By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Is there a universal gay culture? Is there an aesthetic sensibility that unites gay people across generations? And most importantly: Is there a secret organization that plans the gay agenda?
The first two questions are difficult to answer, but the last one gets a fabulous "Yes!" That's because every month, playwright-performer Justin Sayre hosts The Meeting*, a comedy/variety show that both satirizes and lionizes the gay experience.
The droll conceit is that the show is actually a meeting of the International Order of Sodomites, the ruling body of gay life. Sayre hosts this lavender lodge night, reading off announcements from the board of directors, reflecting on gay and gay-adjacent celebrities, and delivering local news of interest.
Each meeting also celebrates a gay icon. This month's show---on November 15 at The Duplex---honors Marlene Dietrich, with nightlife staples like Nellie McKay and Kim Smith on hand to perform her songs.
But while The Meeting* is full of music and jokes, it's not all fun and games. The news updates are very real, and they're often focused on gay-related events in the New York area. And while Sayre, with his plummy voice and sherry-dry wit, is always entertaining, he can also be quite serious. Quips about Jem and the Holograms, for instance, might evolve into condolences for a gay teenager who has committed suicide.
The point is that all these tones---fabulous and heartbroken, triumphant and mournful---are equally valid. They're all part of the gay identity as the The Meeting* defines it. "The frivolity is important, and it's fun," says Sayre, who relentlessly reads the news for new material to put in the show. "But we have to have a more nuanced exploration. I think what The Meeting* provides is the sense of, 'There is a community. There are people who are interested in the things you're interested in.' It's sharing in a different way than I see a lot of the gay community doing right now.'"
Ultimately, The Meeting* functions as an actual meeting of the local gay community, which is why this month's updates will focus less on the elections and more on what's happening around town. Sayre says, "I'll mention that Obama got re-elected and that we won marriage equality in three states from a popular vote, but the really topical section, for me, is about a gay activist who got killed Queens. That the Ali Forney center got flooded. Those are the things you should know."
It's impossible, of course, for any single topic to be "universally" gay. Not everyone cares about Judy Garland or Madonna or Lady Gaga to the same degree, and not everyone is passionate about the same causes. But by making bold claims in his show, Sayre hopes to spur discussion in his audience. "If I say marriage is not the cure-all that we think it is, nobody gets angry and storms out," he says. "They stay and buy me a drink and say, 'Why do you think that?' And I talk to them, and I listen to their opinion, and they listen to mine."
Even the monthly "gay icon" invites that conversation. Sayre knows that some people love Marlene Dietrich more than others, but the hope is that the entire audience, whether or not they've pre-ordered The Blue Angel on Blu-Ray, will respond to something larger that she represents. "Everybody has their movie star that they like, and Marelene Dietrich may not be the one they go to," he says. "But when you look at this through the lens of, 'What is this sensibility? Why does this appeal to people?', you understand it differently and maybe understand it with regard to why you like the things you like."
In other words, the meeting might let you see how your tastes and concerns connect you to a greater culture. It might help you, as Sayre says, "reinvigorate that sensibility that you can be gay, and in the gay community, and do whatever you want."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo of Justin Sayre by Christian Coulson