Justin Elizabeth Sayre: Meetings, Faeries and Broke Girls, Life on the Demi-Monde

Justin Elizabeth Sayre, is a comedian, playwright, screenwriter, novelist and erstwhile actor. Sayre prefers that I use the pronoun ‘they,’ which always poses a grammatical challenge. I look forward to the day when English has a gender-neutral, singular pronoun, for now, I’ll proceed as best I can. Sayre is also the Chair of the International Order of Sodomites, a group that organized a “unexpectedly” hugely popular event in New York City, The Meeting. “I had been in New York for a while and I still couldn’t find my scene, I couldn’t find anything queer that connected with me,” Sayre says, during our interview via Skype. “I am sorry, it’s a little early for me” (local time was 9am in Los Angeles, but I can sympathize).

Justin Elizabeth Sayre Image Courtesy Of: https://www.publictheater.org/Tickets/Calendar/PlayDetailsCollection/Joes-Pub/2017/J/Justin-Sayre-NOV/?SiteTheme=JoesPub

In 1999, Sayre moved from Forty Fort, Pennsylvania to New York City. “I was totally unprepared for the City, and yet that was probably a good thing. The newness, the rawness appealed so much to me. Obviously, I left my hometown because I wanted a cultural life involved in the arts. If I wasn’t making art, I wanted to be in a place where it was all around me at all times.” However, after arriving to New York City, Sayre, “was an actor — mostly Shakespearean, the comedic parts —  in theater. But I wanted to do more.” Yet Sayre’s overriding artistic eclecticism and curiosity became a barrier,  “I wanted something more; I thought about too many things to be on a single track; when you are an actor you must be focused on the your path; I saw too many paths I wanted to take.”

They began looking at many other people’s paths. Sayre says, “I couldn’t be that singular. I could not, at that point in my life, be that obsessively focused. At the same time, I came out as gay in that first year in the City; and whoop! I discovered ‘gay things,’ I did not know what ‘that’ meant. I looked at what ‘where I am supposed to go,’ bars and clubs, and ‘what I am supposed to enjoy’ and I didn’t get it. None of it appealed to me. Sitting in a some seedy bar listening to some trite pop song! This had no appeal to me.” Sayre, dressed in a black and floral robe, a beret and bearded, makes air quotes of ‘what I am supposed to do.’ Certainly, I can identify with his sentiment; my first ‘Gay Pride’ in San Francisco 2005, was perhaps the most depressed I have ever been about being gay. Commercialization, commodification and a certain anti-working class, anti-rural exclusionary atmosphere are all parts of these large city, US American historic Prides.

Sayre continues, “So yes, I was very reluctant to be part of that world. It wasn’t until years later, when I discovered the gathering at Destiny, the Radical Faeries’ Commune in Vermont.” A quick look at their website shows them to be more organized than the Radical Faerie commune where I lived on in college, after my grandparents kicked me out for being gay, at Wolf Creek, Oregon. Although the Oregon commune seems to have professionalized their website, when I lived there anarchy reigned. The topic of another essay. I feel much more comfortable and bonded with Sayre, and the interview continues. They exclaim, “Well, wow, I have yet to get to Wolf Creek, it is a small world when you’re outside the norm.”

Sayre recalls leaving New York City for the Vermont Radical Faerie commune to get out of an existential crisis, and that’s when they “came up with the idea of the Meeting. I got a show idea and I called a venue downtown the Duplex on Christopher Street, November 2009. It had been a year since Prop 8 (Proposition 8, in California, banning same-sex marriage) had happened: and I kept finding out things I didn’t know, like anti-gay money in Urban Outfitters, etc. I wanted a place where news could be discussed and where people could be informed and entertained.” Continuing, “After Prop 8, I thought we needed a different way of organizing, because California, this ostensibly shining beacon of liberalism denied us marriage equality, and while I am not a marriage proponent, I support it in terms of equality under the law.” At this point I ask them if they know the work of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, a queer person who argued passionately against marriage equality from the left.  Sayre contends, “if marriage is a legal status then it should be supported and spread to as many relationships between consenting people as possible; however, I understand why someone like Mattilda and others are against the structure of marriage. Yet Equality, held more sway for me and I saw it as part of a dismantling of patriarchy, racism, etc in the long term trajectory.”

Sayre admits that “there is a very ugly side of conformity coming up, indeed, and that is why I don’t support organizations like HRC [Human Rights Campaign], because they only address the issues of wealthy white gay men.” They continue, getting slightly louder, and stroking their beard, “Look as queer people we have been creating relationships and families that don’t fit into this cookie cutter idea of what marriage is, and with the marriage movement I felt that again it was being pushed by the wealthy, white monolith. In some sense, Mattilda is right, rather talking about trans rights, HIV/AIDs, drugs and alcohol, we concentrated on one issue which could make us more acceptable in the straight world. Rather than joining against police brutality, which started the movement at Stonewall, we focused on this single issue. And that’s why I encourage people to donate and support Black Lives Matter, there is an intersection there, between LGBT people and People of Color, that intersection is police brutality.”

“So during my 8 years at the Meeting, I flew in the last few years of its running, every month from Los Angeles to New York to host it,” Sayre pauses, I ask what the central idea of the Meeting was, and they say, “well the overriding idea is that it was a meeting of the International Order of Sodomites, a centuries old organization promoting the community; I was the chairman of the New York chapter, every month we would come together. We’d celebrate an LGBT icon and we would perform: we had performers from Broadway, wherever, all over. They would perform in this celebration of a queer icon, Madonna, Quentin Crisp, etc. Then I would talk about politics, and every show would end with news readings which included jokes and and running gags. It lasted until May 2017.” During this time, Sayre wrote a play every year and completed two Young Adult novels, both published by Penguin.

The Meeting, in a way, is the reason they moved to Los Angeles. Sayre says “Michael Patrick King, producer of Sex in the City, saw the Meeting, loved it, and he asked if I would write for Two Broke Girls on CBS, and I proved to be very good at it, and that started a different trajectory. Not only that I could write for television, but tell my own stories for television.” With a greater level of financial security, they say, “I felt that I was able to take my time, be thoughtful and careful while embracing these new experiences. Doing that while also holding onto what I had already learned.” What’s next, I ask. “Expanding the artistic horizon darling,” Sayre’s hands move in a circle over their head, “The work is expanding.” I ask, do you feel expansive? “I’d like to feel more expansive!” We both laugh, that laugh of a shared queerness, that melancholy-tinged laugh that reverberates off the lips of those on the fringes. Specifically, Sayre says this expansion includes “a film I wrote that is being shopped around. I am writing a film for a friend who is a wonderful director. I am writing a series based partially on my talks, and I am writing a book on Bohemia; a sort of ‘how to be’ a Bohemian in the postmodern age.”

Sayre is an intriguing individual: both enigmatic and pragmatic, they are energetically leaping from one project to the next. Additionally their oeuvre is expansive, covering everything from writing for television to creating plays for the theater to writing novels and now a nonfiction work on Bohemians in the 21st Century. I ask them, as a member of the queer demi-monde myself, what is a Bohemian, now? “Well, from the research I’ve done the work of the Bohemian, or the non-work, really comes from opposing two major elements of society, industrialization and bourgeois normality.” Of course, these elements grew in tandem with each other, as the growth of major industry created a massive proletariat, a petit bourgeois and a bourgeois, and all the old European demarcations between old wealth, new wealth and aristocracy, began to crumble into those with capital and those without. “Yes,” Sayre agrees, “And the Bohemians, the idea of Bohemian culture, is to get away from either side, not that it didn’t side with the proletariat, it did.” I suppose that not working in a factory 12-hours a day allows for one to paint, write and otherwise think. “And some of them could afford this, and others, well they lived off each other, of course, it was infused with bourgeois members, but that money was distributed, and actually many came from the working-class, and they struggled out a meager, but lively living off piecemeal work.”

I look to my own Spartan room, it is meager but lively life!

. . .

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