Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin. Little, Brown and Company, 320 pages.
There are a lot of problems with Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar, and that is what I like most about it. This debut is a flawed diamond of a book; its milky imperfections streak through the text like a hot load shot across a greedy, gorgeous face. The crass simile is not out of place: Lin’s exuberance occasionally overflows the bounds of grammar and good taste, but he writes with a frankness that transcends the prurient confessional of much “creative nonfiction.” For memoir this is not: Gay Bar elides categories, determined to queer gender and genre alike, smearing even this commonplace with a sweaty, gropey touch. The effect is not the cheesy cliché that such shopworn po-mo verbiage suggests. There’s cheese, and there’s cliché, but they are deployed against any expectations set by Lin’s pretext of writing gay history from a series of barstools.
The book is divided into seven pleasantly rambling chapters whose titles refer to the names or defining traits of specific bars that Lin frequented in the United States and the UK. This form suggests that the book will be a history of American and British gay culture structured around these bars, the author’s experience of them, and his discovery of their rich but marginalized histories. But Gay Bar succeeds because Lin largely abandons this sentimental scaffolding, which may have been intended only as cover for smuggling such an ambitious and intellectually promiscuous book through editorial committee meetings and past the marketing department.
I say sentimental, because there is a terminal patient in the room: the gay bar is on life support, and many of the bars Lin chronicles have indeed already shut down. Increased tolerance of gays in the West has meant that LGBTQ+ people are increasingly present and visible in normative institutions, even in small-town America. Assimilation has led to greater tolerance, a cycle accelerated by the legalization of same-sex marriage. Tolerance has in turn facilitated the gentrification of gay neighborhoods by urban professional straights and their families, whose consumer tastes and local politics have remade gay ghettoes into sanitized dioramas fit for tourism brochures. Obergefell might’ve been good for propertied, upwardly mobile gays. But it hasn’t been good for gay bars.
Far more than gentrification, hookup and dating apps have eroded the principal function the gay bar served in the lives of single and swinging homosexuals throughout the twentieth century. The need for striated, interconnected gay subcultures loosely affiliated through networks of bars has waned as a result: research published by the American Sociological Association shows that gay bar listings peaked in 2002 and have been declining ever since, with the largest five-year drop occurring from 2012–2017. Grindr launched in 2009. Simply put, gay bars are less essential to gay identity than they were throughout the twentieth century, when they allowed gays to gather someplace shielded from the prying and disapproving eyes of outsiders, if not the long arm of the law.
Obergefell might’ve been good for propertied, upwardly mobile gays. But it hasn’t been good for gay bars.
If gay identity as we know it was shaped in and by these bars, Lin asks, then is gay identity itself in decline? He observes that statistics and anecdotal evidence both suggest that younger queers are more inclined to view themselves as sexually fluid individuals whose identities are less rigidly defined. To them, “gay” and “lesbian” seem like relics of a past when sexual identities were inflexible and irreversible choices. Lacking the need for protection and connection that gay bars offered throughout the twentieth century, younger queers opt instead for subcultures, scenes, and parties where being a sexual minority is no impediment to other forms of belonging. The idea of slipping in and out of the closet depending on context, once a universal experience for gays everywhere, is unthinkable to queers raised in milieus of acceptance and inclusion. Likewise, the prospect of spending all weekend in balkanized bubbles, segregated by sexuality.
But something was lost along the way, and Lin wants to show us what it is. Subcultures engender deep bonds that are incomparable to the weak social ties of an all-“inclusive” society. In cities across the West, gay bars were once the only public spaces where queer men and women could express their sexualities openly, find sexual and romantic partners, and feel less alone—places where they could, in the contemporary argot, “feel seen.” The seeing—and the scenery—took on unique subcultural traits that nourished gay pride, generated gay art, and uplifted gay souls. And yet, as Lin reminds us, gay bars were not all equally welcoming: black and brown partygoers were often denied entry to gay clubs for lacking two forms of ID, a practice that certain bars and discos used to ensure their establishments didn’t start to attract the “wrong” crowd. Drag queens, transvestites, and transsexuals were likewise targeted and excluded to ensure that clubs and bars remained sufficiently masc to attract what managers considered more lucrative clientele and less hassle from the fuzz. Any nostalgia for gay bars dead and gone, Lin suggests, must bear this in mind: it’s possible that none of them were places we’d want to support today.
How, then, to honor these spaces, to celebrate the role they played in gay liberation, and to record their covert histories? This is the mission that Lin sets for himself. Wisely guided by uncertainty, he is equally skeptical of the liberal triumphalist narrative of gay liberation as he is of the woke, finger-wagging revisionism that views the gay bar as a site of racist, femme-phobic, and transphobic oppression. Both of these versions of gay history contain their truths, but neither is definitive. Eschewing liberal and identitarian orthodoxies leads Lin to more perceptive and less ideologically prescribed conclusions. He is, for example, faintly suspicious of the way sexual consent politics have been imported into queer spaces. Some newer parties and venues, he explains, have “issued charters that proscribed judging and patriarchy, as well as groping and leching—all of the stuff encrusted like grime in the gay bars I’d known.” Marveling at this turnabout in gay body politics, Lin observes that when he was a younger man seeking to explore his sexuality and find companionship, gay bars were a place where men could touch each other and expect to be touched, without great fear of reprisal: “To be violated,” he writes, “was my expectation back when I ventured in.”
Lin’s feeling for these bars is not one of nostalgia, but of wistfulness. The difference inheres in the words’ etymologies. Nostalgia derives from the ancient Greek νόστος, which means “returning home,” and the suffix –algia, which refers to a pain attached to the noun it follows. Nostalgia is a doleful wish to return. Wistfulness derives from wistly, an archaic adverb that means “closely attentive”; the word has come to mean “expectantly or yearningly eager, watchful, or intent; mournfully expectant or longing.” Both terms refer to a frustrated desire. But while one feeling is anchored to a sentimental home or idealized past, the other remains open, pining for a future that might live up to wishful thinking. Lin cedes himself to the latter. “Gay is an identity of longing,” he writes, explaining his project, “and there is a wistfulness to beholding it in the form of a building, like how the sight of a theater stirs the imagination.”
Lin’s wistfulness is not for the way things were, but for the way they might have been. His narrative occupies the tension between the reality of the past, uncovered through his research as much as through his personal experience of dozens of gay bars, and the desires that gays project onto queer spaces through their nostalgia and critique—desires that stem from a search for community that has, for most, remained chimerical. “I had to consider,” Lin writes, “whether gay bars promised a sense of belonging then lured us into a trap.” The hundreds of pages that follow this statement ultimately give the lie to this doubt: Lin’s historical and personal accounts of gay bars make clear that these spaces served an essential function in the development of the richly variegated gay subcultures that were as crucial to the psychic survival of queer people venturing out from the safety of the closet as they were to the ongoing project of sexual liberation.
Lin doesn’t shrink from the task of describing these spaces, the people who enliven them, or the sex acts they often facilitate. “The room did smell of penis, maybe,” he writes of one of his old Vauxhall haunts. It also smelled “like fog machine or nitrates, syrupy lager spilling over thick fists, smoker’s breath, someone’s citrusy cologne, the bleached vinyl seats.” For a certain sort of fag—the kind who prefers bars where straights still fear to tread—Lin’s thick description of this mélange works the magic of a Proustian madeleine. This is, in part, because Lin writes the way gay culture looks and feels: he is both evasive and effervescent, his sentences leaping and swerving between glittering insights and lurid purple prose. “Soon I found my face in his pit, ripe and wet,” Lin writes of a boy who turns up at the bar in a chastity belt and harness. “It was grassy, wild and vast—a savannah.” One the one hand, this is the sort of excess you might expect from an MFA graduate aping the market’s cues. But Lin is after something more: the glam camp of undiluted faggotry. This is writing as drag, and it aims at times to be just as tawdry and exhibitionist: “A twink begged me to finish in his gaping mouth as I kissed another man,” Lin writes of another dance-floor tryst. “After splattering onto him, I was compelled to disregard him immediately, sensing that must be what he wanted.”
Gay bars are places where men could yield to these forbidden desires. Lin doesn’t phrase it this way, but his book is thematically organized around several types of such yielding. There is the yielding of one man’s body to another’s, the signature of homosexual desire. There is the yielding of self-identity to group identity, an ancient hallmark of all human relations, and an experience that gay bars were finally able to facilitate for men who desire other men. There is also the yielding of certain articulations of gay identity into a streamlined homonormative culture, as well as the yielding of gay bars to bourgeois urban monoculture as homonormavity and social acceptance have reshaped gay experience in the West.
Then there is a final sort of yielding at hand, one that places Lin’s book into an emerging constellation of others like it, and which is part of a general drift toward testimonial narrative in the West. As liberal narratives of progress falter, “progressive” narratives of inequity and discontinuity have supplanted them. Adopting the second-wave feminist precept that the personal is political, testimonial narratives treat individual experience as subject matter from which social truths may be extrapolated. If this runs the risk of solipsistic reasoning, writers of this school appear mostly unconcerned about it, trusting that a liberal arts education in critical theory will deliver them from error. Practitioners of autotheory, as this genre is sometimes called, bring the literary critical apparatus known as the hermeneutics of suspicion to work on their individual consciousnesses, to discover the ways that late-capitalist society has conditioned their thoughts and beliefs, all in an effort to break from prejudice and restraint.
More often than not, Lin avoids scripted politics and detains the impulse to judge, resulting in more provocative observations.
Lin adopts a similar first-person empiricism, second-guessing initial impressions of places and experiences as possibly conditioned by false consciousness. He pairs his personal accounts with historical research and citations from queer theorists. The technique leads him to startling insights, as when he observes that “disassociation” from available subcultural gay tropes “is a gay ritual as much as any other.” This ritual provides gay men, who often must delay self-exploration and self-expression until they become self-sufficient adults living in welcoming places, with an opportunity to define their sense of self against subculturally produced clichés that might indeed exist precisely for this purpose.
But autotheory’s close association with creative writing programs also encourages the worst vices of academic radical chic, and Lin is not immune to the genre’s preference for politically correct moral relativism. I was alarmed to find him making repeated suggestions, for example, that homophobic hate crimes in East London are in some way mitigated by local immigrants’ experiences of British Islamophobia. This is the sort of lazy false equivalence that’s become commonplace enough among social media “activists” and tenure-track academics, all competing to be the most insulated from reality. But it is disappointing to see it repeated in a writer as brave and thoughtful as Lin. Similarly, he occasionally appropriates hackneyed slogans, as when he criticizes a London gay bar for being the sort of place that rewarded hypertrophied expressions of male identity and camaraderie, saying it “reeked of toxic masculinity.” But more often than not, Lin avoids scripted politics and detains the impulse to judge, resulting in more provocative observations: “Masculinity,” he writes later in the book, “can be something that gay men project onto one another, only to snatch it away at the first sign of inauthenticity.”
Gay bars are spaces where such inauthenticity can flourish and transform into something new. Butch leather bars, Lin believes, are sites of inauthentic performances of masculinity. But they also fashioned a new mode of masculine encounter, one based on fantasy and wish fulfillment. “Gay bars are sites of genuine artifice,” Lin writes admiringly: “We go out to be real, which in gay argot can mean fake it.” That’s quite right.
The author doesn’t say so, but this seems to me why the gay bar’s decline is not all that surprising. As opportunities for authentic experience continue to narrow as a result of media saturation, the inauthentic performances that characterized gay bars of all stripes now seem to be everywhere. Gay identity hasn’t declined; it has diffused through the general atmosphere like a hit of poppers, becoming less potent as it disperses. Today, RuPaul is on every TV. And on social media, fake realness is the coin of the realm.