Gay Bar – Why We Went Out is an extraordinary book; part-homage, part-travelogue, part-personal journey and part-essay. It ranges from the bars in San Francisco, who fought to exist, to the bars in Blackpool, filled with hen parties singing along to YMCA. It’s a book that attempts to understand why the gay bar is in decline. Has its role now been eclipsed in cities where homosexuality has become mainstream and where the fight for existence has moved to other territory? Have apps like Grindr ended the need for a physical space for casual male connections?
The book starts with a scene in a men-only bar in London. “It’s starting to smell like penis in here… The voice was at once queeny and thuggish, the line nearly sung, a lewd here we go again… trailing off as he moved away, leaving me on my knees to the blond.” For Atherton Lin, the gay bar is “the idea that you may end up going home with the first hot guy you see. Then every drink is dopamine, as you determine whether it is him or the next guy you’ll see. Gays relax in a gay bar, people will say, but I went out for the tension in the room.” He thinks that his first gay bar was Probe in LA in 1992, when he was at film school. He later moved to San Francisco, “for the windows. The city was a peep show”, and he began writing for magazines. The crowds of men in tight jeans had “dissipated since AIDS” but the Castro was resilient, “placid and somewhat steely.” In 2007, he moved to Shoreditch in London, and eventually out to the suburbs of Brockley.
Atherton Lin frames Gay Bar around the places that he frequented and the chronology of his own life. It’s also part love story. He met his long term partner, Famous, in Popstarz in London when he was a student and, after a brief transatlantic relationship, they’ve “been domestic” ever since. There’s a nostalgia that runs through the book. Now married and retired to a leafy suburb, sifting back over his life isn’t an excuse to romanticise his youthful self, dancing all night in platforms. It’s nostalgia for the people and places that moved the gay bar from clandestine meeting spots with painted windows and low lighting into the open. Many of them are places that no longer exist. Going to Studio One in LA, he’s aware that he’s twenty years too late, it was “no longer that legend whose name was chanted in a Village People song.” Yet, he’s nuanced about its heyday. “Some claim that Studio One had not provided a refuge for all, its legacy blemished by a door policy that favoured white boys above the rest… Someone who looked like me might have been denied entrance. I was under the impression that I was always late for the party, but in fact I may not have been invited.”
This is a book about the creation of gay identity, from the covert to the visible. Yet what makes it so interesting is that Atherton Lin struggles with definition of all kinds, even with the word ‘community’. He states that as a young man, “I was clearly was not like other gays. But neither did this revelation make me unique. Dissociation is a gay ritual as much as any other.” Where was he amongst the queens and the posh homos, the clones and the leathermen, the fags and the daddies? The bars themselves are an ebullient mixture, from disco balls to dungeons, and everything in between: “tacky but effervescent, artificial, cutthroat, cringe”. He leads us through the faded glamour of the Factory, to the glass-fronted institution of the Twin Peaks Tavern on the Castro, to the fisting parties at the Catacombs and the George and Dragon pub in London, which was stuffed with zany bric-a-brac. One way of establishing community is through shared history, the shared memory of the violent reactions to the bars and their clientele, the very right to exist, and the heartbreak of the AIDS crisis.
We now live in a time where young Britons are half as likely to identify as gay or lesbian, and eight times as likely to identify as bisexual, they are less binary and more fluid. The Joiner’s Arms on Hackney Road – once ribald and shabby – was closed a few years ago and the council enacted legislation that meant it could only be leased to a queer operator. The Friends of the Joiners Arms have redrawn the boundaries – “queers are dynamic beings who grow and change.” They’ve written a provisional charter creating an inclusive, safe space, forbidding harassment of any kind. The boundaries are being redrawn, and the gay bar is closing or adapting with the times. “Identity is articulated through the places we occupy, but both are constantly changing.”
Gay Bar is a beautifully-written and intelligent book, it should be read widely. By questioning where he went out and why, Atherton Lin explores what it was to be a gay man in the west from the early 1990s to now; he journeys through the social history of place and of identities on the cusp of change. “We did not go out to be safe. I didn’t, anyway. Not to the Joiner’s Harms. I went out to take risks. I went out to be close to other bodies. Perhaps that amounts to safety in numbers. It was more about being turned on in proximity. The idea of a safe space isn’t coherent to me, but then again I now recognise that I’m privileged in ways I didn’t previously comprehend. The kids have told me.”
Jeremy Atherton Lin: Gay Bar: Why We Went Out; Granta; 321 pp; Available here (Amazon)