“I gained a pound for every friend who died. That’s how I mourned,” Jeffrey Robert explains to the audience, tapping his ample belly while recounting the 80s. “Those tiger butter pancakes probably didn’t help, either.”
He speaks with a femme swish and walks with masculine presence, strolling between paper bags and newspapers upon which he has painted his beloved icons. Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Judy Garland, Armistead Maupin—each has a portrait and a story in Robert’s one-man show, “The Gay Uncle Explains It All To You: The True Stories of a Middle-Aged Gay Man.”
I got to see the show’s Thursday night performance for my first ever Seattle Fringe Festival. After making our way through a literal labyrinth of dark hallways and wrong-turns, audience members finally made it to the intimate, tucked-away theater in the Seattle Center Armory.
A combination of kitsch and heartfelt anecdotes, the show is aptly named. But rather than explaining all of gay history in a nutshell, Robert explains his personal history as a gay man, growing up in the Baby Boomer generation when teen culture was born, bringing with it a canon of musicians, writers, and actors who inspired LGBTQ folks across the country.
Robert commanded the stage, using these portraits of artists and divas like a children’s book storyteller to prompt his nostalgic memories. Music would suddenly play—The Supremes, Patti Smith, Liza Minelli—signaling a transition to the next memory to be described.
Though the pacing was perhaps too reliant on the sound technician to decide when the next segment would begin, appearing to almost interrupt Robert’s stories, the real beauty of the show bloomed from Robert’s observations and critiques. As a man who lived in pre-AIDS San Francisco, he described the gay community back when it felt like an actual community, bonded through sex, affection, drugs, pop culture, and the mutual support that so many men were denied from their birth families. He also described the need for this deeper level of community today, a call to unite queers in celebration and in-person interaction rather than constantly on the other side of a screen.
We’ve heard some of these themes before. White Gay Guy Loves Liza. White Gay Guy Remembers Stonewall. White Gay Guy Was (and Is) a Saucy Sex-Fiend. But while these themes aren’t news, they’re also deeply important to the formation of the contemporary queer psyche. The icons and activism and sexuality and survivors’ trauma of the 70s, 80s, and 90s are some of the most load-bearing pillars of our LGBTQ foundations today. Moreover, these were crucial identity development moments for this man named Jeffrey, who describes the partner he lost to AIDS, the childhood joys he relished, and the femme/POC artistry that opened his eyes to a world far bigger than his own. If anything, the show could use even more personal moments to highlight this funny, endearing man’s fascinating life.
It was a real pleasure to witness “Gay Uncle Explains It All.” Queerness can be a painfully isolating experience, especially for young people who don’t have a “gay uncle” of their own to normalize their perspectives and acclimate them to an oppressive society. We were robbed of nearly an entire generation of these “gay uncles” to the AIDS epidemic, the survivors of which were changed forever, and this left a long and terrifying gap in the passing of the queer torch. Now that LGBTQ Americans have a steadier footing than we’ve ever had before in our fight for equality and acceptance, we have the opportunity to channel knowledge and emotions of the past to inform our fight for the future—without assimilating to something unrepresentative of ourselves.
If they’re anything like this show, Jeffrey Robert’s upcoming projects are sure to delight while promoting a message of camp, community, and self-acceptance. You can keep tabs on Mr. Robert’s upcoming projects on his Facebook page.