As Gay Bars Fade, Jeremy Atherton Lin Looks Back at Their Past

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday April 3, 2021
Originally published on March 26, 2021

Jeremy Atherton Lin
Jeremy Atherton Lin  (Source:Jamie Atherton)

Chalk it up to Grindr, the erosion of gayborhoods, no longer needing to congregate for safety and acceptance, or generational change, but gay bars became quite imperiled the past decade. If and when the last gay bar shutters, what will we have lost? A place to drink, dance, and fun? Or do gay bars represent more — a culture, a dynamic history, and an institutional memory?

When American writer Jeremy Atherton Lin emigrated to London in 2005, it was because Britain recognized civil alternative to his partner remaining in the country illegally. The laws that sent Lin abroad were unjust...but one result was that Lin, with experience in American gay bars, had the chance to investigate similar establishments across the pond.

Now in his 40s, Lin has authored "Gay Bar: Why We Went Out," a funny, brilliant memoir...and also a historical review of some clubs, dives, and watering holes that sustained the gay community for decades.

Moreso, it recalls how gay bars were part of a larger world of cruising cafes, bathhouses, and legal battlefields that shaped — and, in many ways, codified — gay culture.

Rich in history, the book recounts places like the Black Cat Café in San Francisco (site of an important pre-Stonewall uprising) and all-but-forgotten areas of interest like London's Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

Lin details the sociological terrain of how PrEP affected gay bars, for instance, or how gay bars and blackout spaces created environments for Bacchanal release, occasions he memorably refers to at one point as "veiny, skunky, furry tussle[s]." Briefly, Lin touches on his own experiences with racism (note: Lin is a person of color); more broadly, he draws connections that show how gay life has always been intertwined with the pulse of the culture at large.

In this way, the book transcends the personal, and becomes a document about a lustful beating heart within the body of the gay demimonde.

EDGE had the pleasure of an exchange with Mr. Lin, in which the author dove deeper into his themes, arguments, and personal history.

The cover of 'Gay Bar: Why We Went Out,' by Jeremy Atherton Lin  (Source: Provided)

EDGE: This book is as much a memoir as it is a history of gay bars and an examination of what gay bars have meant for the gay community. Was that your intent from the start?

Jeremy Atherton Lin: It's actually the historical element that surprised me more than anything. I set out to write an essay about what gay bars have meant to me, but every time I scratched the surface of a bar I've frequented or lived near, the longer histories were rich and deep. So I kept digging. It became an archaeology (dig?). You know when you revisit a childhood playground, and it seems so small? Instead, revisiting these gay bars, they appeared monumental. The task then was to handle the different time periods in the writing, to structure my own experiences in parallel with what came before me.

EDGE: The book quickly spills out of the gay bars and into the streets (anti-gay violence), public spaces like parks and gardens and restrooms (cruising), diners (where gays also congregated and were entertained with music and performance), and, of course, society at large (how we've been portrayed in the media, what court cases have done to shape our history). Did you expect the project would need to grow in so many directions?

Jeremy Atherton Lin: Yes, I knew I'd step outside the bars. Writing about why we're inside, I was compelled to consider what's beyond. To question whether gay bars are still relevant, I had to contemplate other gathering places. I wanted to show moments where a gang of us congregate in a park or on the road or in bed.

Jeremy Atherton Lin  (Source: Jeremy Atherton Lin / Instagram)

EDGE: At various points you meditate on the language we use for ourselves and our history and culture. These days, you say, you prefer the word "queer" (which you find fresher and more inclusive) to the word "gay" (which you find to be "faded") — but at one point you also embraced the word "fag," recalling that you "used words that were about libido, pre-cum, were a bit handsy."

Jeremy Atherton Lin: I actually don't prefer queer. I just find myself saying it in, say, academic settings, because it seems polite and inoffensive. Which is so baffling, to witness a rowdy term become the most acceptable one. Now it's institutional, a word for museum exhibitions and NPR. This is why queer never felt totally right for me: I'm not convinced my own idiosyncrasies, my differences, all center around my sexuality. In other words, I feel like my eccentricity and my sexuality are more coincident than codependent. For me, fag absolutely still appeals. I find it funny and sexy and rude and inappropriate. It sounds both masc and catty. It's not for everyone. Which makes it feel more like mine. But on the other hand, if there is a need for umbrella terms — which there is, obviously, for political coalition — then yes, sure, queer will do.

EDGE: Libido and handsiness were also what you enjoyed about gay bars — you write about finding an older man's paternal hand on your thigh "infuriating." Was the sort of "handisness" that's frowned on now a meaningful, even welcome, part of the experience in earlier times?

Jeremy Atherton Lin: Absolutely. At that moment you describe, I was actually infuriated because that man's hand didn't crawl higher — that he was paternal rather than perverted. I craved danger. I went out to get laid. I know some readers of the book think it's too led by libido, but when I write about gay bars, it's about sex. Now I'm thankful every time the judges on "Drag Race" make a joke about tea bagging or rimming. Otherwise, they'd have completely given the show over to its most demure audience members. Which is, like, children.

EDGE: Younger people now want "rules," you write, for the establishments where they drink and mingle. Is that something to regret?

Jeremy Atherton Lin: I totally get that queer people who aren't cis males haven't necessarily had the spaces in which their eroticism can be explored freely and without threat of predation, and that in creating those spaces there may need to be codes of conduct and boundaries in order to establish an environment of consent. That said, my own experiences have been a bit more slippery. Consent in a dark room orgy can be ambiguous and confusing. In the book, I end up in the emergency room. Does that make it a cautionary tale? On one level, sure. I am certainly not alone in that experience. I'm not romanticizing it, but neither am I going to chastise myself for what landed me there. I haven't written a book about safe spaces. If anything, I've written about mistake spaces. The way other people want to party is not up to me — I'm thrilled for them to feel at ease in whatever form that takes.

Jeremy Atherton Lin  (Source: Jeremy Atherton Lin / Instagram)

EDGE: The book's title raises the question of why people now. For you, at one time, it was in part a matter of "creating content," having adventures, so you could then have stories to tell. Is that, in a larger sense, what the heritage of gay bars is all about? Do they represent institutional memory to you?

Jeremy Atherton Lin: I think that passage has to do with a kind of writing in general, with a sense of bravado and constructing our own anti-hero mythologies. I was very much enthralled by Eileen Myles — I still am — and by extension all the boozy and raw writers before them. It would be disingenuous to claim I don't play into a rakish image at times. In this book, as a chronicler of bar life, I'm a bit of an unreliable narrator — and a seducer, too. These are my own memories, and blurry ones, rather than institutional. Some places in this book have hugely important cultural relevance, but as they're canonized that heritage is in certain ways different from the experience — of drinking, flirting, dancing.

EDGE: You write that you miss the "orbiting" more than any "sense of community" from the days when you would go to gays bars, which is a way of saying you miss the continual thrill of meeting new people. When we question and lament gay bars closing, are we questioning and lamenting the eventual loss of our own lives and experiences?

Jeremy Atherton Lin: I think it's about the dwindling flame of gay identity, or gay as we've known it. Here in the UK, the rainbow flag is now a sign of support for the National Health Service. And they deserve it! The rainbow flag was never "ours" in the first place, different populations have been using it for centuries. Is there another part of me that wants to lay claim to the rainbow? Of course. It's only natural that people can be a bit "get off my turf." Ultimately, for me, identity has always been a romp — as much a joke as a comfort, as much a farce as a drama. As for writing from the stance of memoir, I just don't believe in the universal omniscient narrator. Who would that be? I may not be a poster boy for gay. I'm mixed-race, an immigrant, sometimes awkward, plainly dressed. But I like reading stories told by those marginal to a scene, and that's the place I occupy myself.

EDGE: You refer to apps like Grindr as a "gay bar in your hand." Is the impulse to go online fundamentally the same as going to gay bars — to enjoy a stream of new acquaintances, to "orbit," even if it's done digitally?

Jeremy Atherton Lin: I think it's different — that maybe there isn't an online equivalent of the chance encounter. This is my fear — that when we start to go out again, we do so in a way that emulates the way we live online, where we supposedly already know who we are, having branded ourselves, curated our grid, associating with others who project the same image. I don't want to go out to go into a world that looks like the internet. In real life, other people can win us over — by the tilt of a head, a certain way of smiling. To me, dick pics are kind of the opposite of hot. I want to be surprised. I want to hear the sound of the zip and experience the anticipation. I'm not talking about hoping for a big one. I'm talking about wanting to get to know somebody step by step.

"Gay Bar: Why We Went Out" is published by Little, Brown and Company.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

Comments on Facebook