2021 (Little, Brown and Company)
Recently, during a meet-up I attend regularly with other bisexual folks, one of our members shared that there were only about twenty lesbian bars still in business in the entire United States.
None of us could believe it, until she forwarded us a link. Trying to digest the fact that there was not even one lesbian bar per two states in the country, our multi-generational group of men and women started talking about gay bars more generally. Which ones had we known personally, and what were some of the experiences we had there. We compared notes about which ones were still around, and which ones had closed. The places were more than just a place to drink a beer: these bars often played an important role in our coming out. As our identities as bi or queer people, gay bars provided. a ready-made sense of community. Even if some of us no longer frequented them, most of us felt that gay bars were and are an important part of LGBTQA+ history, even if we could not articulate specifically way, nor understand all of the reasons why they seem to be closing at an alarming rate.
Jeremy Atherton Lin confronts these kinds of questions in-depth in his brilliant book Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. But don´t judge this book by its cover: this book is not some kind of nostalgia-fest for the bars and clubs across two continents this Asian-American essayist has enjoyed over the last thirty years. Instead, by blending personal with cultural history, Lin is examining how gay identity has changed since he went to his first gay bar thirty years ago, in Hollywood. And while there are approximately 1400 gay bars worldwide, there were nearly double that just in the United States fifty years ago. What is happening to this specific part of our public space? And if gay bars are closing or changing, what does this mean in relationship to gay identity?
Unsurprisingly, this creative nonfiction work is full of scathing humor, strong opinions, and fierceness. Lin writes unapologetically with intelligence, passion, and confidence, connecting the dots between his own personal experience and observations of the larger changes within the culture. Right from the opening pages of Gay Bar, he grabs you by the wrist and leads you out into the night, creating a kind of breathlessly enthusiastic companion.
Framed as a kind of sprawling three-decade pub crawl, on one level Gay Bar showcases the diversity of gay culture, as well as how it has changed. In Hollywood, he takes us into the Probe, a leather bar now closed; and in London, he introduces us to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, which has achieved historic landmark status and operates today as a successful performance venue. Lin links these and many other gay bars within the context of a growing gay identity and activism. He discusses fashion and the "gay clone", and shares a story about being denied entry to a gay bar because he "doesn´t look gay"; Lin also talks about the capitalistic consumerism of gay culture as well as seeing a march in San Francisco of the Gay Shame movement.
True, a bar might become a de facto "gay bar", just because homosexuals choose to congregate there, and make it so. But these distinct physical spaces also interact with urban development, gentrification, and policies explicitly against all queer people. With methodical research, Lin links a number of key events within the US and the UK that preceded the Stonewall riots, highlighting the fact that gay people have been fighting for their rights for decades before 1969, and much further afield than just Greenwich Village (the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis are but two examples mentioned). This alone should make Gay Bar essential for anyone curious to learn more about the long trajectory of gay activism, and its often complicated relationship to place.
In addition to cultural history and personal memoir, however, Lin also interrogates the changing of our language, and how this has at least paralleled the changing of place. He riffs on "gay" being fun and flamboyant, while "queer" sounds academic, too much of a catch-all. He questions the co-opting of gay culture by the (heterosexual) mainstream, where solidarity seems to begin and end by having a selfie with one´s favorite drag queen. Lin wonders why queer spaces are now so invested in creating "safe spaces" that end up feeling too boring, when part of the appeal of a gay bar was its promise of risk, adventure, and even a little bit of danger. Rather than provide a definitive answer to these fascinating questions, Lin chooses to leave the conversation sprawling, contradictory, and messy. It´s a choice that demands that the reader make up their own mind.
For sure, gentrification, hyper-capitalism, and online dating apps have all shifted how queer folks socialize with one another, and have all played a role in many gay and lesbian bars closing in recent years. Oh, and that coronavirus pandemic, the one that we´re still living through? That didn´t help, either.
But Lin argues that perhaps another reason is because of the gay liberation movement´s achievements, ones that would have seemed outrageous if they were told to a friend at Julius, the Eagle, or the Cubby Hole. From the legalization of gay marriage to how ACT UP challenged the US government, the CDC, and the FDA during the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States, the progress gay people have achieved is amazing. Has the gay liberation movement succeeded, Lin wonders? Is our LGBTQA+ community "post-gay"? Do we even need gay bars anymore?
Lin´s book is both well-researched and highly opinionated. Gay Bar is a fascinating and dynamic conversation with an insightful mind that will keep you up at night. And right now, that is extremely important for all of us.