October is LGBT History Month. Each week throughout the month, Hotspots will be profiling two of the people named to Equality Forum’s LGBT History Month icon list, to showcase the great things LGBT people have done, and are doing.
Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in the British protectorate of Zanzibar on September 5, 1946. His family was originally from the Gujarat region of India and moved to Zanzibar so his father could continue his work for the British Colonial Office. From ages eight to seventeen, he studied at St. Peter’s School, a boarding school near Mumbai, India. It was at this time that he first showed an interest in rock and roll music, and it was also the time he adopted the name “Freddie” for himself. Freddie returned to Zanzibar after graduating from St. Peter’s School but a revolution there caused him and his family to flee to England.
In 1970, Freddie connected with Brian May and Roger Taylor, who were part of a group called “Smile.” He encouraged them to test the boundaries of their music and their live performances, and joined their group shortly after. Freddie renamed the group to “Queen” and adopted the last name Mercury. Queen released their first album in 1973; it was their albums Sheer Heart Attack (1974) and A Night at the Opera (1975) which earned the group worldwide acclaim. Freddie became well-known as a deeply emotional, theatrical live performer, touring with Queen in over 700 performances between 1973 and 1986. Queen’s performance at 1985’s Live Aid was seen by nearly two billion viewers worldwide.
Freddie was a gifted singer and a songwriter. He wrote many hits for Queen, including “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Killer Queen,” “Somebody to Love,” “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy,” “We Are the Champions,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Ten of the seventeen songs featured on the album Queen’s Greatest Hits were written by Freddie Mercury.
Freddie was a flamboyant personality and his sexual orientation was well-known in many circles, including the British tabloid press. They were the first ones to figure out that he might have contracted HIV, although he originally denied it and kept quiet about his status for many years. He left Queen in the summer of 1991, and by that time he was very ill. He released a public statement that he was dying of AIDS on November 23, 1991. The following day, November 24, he died of AIDS-related pneumonia at the age of 45.
In death, he was posthumously awarded a number of honors. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003, and the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2004. In the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons of all time, Freddie Mercury ranked 58th.
Armistead Jones Maupin, Jr. was born on May 13, 1944. Born in Washington D.C., he was raised in North Carolina, and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Originally pursuing journalism as a career, he worked at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, which at that time was managed by the future Senator Jesse Helms. Helms, a family friend, was a hero to Maupin; in the 1960s Maupin espoused conservative and even segregationist beliefs, both of which he has loudly renounced in the decades since.
At the age of 26, his work with the Associated Press brought him to San Francisco. It was at this time that he finally accepted his homosexuality, first had sexual relations with other men, and eventually came out of the closet. In 1974, he began a serial in the Marin County newspaper, The Pacific Sun, which was later picked up by The San Francisco Chronicle. In 1978, this serial was reworked by Harper and Row into a novel, called Tales of the City. Tales of the City featured an eccentric group of gay and straight people whose lives intertwined in liberal San Francisco.
The success of Tales of the City spawned sequels, such as More Tales of the City (1980), Further Tales of the City (1982), Babycakes (1984), Significant Others (1987) and Sure of You (1989). After 1989 he decided to take a break from the Tales of the City series, going on to write two unrelated novels, Maybe the Moon (1992) and The Night Listener (2000).
Finally, in 2007, after spending many years denying that the Tales of the City series would continue, Maupin released the seventh book in the series, called Michael Tolliver Lives. This book was followed by Mary Ann in Autumn (2010) and The Days of Anna Madrigal (2014). Maupin insists that this most recent novel will be the final one in the series.
Maupin felt that the LGBT community would reach equality in literature when sexual orientation was no longer used as a modifier when describing a writer and his or her works. “I think Jerry Falwell must be very happy with those little cubby-holes at the back of book stores that say ‘gay and lesbian’ – it’s a warning sign, they can keep their kids away from that section. I’d like people to stumble on my works in the literature section of Barnes & Noble and have their lives changed because of it…I cringe when I get ‘gay writer’ each time. Why the modifier? I’m a writer. It’s like calling Amy Tan a Chinese-American writer every time you mention her name, or Alice Walker a black writer. We’re all discussing the human condition,” he said.