Are all gay men just superficial disco bunnies with only one thing on their minds? The mass media would certainly have you believe that is so, and with figure heads such as Boy George and Julian Clary, who can blame the public for going along with this idea. Of course, straight acting gay men are just harder to detect. So homophobes continue with their prejudices and the 21st century, thinking gay man gets very lonely wondering where all the men like him are! How, then, do intelligent professional gay men meet each other? There are thousands of clubs and pubs, dating agencies and personal ads for cruising purposes, but it can be extremely difficult to meet professional gay friends for purely social purposes, where a deeper relationship may develop. This is where the gay dining club comes to the rescue. I recently tried Out & Out, London's longest established dining club for professional gay men and was amazed at how civilized an evening with 40 gay men could be.
Out & Out was started by the disarmingly charming and truly scrumptious Julia Melinek. Eleven years ago, opera singer Julia (she's sung Madam Butterfly for English National Opera) and fellow warbler, Mark Glanville (more recently the author of best – selling book The Goldberg Variations) realised that they were so good at organising dinner parties for gay colleagues that they might as well do it professionally. As Out & Out, they booked a stand at a Gay lifestyle exhibition at Earl's Court and pretty much became an instant success. Today they're the biggest dining club for professional gay men in the UK, with a membership that sometimes hits a thousand. They are not just another gay dating service in London. Through the gay dining club format, members can meet new friends, network professionally and chat without any of the posing and cruising obligations of the scene.
How did they do it? Professional fag hag (it's her description) Julia reckons that, as far as social skills are concerned, "you're born that way." But she likens her table – hopping duties at Out & Out functions to those of the circus plate spinner, forever dashing to give the plate at the end another twirl. Having seen her in action, I can confirm that, like the guy with the plates, she performs apparently effortlessly. But what is it with Julia and gay men? "There's a special relationship between straight women and gay men," she explains. "It's like the girlie friendship, opposite sexes getting on with each other without the sexual tension." The personal touch extends to communications with the Out & Out office. There are no mail-shots. Julia and Mark can spend eight hours a day on the phone, telling members about upcoming lunches and dinners, plus other events including theatre visits, foreign trips and boat cruises. Clearly the label ‘Gay Dining Club' only reveals part of the picture as members use the club for professional networking purposes, expanding their social horizons, debates, message posting and of course, inevitably, for gay dating.
But, ultimately, is it all about sex? Surprisingly, no. "It's far less a sexual thing than the scene," says Julia. I accepted an invitation to the gallery bar of the Cross Keys, a beautiful old pub in Chelsea, where Out & Out celebrated Valentine's Day. The mix of men was much as Julia had described, all ages, classes and races, but "the common denominator is intelligence, those who enjoy a dinner party atmosphere as opposed to posing and cruising."
After a 17 year relationship broke up, lawyer David T found it very difficult to "let loose" again. "In the bars I was very conscious of being older," he told me, "but here, as you can see, the age range is very wide." At Out & Out he has made a lot of gay friends, some men he now sees independently. What about romance? None as yet. David feels that Out & Out is primarily a social group. But then I met David L and William R who have been together for three years after meeting at an Out & Out function. "Jules is very good at judging," said David. "She sits people next to each other if she thinks they're going to get on. With us, she got it right." "I didn't want a gay dating agency when I joined Out and Out," said William "I was far more interested in networking with professional gay men and meeting new friends....but then I met David, and the rest is history!"
Now David is trying to get William to County Hall! "We'll invite Mark and Jules," David promised.