakis as Madrigal, the den mother of 28 Barbary Lane, means doing something we understand differently in 2019 from how we saw it in 1993: casting a cis actor in a trans role.

The show’s creators handle this dilemma beautifully. Who better than Dukakis, now 88, to play a character who celebrates her 90th birthday in the first episode? Dukakis’ embodiment of Anna, who is physically vulnerable but mentally sharp, is magnificent. And when so many queer seniors are isolated and alone, it feels important to see an old person secure and happy and surrounded by many generations of a loving chosen family.

As long as Dukakis was able to play the role, recasting 21st-century Anna would have hurt the show, but by flashing back to Anna’s younger days and her arrival in San Francisco, the creators were able to find the perfect woman to represent her younger, less confident self in trans actress and activist Jen Richards. Richards and Dukakis don’t particularly look alike—and as Richards told Vanity Fair, her voice is higher than Dukakis’—but there’s an undeniable continuity between Richards’ Anna, still looking for her people, and Dukakis’, who has found them and kept them close.

The writers also understand how language can cause intergenerational resentment. Confusion about vocabulary (“is it OK to say … ”) can reflect concern and respectful curiosity, but it can also trigger anger in older queers about the past being rewritten to erase people’s lived experiences. This isn’t always comfortable, or even reasonable. In Episode 4, when 28-year-old Ben (Charlie Barnett) finds himself the only person of color and the only representative of his generation at a dinner party hosted and attended by a group of gay men over 50, he speaks up when fellow guests make dismissive comments about Mexicans and use the offensive term trannies. “You can call yourself whatever you want,” says Ben. “I just think it’s important we call other people what they want to be called. That’s the least we can do.”

It’s model behavior—speaking up and offering a correction that’s clearly needed—and while the angry outburst that follows is unfair to Ben, it’s useful to hear, because it is a deeply felt sentiment that is seldom expressed in public. If more young queers understood what gay men and lesbians went through in the 1980s, I believe much of the anger that plays out in public on sites like Twitter and in private conversations would be dissipated. Here, unfortunately, the older gays feel “policed.” When Chris (played by Stephen Spinella, known for originating the role of Angels in America’s Prior Walter on Broadway) hears Ben mentioning “privilege,” he can’t resist pushing back on that term.

When I was 28, I wasn’t going to fucking dinner parties. I was going to funerals, three or four a week. All of us were. … This world that you get to live in, with your safe spaces and your intersectionalities. … Do you even know where that came from? Do you know who built that world? Do you know the cost of that progress? No, of course not. Because that would be more than your generation could ever bear to comprehend.

The show doesn’t remove the sting of this accusation, and viewers’ sympathies are clearly with Ben, who, being black, knows all too well what it means to live in “a society that doesn’t care if we live or die.” But watching this conflict play out on TV feels vaguely cathartic. As if to say: This anger is misplaced; try listening to each other.

Language also plays a part in the season’s most interesting plot thread, which puts Jake, a trans character from the books, into a situation created for the TV series. At the start of the Netflix Tales, Jake (Garcia) is still in a romantic relationship with Margot (May Hong) that predates his transition, though he is starting to realize that he is now interested in guys. Jake and Margot’s explorations of identity—Margot still sees herself as a lesbian—and their attempts to be true to their desires but to avoid hurting each other, are touching and tender and genuinely original. When Margot tells Jake, “I know I’m not allowed to, but I miss her,” she knows she’s breaking a taboo and potentially causing Jake pain. And when Jake replies, “That really fucking hurts,” we feel for both of them.

I have no idea if showrunner Lauren Morelli, or anyone else on the new series’ creative team, has ever listened to the commentary track on the 2013 DVD reissue of the 1993 Tales of the City, but anyone who does so will find a deep cut that explains a lot about how Tales, in all its manifestations, speaks across generations and other boundaries. The series, says Maupin, is “about people finding each other and reassuring each other and teaching each other things that they haven’t learned before—because they’ve actually listened to another person.” In other words, let’s keep talking, even when it hurts.

Read more of Outward’s Legacies issue.