Why our histories with gay bars matter — and what their future might look like after the pandemic
Jeremy Atherton Lin's book takes a personal look into the history of an increasingly uncertain institution
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Before the pandemic, the last time I went this long without going to a gay bar was before I was legal drinking age. And I know I'm not alone. For many of us living in places where we've been privileged enough to have gay bars be an integral — if complicated — part of our culture since we were brave enough or old enough to get in, the past year and counting has been a big departure from a routine in our social lives. But for a lot of us, I suspect it's also left us wondering: what role did gay bars really play in our lives all that time anyway?
That's a core question in Jeremy Atherton Lin's vibrant debut book Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, a mix of memoir and historical document that explores the complex relationship both Atherton Lin and gay culture has had with the increasingly endangered habitat that is the gay bar. Released in February 2021, I initially purchased the book thinking it might fill a void left by its subject's non-existence in my life since March 2020. But instead I became reminded of what a complicated, varied, often disappointing but equally necessary experience gay bars have always been for me. It also made me wonder what their future past the pandemic really looks like.
Exceptionally well-crafted, Gay Bar is both a book about Atherton Lin's life and the gay bars each chapter focuses on (it jumps from London to Los Angeles to San Francisco). Its central question — as posed in its title — is given many, many answers over the course of its pages: "We go out to be gay." "We go out to be on the inside." "We go out to be nobodies." "We go out to be real, which in gay argot can mean fake it." "We did not go out to be safe. I didn't, anyway. I went out to take risks."
But ultimately, Atherton Lin realizes it may not really matter why we went out — what matters is that we did, and for so many of us, that has made us who we are, for better or worse.
Based in London, U.K., Atherton Lin conceived of the idea for the book in 2017. At that time, over half the gay bars in London had closed down in the previous decade, as they similarly had in major cities across the world thanks largely to a double-edged sword of gentrification skyrocketing rent and the rise of gay social apps like Grindr putting virtual gay bars in people's pockets. At that time, the pandemic hadn't even begun to make these establishments' livelihoods all the more dire.
"That was just such a weird thing to experience — where there's this sort of manifestation of your identity, supposedly, in a city that is lingering out," Atherton Lin tells me over a video call. "So it made me kind of question what my relationship to those bars was."
The structure of the book came as Atherton Lin started trying to remember his experiences in gay bars.
"It was always going to be a very personal thing," he says. "I wound up writing it in a pretty condensed period of time because I wanted it to feel a little bit like there's some lack of resolution, like you kind of feel when you're at a bar or just kind of having passing thoughts."
Atherton Lin says that one of the things that stands out to him from the process of writing the book is how it put things in perspective in terms of "putting everything into into the context of a longer history."
"It's asinine that it would not have been at the forefront of people's minds, but really the effect of the AIDS crisis on gay culture seemed to me to be very buried," he says of his introduction to that culture in the 1990s. "I just thought about how disappointed I was in various facets of gay culture.... how icy it was in a lot of ways. The fact that that was a response to an epidemic."
Atherton Lin says that, for him, doing that kind of revisiting led him to find "more of a sense of a longer history" with respect to his own relationship to gay culture.
"[It] shows you that it's not all about your perspective and that something came before and something's going to come after," he explains. "That was the greatest revelation for me: a sense of acceptance about how you're not going to be exactly the same as other homosexuals, despite the 'homo.' But you maybe are a piece of a kind of a legacy or cosmology. So I think that was a real kind of epiphany for me — of not feeling like I needed to think about identity in terms of an individualistic way, but to think about it in terms of the kind of amorphous historical way."
The pandemic began as Atherton Lin was doing final edits of the book, and he wondered about whether to make changes to reflect this new and crippling chapter in the challenges facing gay bars' survival.
"It was just too soon," he says. "There was no way to know what the ramifications would be or how long it was going to last. And nobody foresaw this, you know?"
Even now, nobody really knows what's going to happen to gay bars after "all of this" is over. Will there even be any gay bars left to reopen? My home bar — Toronto's west end staple The Beaver — shut down permanently due to COVID last July, as have many, many others around the world. But Atherton Lin is pretty certain young queers will find a way, as they always do.
"I imagine it's going to be kind of multifarious, you know, because I think that the kids are going to want to party and the kids are always going to find a way to party. Think about the aftermath of AIDS. In my book, I talk a lot about these kind of like, very anodyne and sterile bars, but at the same time, there was rave and underground culture and everything like that. So the kids are going to party."
What does concern Atherton Lin is our elders.
"I mean, I'm getting older myself," he says. "So I thought a lot about that as the book came out and I was kind of forced into early retirement and we all just kind of sat back. I think of that old boozer in the centre of town at a bar where regulars have been going to for years. That means something in terms of the fact that it's a part of the infrastructure of the city, of a given place, rather than always a kind of alternative to the infrastructure of that city."
"So that is going to be interesting to see if that can be maintained for old gays and lesbians. I want to see them be able to go back onto their barstool — I mean, if that's what makes them happy."
Gay Bar: Why We Went Out is available for purchase at Toronto's Glad Day Bookshop, which — like other independent bookshops everywhere — continues to need our support.