Against Assimilation: Justin Sayre on the Importance of Gay Culture

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Sept. 24 2013 10:04 AM

Assimilation and Its Discontents: Q-and-A with Justin Sayre on the State of Gay Culture 

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Justin Sayre.

Photograph byChristian Coulson.

When Justin Sayre walked into the dimly lit Czech bistro where we had arranged to discuss the state and fate of gay culture, he was styled for the occasion. An elegant scarf in warm, autumnal tones cascaded from his muted coat; a shock of carefully carefree hair framed a face sculpted around a wicked grin and eyes more accustomed to looking awry than straight ahead. I had requested this audience after encountering Sayre in his position as Chairman of the International Order of the Sodomites; at a recent edition of The Meeting*—the group’s monthly gathering that’s executed in the form of a comedy/variety show (naturally) and dedicated to a different gay icon/cultural touchstone each time—I had witnessed him deliver a rebuke of modern gay taste and discourse (pegged to the MTV VMAs) so deliciously icy that it left me shivering with fear and delight. The following Q&A is me going back for more.

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

Bryan Lowder: David Halperin has this memorable line in his book How to Be Gay that goes something like: “gay men often don’t really deserve gay culture.” He means that though we are all associated with gay culture by name, many of us don’t live up to its promise. I wonder how you respond to a statement like that?

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Justin Sayre: I think that gay people—gay men especially—are given a great choice in the world. They are able to see things from multiple vantage points, and that’s what has made them great artists for many centuries. The trouble with the current scenario is that the outsider vantage point is being described as “less than” rather than as an advantage. We live in a time when there is a huge push for assimilation, a push to be our fathers (even be our mothers) and to ignore the strength of our unique vision.

But still, to say that gay people don’t deserve their culture is a terrible thing to say. The interesting thing about right now is …

Lowder: What do you mean by “now?” Marriage equality? Just the general tendency toward assimilation with straight lifestyles and culture? 

Sayre: Exactly. But what’s interesting about now is that within that trend, for the first time gay culture can be truly about gay people. You know, in decades past, we always had to siphon out a gay storyline or a gay subtext from mainstream culture. Now we can tell really strong, complex gay stories openly. It’s a much more interesting time, in a way. When I think about gay culture, I think that it’s not so much “dying” as it is transitioning. We just have to start seeing our difference as a strength rather than trying to get rid of it.

Lowder: With your show, The Meeting*, what is your philosophical project? How do you see you and the performers you collaborate with as being part of that transition?

Sayre: Well, I started the show for two reasons. The first was that there was no forum where we were really discussing ideas or even politics in a fun way anymore. But I also thought that it was a way of starting conversations about celebrating gay culture while bringing in new and older artists in a cross-generational project. See, the problem is that you can never sit two gay men in a room—one who is 50 and one who is 25—and have a conversation about, say, gay politics. You just couldn’t do it. They are just too skewed by the differences between the experiences they’ve had. But if you can get them into a room talking about Cher? The world is different. And their mutual love of Cher or that artist or movie starts a conversation.

When I moved to New York—let’s just say a while ago…

Lowder: Come on, when was it?

Sayre: Well … 1999. The point is, when I moved here, it was just the tail-end of the AIDS crisis. The healing had started, but nobody wanted to talk to me about shit. There was no kind of cultural exchange; nobody said to me “Here’s Edmund White—read that.” I kind of felt like an AIDS orphan, like I’d shown up too late. Then, as the years went on, I noticed that my contemporaries felt very similar, and the kids younger than me were finding a lot of stuff on the Internet and didn’t have anybody to talk about it with. So I really wanted to find a way to bridge traditional gay culture into a new time.

One of the key tenets of The Meeting* is that it’s never imitation …

Lowder: What do you mean by imitation?

Sayre: I mean it’s not about hiring a Judy Garland impersonator. Nothing like that. I want people to take these things we call gay culture and make a new dialog with them, make them their own.

Lowder: So, let’s talk about that—what is gay culture, exactly? A collection or syllabus or icons, movies, texts, whatever, that should be touchstones for all of us, perhaps? Like Sex and the City, Liza Minnelli, and Mildred Pierce? Or maybe it’s a way of looking at those and other things? Which definition is more salient for you?

Sayre: I say it’s a way of looking at things, definitely. Actually, it’s always amazing to me how people find gay meaning where I don’t really get it naturally. But when it’s shown to me how that appealing, maybe I can.

Lowder: Can you think of an example of that?

Sayre: Like, I get the camp aspect of Showgirls … totally. But I don’t really get what the hell it’s about! Do you know what I mean? Like, I get it—it’s campy and terrible. But, like, are we supposed to empathize with Nomi Malone? I mean, what are we supposed to do? It’s not so fabulous—it’s not like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? where it’s so grotesque and fabulous that you can’t kind of handle it.

Lowder: Or Grey Gardens or something like that?

Sayre: Yeah! It’s not a complex or deep narrative. Even something like Death Becomes Her, which is really becoming a gay film and totally part of that lexicon—I totally get that. Totally get it! It’s fantastic and campy and gay men are always quoting Isabella Rossellini’s monologue at me.

Lowder: Sempre viva!

Sayre: Right! I get that! But Showgirls I don’t get. You see, what’s fascinating about gay culture to me is that it’s still homegrown. What’s so troubling about assimilation—it’s not about marriage, if you want to get married and have kids, fine by me—is that gay culture has been one of the last holdouts in that it’s generated by the people that it’s meant for. It’s self-generated. It’s nothing that’s been prescribed, like with mainstream culture. Real gay culture has never had great marketing behind it; we’ve always picked up on underdogs and little movies and things like that. Losing that scares me.

Lowder: But you have to admit that there is a kind of entrance fee for the world that you’re talking about, right? Certainly you had to study this canon at some point. For myself, I literally have a book at home called High Camp that covers “camp movies” that I’ve made a serious project of going through. It seems to me that to be conversant with a certain kind of gay man or in a certain gay idiom really requires study. Is part of the point of The Meeting* to provide lessons?

Sayre: Absolutely! There is a big educational part to it. But I think if it more as sharing. I mean, did I study gay culture? No. I grew up with my grandmother with whom I watched old movies and just happened to gravitate to that aesthetic.

But do I think there’s something really fascinating about watching someone get it. Watching someone be like, “Oh my God, where have I been my whole life? Why haven’t I seen this?!” I’ve had attendees of The Meeting* tell me they studied up on a particular subject, and I’ve had others admit to not knowing anything and still enjoying themselves. That’s the thing about gay culture—you don’t really need to know, to know.

Lowder: That “Oh my God” feeling, that camp feeling, is really hard to describe. I know what you mean, but I worry that a lot of younger gays are not having it. Do you think it’s biological or something contingent on a specific historical moment, and that could therefore be lost?

Sayre: I think it could be lost, I really do. People are changing. Fran Lebowitz has this great line about how people always talk about all the great artists who were lost in the AIDS crisis, but they never talk about the great audience that was lost, too. And I think that’s why we don’t see a lot of gay investment in art anymore. There’s an embarrassment about being a serious art geek.

Lowder: What you’re really describing is a classic “queen”—as in an opera queen, a musical theater queen, etc.

Sayre: Exactly! I just want to talk to those people and learn everything they know. 

Lowder: Gay icons today: Is there something vulgar about Lady Gaga or Bravo compared to the classic stuff we’ve been talking about?

Sayre: When you boil down true camp pieces, there are big questions at play. Even in a John Waters movie—there are some big questions in Pink Flamingoes!

Lowder: Well, there’s that great line about camp that you can only camp about something you take seriously.

Sayre: Absolutely. You have to be both in it and out of it, and that’s where gay men have traditionally thrived. On the surface, you have to just walk around and look like a normal Joe, and then you go home and you are vastly different. And that’s a benefit!

Lowder: Let’s talk about the gay generation gap. How do you recommend that younger gays go about finding mentors? What would you say to older gays who are perhaps a little worried about making themselves available? Those kinds of relationships seem very important if we want this sensibility to survive …

Sayre: Well, let’s start by not seeing it as “us” and “them.” I talk to a lot of people in both age groups. Rather than a number, I see it as an issue of “where they are right now.” Someone who is 30 years older than me is going to have a lot more stories and experience, and I find that fascinating. Someone who is 23 might not have that many stories. But the important thing is to respect perspectives on both sides.

Lowder: I hear a lot from younger people about how they don’t understand why they are expected to have any connection to any other gay person, especially these “old dudes,” just because of their sexuality. It seems like the opposite point of view that we’re discussing—that there is something called gay culture that is worth preserving—is on the decline. What’s going on?  

Sayre: What I dislike about gay men right now is that there’s a real callousness that’s developing. I think it has a lot to do with the Internet, with things like Grindr. You’re a picture, you’re a blip, you’re this other-than-me. You know, back when that Judy Garland show, End of the Rainbow, came out, a younger gay said to me: “Old gays like Judy Garland because she was sad and their lives are sad.” I just thought: How callous. How absolutely callous. Why should we respect our history, our elders? They may not have raised you, but they were doing things with you in mind. There’s no thought given to that.

The great loss is that if you were gay in 1960, you had to figure out that life was your invention. You were going to have to make peace with your sexuality, you were going to have to live a life that was yours. And that was on you—no one was going to do that for you. As time’s gone on and we’ve become more mainstream, we’ve allowed other voices in that tell us what a gay life should be. Look at the television—every gay person on television is married and has a child. It’s preposterous!

Lowder: But is it OK to be nostalgic for the past, given how bad things were by certain measures?  

Sayre: I don’t know that I’d use the word nostalgia. I’d say that there was a certain amount of opportunity—because these men were constrained by a lack of certain freedoms, they were able to be free in other ways. I honor that. And I wonder why people don’t feel as free today? Because everything in the world says you should be. Why isn’t that the case? 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

For those able to get to Manhattan, the next edition of The Meeting*, is Wednesday, Sept. 25, at 9:30 p.m., at the performance venue 54 Below. The show’s honoree will be Liza Minnelli

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