Gay Bar: Why We Went Out
Jeremy Atherton Lin
Little, Brown & Co., $28 (cloth)
My favorite bar in San Francisco, Twin Peaks Tavern, is in danger of closing. Known as the glass coffin, for both its large plate glass windows and its older clientele, it was the first bar I went to when I moved to the West Coast in 2013 as a bright-eyed PhD student. Its Tiffany lampshades and cozy interior welcomed me in. Plopping myself onto one of its cushioned benches and looking out on Castro Street, I remember feeling overwhelmingly at home and embedded in queer history.
In a world in which queer people are ever more accepted and rigid identity categories make less and less sense, what is the purpose of gay bars? Do we still need them?
And not without reason. Mary Ellen Cunha and Peggy Forster, known as “the girls,” bought the bar in 1971. They installed massive windows, making it the first gay bar in the city, and perhaps even the country, to give passersby on the street a clear view of the people inside. In 2013 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to give Twin Peaks landmark status, elevating it into the pantheon of queer sites that the government has officially recognized as culturally and historically significant. In recent years more and more gay bars have won similar recognition. Most famously, President Barack Obama designated the Stonewall Inn in New York City a National Monument in June 2016, honoring the site of the famous 1969 riots.
Today it feels like that history is slipping through our fingers. Gay bars around the country are going under. Greggor Mattson, a sociology professor at Oberlin College, found that 37 percent of U.S. gay bars closed between 2007 and 2019. In the entire country there are only fifteen lesbian bars left, a fact that spurred the creation of The Lesbian Bar Project in October of last year. The United States is not alone—European gay bars have been failing for some time now. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has hastened these trends. Even before any of us knew what a coronavirus was, dating apps and the growing social acceptance of queerness had initiated gay bars’ global decline. In a world in which queer people are ever more accepted and rigid identity categories make less and less sense, what is their purpose? Do we still need gay bars?
These are the questions that haunt Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar, a rumination on the place of the gay bar in Western culture. Part memoir, part history, part pornographic novel, Gay Bar is a gripping read. By turns raunchy and melancholic, it charts Lin’s coming out, his relationships, and his early adulthood as a gay man. But Lin also applies a critical eye to these memories, thinking about ways in which gay bars, even while serving as sites of community, can also exclude and isolate. Deploying queer history and critique in this intimate way, Lin does not offer readers any answers—that is not his goal. Rather, he paints a portrait of a culture in transition, of a new queer world emerging and an old one fading away.
The experience of reading Gay Bar is profoundly different, I suspect, depending on who you are. For straight readers it will undoubtedly shock. Lin’s memories are explicit, offering a window into a world that is still foreign, no matter how many Netflix series feature gay characters. For queer readers—and gay men in particular—Gay Bar will serve more as an invitation to reminisce about our own experiences. That was certainly the case for me, as Lin’s stories beckoned me into a haze of nostalgia.
As Lin chronicles, gay bars come in every possible shape and cater to every conceivable interest. Even after you come out as queer, there are myriad ways to further define your sexuality.
Gay Bar is organized in roughly chronological fashion, and each chapter is dedicated to Lin’s experiences in one of three cities: Los Angeles, London, and San Francisco. As the title suggests, Lin focuses on the gay bars he went to, interweaving these memories with reflections on queer history. Although Lin hails from California, London is undeniably at the heart of the book. It is the city where Lin has lived the longest as an adult. It is also the place that he, as a young man, invested with the hopes and desires of his youthful queerness, beginning with a rambunctious trip across Europe the spring after he graduated from university.
As Lin chronicles, gay bars come in every possible shape and cater to every conceivable interest. Many cities have a bar named the Eagle, for instance—these are leather bars that sprang up in the 1970s. At their height, Lin reports, there were around fifty of them. There were (and still are) bars for all kinds of specific groups or interests within the queer community. Provincetown, which turns into one of the gayest places on Earth every summer, enacts this diversity on a grander scale with themed weeks devoted to western dancing, women of color, bears, families, gay pilots, and so forth. The heterogeneity can, at times, be a little dizzying. Even after you come out as queer, there are myriad ways to further define your sexuality.
After AIDS ravaged the gay community, as Lin recounts, gay bars underwent an overhaul. Proprietors cleaned them up, banishing their dingy atmosphere that “put contamination in mind” (according to Amy Hoffman, the Stonewall Inn didn’t even have running water for cleaning dishes). The new clubs were “airy, glossy, continental,” and they commodified gay sexuality like never before. The London Eagle, for instance, has strayed far from its origins as a leather bar. Lin describes how it is now “a spot for healthy-looking men with neat beards and t-shirts with social media slogans.”
But there was also a backlash to this cleaning up and commodification. Bars sprang up to cater to the queers who did not fit the “Muscle Mary” mold. One such London bar, Popstarz, held a special fascination for Lin. On his cross-continental journey, he “imagined a pale and interesting boy awaited me” there. He “didn’t want to miss him.” Lin’s boy was indeed waiting for him. That night at Popstarz opened the door to the rest of his life.
Every gay bar, wherever it might be, offers a kind of horizon of possibility. “Gay bars are not about arriving,” Lin insists. “The best ones were always a departure.”
There is a long tradition in queer letters of projecting desire onto the foreign. The late American writer Paul Monette, whose memoir Becoming a Man won the National Book Award in 1992, described a one-night fling with an American sailor in a London apartment and the might-have-beens that rippled out from that one night. In 1976 the British novelist Christopher Isherwood remembered the in-hindsight-doomed Weimar Republic with the catchy formulation, “Berlin meant boys.” This Western queer gaze can also manifest in oppressive ways: Garth Greenwell has been criticized for his depictions of Eastern European gay men as exotic others. Colonial literature was, of course, full of depictions of Arabs, Indians, Japanese, and others, in which queerness and racism collided.
Nonetheless, most of us gay men lucky enough to travel probably have stories that capture this kind of imaginative desire. I lived in London between 2012 and 2013 while studying at the London School of Economics. The room I rented was in the East London neighborhood Shoreditch, the same neighborhood, funnily enough, where Lin lived in those years. With a jolt of familiarity, I realized we went to the same bars, perhaps even on the same nights. We might have known each other. In that year, I had my own one-night affair with an older man, a surgeon at a nearby hospital. My fling was only that, however, and like Monette I sometimes wondered what might have been.
In Lin’s estimation, every gay bar, wherever it might be, offers that same kind of horizon of possibility. “Gay bars are not about arriving,” he insists. “The best ones were always a departure.” It is a sentiment that will probably sound familiar to any gay man of my age—the excitement of going out and not knowing who you will meet or where you will end up. The thrill of going to Heaven in London or Berghain in Berlin is a visceral one.
And the possibility is not just imaginary. I recall going out with a grad school acquaintance to one of the divier bars in East London one snoozy weekday evening. I do not remember its name, but it is (or was) an old-school tavern with an eclectic clientele. That night it was quiet, just a few other people were there. But my acquaintance locked eyes with one of the other men there, a skinny, dark-haired twink. They left the bar together that night. They are now married.
• • •
Lin weaves queer pasts into his memories, revealing the ways in which history continues to resonate down into the present. Places where same-sex-desiring men gather have been around for a long time. Lin relates how a stretch of land along the Thames, where the large gay club Heaven is now located, turned into “a sanctum for gay sex” in the early modern era. The area is called the Adelphi, after a large, riverside housing development from the eighteenth century. Its vaulted archways became “a warren of vagrancy and cruising.” Lin reports that one police officer described the embankment as a “resort of persons of the Sodomite class.”
Places where same-sex-desiring men gather have been around for a long time. These detours through the past remind Lin’s readers that gay bars, like gay identity, have a history.
Imperial Berlin evolved into a haven for queer people in the late nineteenth century, long before Isherwood ever chronicled the city. In Gay Berlin historian Robert Beachy has described the city’s gay bars and the large balls where men danced in women’s clothing. In the United States, the 1920s ushered in a period when queers and straights frequented the same bars in a sort of solidarity against Prohibition. George Chauncey, Jr., contends in Gay New York that the ban on alcohol made the “criminalized demimonde of the speakeasies” possible, while the advent of motion pictures forced many Times Square theaters to turn to burlesque.
In California gay bars were only ruled legal in 1951, with the California Supreme Court decision Stoumen v. Reilly. It involved a bar named the Black Cat in San Francisco’s North Beach. While the court found the bar’s existence licit, it carved out a cavernous loophole that allowed police to continue harassing queer bar-goers. But the Black Cat survived, becoming, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, “the greatest gay bar in America,” a place that was “totally open, bohemian, San Francisco.” According to the poet, “All the gay screaming queens would come, the heterosexual gray flannel suit types, longshoremen.” These detours through the past remind Lin’s readers that gay bars, like gay identity, have a history. Their current incarnations, those “born” gay, are in many ways far more exclusionary than those which came before.
Lin mulls over those exclusions throughout Gay Bar. As a college student in Los Angeles, he partied at Axis, which had started life as Studio One. Lin mentions the club’s racist door policy, remarking that “a golden boy with a fake California license fared better than an immigrant from Asia with a valid green card.” Many of these bars also excluded women and trans people. I remember arguing with bouncers to let female friends into clubs with me when I was a student. Once inside, a certain “body fascism” often reigned, privileging men who look, act, and dress a certain way. “Maybe community,” Lin’s partner muses, “excludes inherently.”
Many gay bars had racist door policies that also excluded women and trans people. And, once inside, a certain body fascism often reigned, privileging men who look, act, and dress a certain way.
Of course, Lin is hardly the first to point out the ways in which the modern gay community is predicated on exclusion. In San Francisco he encountered Gay Shame, a group founded in Brooklyn in 1998 that prodded queers “to challenge institutions—marriage, military, marketplace—not endeavor to join them.” The group organized demonstrations from a “Goth Cry-In” to Gay Shame Awards, which allegedly concluded with a rainbow flag burning. Gay Shame was one of the more visible ways in which the queer community, such as it was, fractured along political, economic, and social lines in the 1990s and early 2000s.
When I lived in San Francisco from 2013 to 2019, Gay Shame was still going strong. Every once in a while, I would stumble out for my morning coffee and see their slogan “queers hate techies” spray-painted on the sidewalk. Similar to how Lin witnessed Gay Shame demonstrations, the graffiti aroused a certain discomfort. It was evident to me the damage the tech industry had done to the city. But it had not been some egalitarian paradise before. Lin notes the privileged gay men who had moved to San Francisco before the AIDS crisis: “these newly empowered gay men were territorial creatures. In the Castro, they were in their own way colonialist, displacing Irish Catholic families.” Cities change. Moreover, there are plenty of queer techies. I am friends with some of them, and it was never clear to me where they fit into that three-word catchphrase.
Nonetheless, gentrification is undoubtedly among the reasons gay bars are going under. As new communities move into the desirable parts of cities, including gay enclaves, old bars, cafes, and other businesses make way for luxury chains and third wave coffee shops. The bars that have been able to cater to their new, wealthier neighbors—at least the ones I know in Berlin and San Francisco—have thrived. Others have not.
As we all become more comfortable with the idea that gender and sexual identities are fluid, demarcating communities based on them seems superfluous.
But queer critique of identity is another of the reasons, Lin argues, that gay bars’ place is increasingly uncertain. As we all become more comfortable with the idea that gender and sexual identities are fluid, demarcating communities based on them seems superfluous. “To create inclusive spaces for these morphing identities,” Lin insists, “is an ambitious undertaking.”
Even as Lin ponders the artificial and exclusive nature of gay bars, a melancholic air hangs over the work. It is clear that he feels a certain sorrow at their passing. Moreover, if Lin’s book does have an argument, it is that we have gotten the significance of the gay bar backwards: their magic is not in the ways that they foster community, but in the ways that they explode it. The best bring people of different classes, races, genders, and sexualities together, expanding the bounds of social possibility and the lines of identity and belonging. “I went out for the tension in the room,” Lin writes, “Perhaps you could call a gay bar a galaxy: we are held together but kept from colliding by a fine balance of momentum and gravity. I miss, more than any notion of community, the orbiting.” But things change. Inevitably, they do.
The advent of sexual identities in the modern era has been at once limiting and liberatory. “A paradox of freedom and containment,” as Lin puts it. Identity gave us queer people language with which to describe ourselves, to find commonality, to fight for rights. It led to the repeal of sodomy laws across the Western world and to the advent of marriage equality. At the same time, these identities tell us how we should act in ways large and small. They tell us what we should like and who we should vote for. They tell us who is not like us, they narrow the range of sexual expression.
There is perhaps no more fitting encapsulation of this tension at the heart of sexuality’s history than the gay bar. Even as we go there to feel the embrace of community, we often feel isolated and alone.
There is perhaps no more fitting encapsulation of this tension at the heart of sexuality’s history than the gay bar. It would be wrong to deny that, for many, they have been a refuge. As Obama said after the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, they are “a safe haven, a place to sing and dance, and most importantly, to be who you truly are.” “We go out,” Lin writes, “to be gay.”
At the same time, they are also places that inform us that to be gay is to like a specific kind of music, that enforce certain norms of beauty, that all too often exclude those not masculine enough, wealthy enough, or white enough. Even as we go there to feel the embrace of community, we often feel isolated and alone.
Gay bars may, indeed, be a dying breed. Should we mourn their passing?
From prison, Antonio Gramsci memorably wrote, “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born.” There can be no doubt that the ways of thinking about gender and sexuality that seemed so fixed even when I was a teenager are rapidly changing. Yet, what might take the place of the gay bar is not clear. Queer people will undoubtedly still want to go out (after the pandemic has passed, at any rate). We will want to socialize, eat, drink, and flirt with strangers. Lin thinks today’s youth want “egalitarian, fair-minded, noncreepy environments, unlike the world outside—whereas clubs have often been microcosms of some of society’s worst qualities.”
I have no doubt that human sexuality will continue to express itself in a cacophony of desire. Sexuality has a history and will continue to, long after humans have forgotten the name of Stonewall.
No matter what takes the place of gay bars, however, I have no doubt that human sexuality will continue to express itself in a cacophony of desire. At the same time, I am under no illusion that some utopia lies waiting. While the gay bar may be dying, and I mourn the loss of these places that have meant much to me, I do not take it as a sign of either progress or revanchism. I take it as a sign that sexuality has a history and will continue to, long after humans have forgotten the name of Stonewall.