The Pleasure And Pain Of Gay Bars

These social spaces are sites of both pleasure and isolation in Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, a new book by Jeremy Atherton Lin.

In 2017, the writer Jeremy Atherton Lin noticed a spate of media coverage mourning gay bars in London, more than half of which had closed within the last decade. From NBC News to the Guardian, nearly all the coverage contained a similar slant, which played into a popular narrative: gay bars as beacons of liberation, central to the formation of queer identity and community. Which caused Atherton Lin to wonder, For who?

“Going to your first gay bar — I feel like it's told with so much agency,” Atherton Lin told me over the phone, from London recently. “Especially for the generation before me, a lot of times it’s like, I was so nervous. I walked around the corner because I couldn't bring myself to go in, but then the next night I did and everything was illuminated and the drag queen smiled at me and I was gay.

He thought about that narrative in relation to his own experiences. Throughout his life, gay bars offered solace and excitement, but they just as often disappointed, excluded, and baffled, providing Atherton Lin with more questions about his identity than answers. The popular story about the gay bar, it seemed, centered a dominant flavor of gay man: cis, white, conventionally masculine. As a self-proclaimed outsider — being “mixed-race, a bit of a flamer, the son of an immigrant, and so on” — he wanted to “trouble that a bit.”

Or as he writes in Gay Bar: Why We Went Out: “It was becoming apparent that being homo did not amount to being the same: I clearly was not like other gays.” Atherton Lin’s debut is a book-length essay told through the lens of the gay bars, nightclubs, and sex parties he’s frequented over the span of nearly three decades. Hopscotching between California, where Atherton Lin grew up, and London, where he currently lives, the seven chapters are organized by city and place. But rarely is he comfortable staying put. Instead, each bar is a portal, allowing him to plunge down wormholes, excavating far-flung strands of queer history that he braids with strains of memoir. The effect is destabilizing, a kinetic bar crawl through space and time and subculture. In lieu of cohesion he achieves something richer, if not more knotty: the gay bar in a state of irresolution, providing a hall of mirrors onto which his identity contracts, expands, and sometimes fractures.

Through grappling with the gay bars extinction, Atherton Lin, 46, ultimately ponders the extinction of gay identity. “More and more I heard myself defaulting to queer,” he writes, somehow both theoretically radical and appropriate in polite company. The word gay was intoned like a joke or an elegy.” Yet he observes the younger generations’ crop of roving queer parties promising a “safe space” and notices a disconnect: “We did not go out to be safe. I didn’t, anyway...I went out to take risks,” he writes. “The idea of a safe space isn’t coherent to me, but then again I now recognize that I’m privileged in ways I didn’t previously comprehend. The kids have told me.”

Similar to language surrounding his mixed racial identity (Atherton Lin’s father is Chinese, and his mother is of Eastern European descent), labels continuously fail to satisfy, yet he still engages them, trying them on like accessories.

“In gay bars, if such a thing is possible, my self-awareness and sense of ease amplify concurrently,” he writes. “Twink, top, masc, queen, member of a throuple, tweaker, tourist, voyeur, exhibitionist, pee-shy, among friends, lonely, terrified of disease. In gay bars, I have been each of these things.”

Atherton Lin lives in the Brockley neighborhood of London with his partner, the artist Jamie Atherton. They run a publishing project together called Failed States, a journal founded by Jamie that investigates various ideas around place. Past issues explored themes like “Suburb” and “Refuge.” Atherton Lin credits Jamie with introducing him to “place writing,” a genre to which Gay Bar belongs. “He just pays attention,” Atherton Lin said. “He’s really taught me a lot about paying attention.”

From bar to bar, the physicality of each city gives shape to Atherton Lin’s prose. “London is a great city for looking up at the third or fourth floor of buildings,” he said. “San Francisco, of course, is great for not knowing what's over the hump of a hill. Los Angeles — it seems the streets will stretch forever, all mirage. The way these places are made really does translate into structuring the writing.”

Despite its title, Gay Bar was not intended as a definitive cultural history, but rather, “the story of what the gay bar meant to me,” Atherton Lin said. “I'm not a historian.” The title was meant to feel small, he said, like lyrics from the Frank Ocean song “Good Guy”: “Here’s to the gay bar you took me to.” “Gay bar” more as footnote than declaration.

The book is heavily researched, with source material that includes everything from Disidentifications, by José Esteban Muñoz, to back issues of the bar rag Attitude, and even a review. These sources accumulate without hierarchy; when it comes to gay history, and gay nightlife in particular, Atherton Lin knows that what gets whispered across bar stools at 2 a.m. can be just as valuable as the documents he culled from the Gay and Lesbian Archives. Gay Bar is cultural history as gossip, funneled through Atherton Lin’s sharp, nimble, and often devastating voice.

Unlike a historian, or even a conventional memoirist, Atherton Lin is interested in blurring the distinctions between nonfiction and fiction. “I think the narrator of this book, which is some kind of version of me, is not an authority,” he said. “Officially, you have to be in a category, so I'm a nonfiction writer. But I make some allusion to the fact that I might not be that concerned with whether something is a bit of a myth or an apocryphal — I'm OK with that.”

This relationship to performing a self on the page feels biographical, somewhat intuitive. “I think when you grow up feeling like an outsider, reality becomes what you wish it was, what you fear it could be, how you think others might see it, how it's given to you by TV,” he said. In a book about gay bars, that tension — between real and fake — is baked into the walls. “Gay bars are sites of genuine artifice,” he writes. “We go out to be real, which in gay argot can mean fake it.”

As much as the gay bar has been framed as the birthplace and bedrock of LGBTQ rights, it is also a site of indulgence, a place to be drunk and horny and feral. Atherton Lin doesn’t shy away from these impulses. Though he’s cerebral throughout Gay Bar, making casual reference to Barthes and Butler, he’s also rooted firmly in the appetites of his body.

“There's kind of an impulse behind this book to present a version of ‘gay’ that's not just anodyne and, you know, Queer Eye positive and affirmative,” he said. “All that stuff has its place, but there can be a kind of erasure of the homosexual who has sex.”

Gay Bar opens with Atherton Lin on his knees, a position of subordination he strikes throughout the book, if not sexually then socially. “I feel like a bit of a top in the bedroom,” he said, “but I kind of bottom as a writer.” As a narrator, he is forever late to the party and once he arrives, he’s often standing adjacent to the main event. “That was my domain,” he writes. “I loitered in the fading-away.” Atherton Lin calls himself a “miniaturist,” someone who trains his gaze on the particulars — an inflection of speech, say, or dissecting signage from an old pub. He’s more interested in exploring the dive tucked into an alleyway than the thumping megaclub in Soho. There’s a comfort to writing in a “minor key,” Atherton Lin said, in favoring small observational details over making Big Arguments, and allowing the reader to connect the dots.

“There's kind of an impulse behind this book to present a version of ‘gay’ that's not just anodyne and, you know, Queer Eye — positive and affirmative.”

To transport himself back to those dark, intoxicated spaces, he made playlists for each chapter, which he’d send to his editor. Owing to the spectrum of bars he visits across time and genre, each playlist is “totally eclectic,” he said, while describing most of the songs as “total trash.” But listening to them helped him locate the textures and rhythms of his former selves, to access a certain register while writing. “Like whatever would have played in that cruise club? That music is all meant to sound like poppers make you feel like— like very Rush. It makes you feel a bit ahead of yourself.” The music also helped him edit. “My playlists are always about the transitions,” he said, “and about what is omitted.” (His advice to writers? “Make playlists.”)

Smell is another consistent tool. In a sex club, “it stank of the clammy skin of white Englishmen, which is like wet laundry hanging to dry without wind.” At the leather bar The Eagle, “it smelled of all the places where a man’s body folds.” Of what he thinks CK One should smell like, based on the ads: “tangy like the ditch between scrotum and thigh, or of mud or gasoline.” Of his partner Famous, sans deodorant: “His odor is celery and mine is pencil shavings.”

Through his nasal passages, Atherton Lin replaces the sanitized gay body with something more fleshy and human, making visceral a common taboo in popular culture: depicting gay sex, in all its tactile glory. By extension, he’s hoping to challenge the media-friendly conception of gay men as perpetually groomed, perfumed, and disinfected — a response to the AIDS epidemic. “Smell is wrapped up in [gay sex],” he said. “It feels like you're not supposed to talk about it.”

It’s through smell that Atherton Lin is finally able to identify where he fits. After a boy he takes home one night recoils from the smell of his armpit, “I’d come to realize what kind of fag I was,” he writes. “Dirty.”

Gay Bar’s subtitle, Why We Went Out, was intended slightly as provocation. “I’m obviously not speaking for all of gaykind,” Atherton Lin said. But then the coronavirus happened, turning an already faltering industry belly-up and forcing the average barfly into retirement. After a year defined by social distancing, when staying in meant saving lives, I asked Atherton Lin if there was anything in particular that he missed about going to gay bars.

“You know what, I miss people having mixed feelings in public together. You know when you're not quite sure about the person who's talking to you, or at you, or what you think of the drag queen, or whether you want to stay or go? ... I've been thinking about how when you'd see a conflict in a bar, most of what's going on is people trying to stop the situation from escalating. I don't think I thought much about the miracle of that before — how, for the most part, people are cooperating.”

His response illuminated the essence of what made Gay Bar such a satisfyingly thorny read: Atherton Lin’s ability to wrestle with the tension in the room, and to recognize in its tangle a form of trust, even assurance. By resisting a singular definition of the gay bar he also resists a singular gay experience. Far more interesting to Atherton Lin is how gay men construct their differences, mostly in relation to other gay men, the way gay bars continuously splinter his sense of self, rather than causing it to congeal. But for all his eyerolling (“We hear the word community all the time,” he writes. “Often it sounds like wishful thinking.”) Gay Bar still feels like a love letter, and of the realest sort — one that expresses devotion through piercing, sustained attention, that takes delight in negotiating. ●

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