The Gay Bar Is the Wardrobe Into Gay Narnia

Jeremy Atherton Lin, author of "Gay Bar: Why We Went Out," on finding alternative queer community spaces

Photo of Stonewall Inn in New York City by Mathias Wasik via Flickr
Photo of Stonewall Inn in New York City by Mathias Wasik via Flickr

Chances are you probably remember your first gay bar—especially if you’re someone who identifies as LGBTQ+. If not in detail, you at least probably remember its name or the city it’s in. You may have jumped at the chance to enter its space, or maybe you hesitated, not quite ready to cross the threshold just yet—curiosity ultimately ushering you inside. Either way, you recall the feeling that comes from entering a place created and claimed by those who came before you. 

Jeremy Atherton Lin can’t remember his first gay bar, and it is from this absence of memory that Gay Bar: Why We Went Out is born.

Mining the haze of memory to embark on a transatlantic investigation into the fraught history of the renowned and contentious establishment, Lin uses the bars he frequented as anchors to take a closer look into its past. The London-based writer and editor delivers a full sensory experience: from the discos of yore in Hollywood, to the gay mecca of San Francisco, and the off-the-wall neighborhood staples in London—the whiff of poppers faint from the turn of a page.

This collection also looks beyond Stonewall—the iconic Greenwich Village bar claimed as the ambassador for gay liberation—into the myriad ways this institution has served as the battleground in the impetus for communal space. It travels back even further, to London in the 1770s, mapping the cruising tunnels built beneath the city, and amalgamates this history with the fluid queer places of present day. At the center of it all lies one beguiling writer’s story.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, Lin answers my questions from across the pond with reverence and grace, a mind impossible not to swoon over.

Greg Mania: There’s a lot of history in this book, both researched and personal. What was the process of starting to organize all of it into a book like for you?

Jeremy Atherton Lin: Daunting. Unwieldy. A lot of pieces of paper on the wall. I knew the book’s structure would be based around bars I frequented or lived near. I am an essayist, not a historian, and my primary strategy, you could say, is memoir, so to essay in this case meant thinking about what these different places represented, or their impact, including their toxicity. But I was totally unprepared for the rich histories of each place that I stopped. And that’s ultimately how it’s organized—like a bar hop or cruising the street. So the reader encounters Sylvester because they once performed at the bar I sulk past having just been insulted by an elder gay man at the post office. It’s geographical. 

GM: This book made me remember my first gay bar—shout-out to Woody’s in Philly—in vivid detail. You, on the other hand, struggle to remember your first. How did that lead to writing this book?

JAL: There is this narrative you get a lot: I nervously passed the unmarked bar with the darkened windows, circled the block, couldn’t bring myself to enter, but the next night I did, and a handsome man took my hand and a drag queen smiled at me, and I was transformed into gay. Like the gay bar is the wardrobe into gay Narnia. Now the border of gay is much more open. So, what does it matter if gay bars are closing? As they were shutting down rampantly in London a few years back, there was this message in the media: our places are being demolished, and they made us who we are. And it became a question of: did they? How does that pertain to me?

The gay bar is the wardrobe into gay Narnia. Now the border of gay is much more open. So, what does it matter if gay bars are closing?

Like most people, probably, I have a conflicted relationship with group identity. Looking back on these bars was a way to situate those conflicted feelings. And the memories are going to be blurry. The book is an awakening — to how I didn’t realize the history of a place, what may have been hidden in plain sight.

The first club, I think, that I went to with any regularity, I thought was so basic. It turns out to have an incredible, also problematic, history through the disco era, and before that, it was an industrial site. By my time there in the ’90s, it had come to be generic, chichi, characterless—but that’s a part of the story, too: how did the ways that gay men and gay bars present themselves in the ’90s fend off the stigma of AIDS? All I saw was a slickness, which turned me off. Yet I wanted in, too. If that was gay, at least it provided something I could be. That struggle, on the one hand, it’s an obvious narrative, but perhaps one that isn’t actually out there so much in the stories we receive, Brokeback Mountain, Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, where’s there’s no coming out, just staying in: sex in isolation, not a cultural and social process.

GM: Gay bars are closing, fast—especially now. A couple weeks ago the West Village staple Julius organized a GoFundMe to help it survive the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, they’re not the only ones; small businesses everywhere struggle to stay afloat. But the gay bar has been in danger even before. Do you think as spaces become more fluid and inclusive by doing things like hanging a rainbow flag out front to signify that it’s queer-friendly—like you observe in this book—the intention of a gay bar is diminished?

JAL: It can be tempting to lament the loss of furtiveness, the mess, the insiderness, all stuff that can result from horrible social oppression. And the rainbow flag, it used to be: that’s not my nation. But now I kind of want it back, now that it’s a banner for upbeat pre-teens. It’s undeniably sad to hear Julius is struggling. That’s the favorite gay bar of friends of mine in Manhattan. It’s one of those that came out over time rather than being marketed as the best gay thing ever. As these spaces disappear or change, I do think they reflect shifts in gay identity. It’s about being in those spaces together, but it’s also about their presence on the street. They’re like markers, representing. Like the title of your book, Born to Be Public. Homosexuality may occur in private, but gay is public-facing. Homosexuality may be a solo pursuit, but gay is a group activity. 

GM: You referenced the sociologist Erving Goffman once earlier in the book, but I couldn’t help but recall his theory of the presentation of self in a number of parts, perhaps most strongly when I read this line: “There was an agency in the retelling, in the self-deprecation and of course self-mythologizing. Memoir is how you groom yourself. Memoir is drag.” I mean, I screamed at this, because this is very much how I approached writing my own memoir. Tell me more about how you arrived at this conclusion.

JAL: I think as soon as you’re selecting details, you’re performing. And that’s a relief, because if you can’t show everything—the memoirist’s curse—at least you can put on a show. Isn’t it Wayne Koestenbaum who writes about how he intends to seduce the reader, or endear himself? And Foucault was basically like, I write to get laid. Also, I regularly think of this melancholic author who wanders alone, ruminating through bleak wintry landscapes, but then I heard a rumor he’s dropped off and picked up by his wife in a sensible sedan. I had to accept at some point that when I narrate it is not some essential me. I have to hone a craft, and that includes establishing the first person, even in “non-fiction.”

Homosexuality may occur in private, but gay is public-facing. Homosexuality may be a solo pursuit, but gay is a group activity.

That passage you quoted arrives in a period in San Francisco when I was living loosely, then writing it down in blogs and zines, and a couple of times a boy would know my name, and approach and say we should kiss, or that I should kiss my boyfriend for him to watch, so that the performance of writing spills into the experiences that are meant to inform the writing. The cruel irony is, my own form of memoir drag isn’t self-protective. I inhabit an uncertain, uncomfortable position, curious, possibly mistaken. Therefore I certainly feel no less vulnerable.

GM: I want to talk to you about your relationship to the word “community,” which you note, “consistently failed [you],” a “failure of vocabulary.” I’m assuming you’re familiar with the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies and his theory of gemeinschaft because you’re definitely smarter than me—I’m pulling this from the recesses of my mind that contain the shred of sociology I remember from my sophomore year of college—but I thought about him when you opted for cosmic jargon like the gay bar as a galaxy you miss orbiting. Gemeinschaft basically describes a community wherein the social ties are held together by emotion and sentiment, without using the word community. I can’t help but feel nostalgia come through as a dominant emotion. Does this and/or this theory resonate with you in any way? 

JAL: Greg! Ha, gemeinschaft and gesellschaft. Very that. Really I had to put the theory aside at a certain point and be present in these places. It’s very perceptive that you sensed the ghost of theory beneath the gay bar galaxy metaphor. I’d been thinking about Agamben’s The Coming Community, in which he talks about language and identity—how we say tree to designate a huge range of species. Is that a failure of language? Proof there can be no group identity? Or do we need the terms tree or gay?

Anyway, to your question: gay culture loves a bit of nostalgia. In London, the drag queens don’t lip synch, they sing. And they throw in sentimental old ballads. And we go for it. I guess it’s a form of suspension of disbelief. If you were to look at that scene from some hard Frankfurt School point of view, it would be a subservience to social oppression, what I describe in the book as the circus of “bread and circuse.” As these gays all gather to get drunk and indulge archaic myths of resilience. But can you reason away the visceral feeling of fellowship—or release, or joy—that comes when the drag queen hits the key change?

GM: One of my favorite things about this book is that you explain Stonewall as not just a singular event of gay bar liberation, but as part of a larger movement, a web connected by other places and events impacted by state-sanctioned violence against queer people. Why do you think Stonewall became the go-to historical reference in this context and not any of the other landmark events whose outcome yielded a similar sociopolitical impact? 

JAL: New York City PR skills! Stonewall was commemorable, and the New Yorkers could spot that. A story builds the movement. Plus, the name. Just a thought, but, Stonewall sounds fortified, and names are important. When she first rose to fame, my dad used to say, you know why people like Lady Gaga? Because they like saying gaga. My dad also calls squirrels rats with good PR. Ok, but Stonewall: of course, the timing was right in various ways — but these things don’t just exist in time, but in space, and it does also have to do with a form of word-of-mouth particular to Manhattan.

GM: Something I’ve been thinking a lot about—especially after releasing my own memoir, a large chunk of which contains New York City nightlife—is grief. I grieve what once was, and sometimes I wish I could go back, just for a night. Is grief for some of the places you write about a part of your emotional repertoire? If you’ve even thought of it in that way, that is.

JAL: Well, one thing that was really challenging with this book is that these are businesses. So I may grieve for an era or a scene, represented by or given shelter by these venues, but on another level they are enterprises that monetize and reframe the scene, which may have existed in some other form anyway. I bet an argument could be made that in Gay Bar, the sense of loss actually permeates most the passages set in bedrooms, in parks, on the road.

GM: I love that you write about the gay bar as home, especially when it’s the only gar bar as town. I think a lot of queer people—especially now in this age of isolation—not only miss it, but also depend on that kind of space as a matter of survival. What would you tell those queers who don’t have access to that space right now, who need it more than ever?

JAL: Oh, my god, I don’t know. Everybody’s so isolated from one another. Online, I dwell in an echo chamber centered on and controlled by me. It’s pretty terrifying. The home that a gay bar could provide was as dysfunctional as any, and that’s the point: you’d participate in or observe constant tiny relational quandaries. Online, we become less porous beings. We’re not breathing one another’s air. At the first lockdown, I was right away thinking about students returning home, possibly to less safe environments or unsupportive towns, and wanting to be available to them on video or however. But what could I possibly say to them? I can only listen, right? Everyone’s situation is unique, plus now quarantined.

More Like This

Electric Lit’s Best Nonfiction of 2023

Nicole Chung, Claire Dederer, Lamya H, Maggie Smith, and Samantha Irby are among the year’s most loved books of nonfiction

Dec 5 - Electric Literature

Performing on Stage for an Audience of One

An excerpt from ALICE SADIE CELINE by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright, recommended by Sanaë Lemoine

Nov 20 - Sarah Blakley-Cartwright

You Can’t Plan Feelings Out of a Foursome

"Group Sex" by Elisa Faison, recommended by Wynter K Miller for Electric Literature

Nov 13 - Elisa Faison
Thank You!