Gay bars are, as anyone who tries to go out in a homosexual fashion knows, disappearing for all sorts of reasons, most of which predate the pandemic: apps, rising rents, gender fluidity. For those who go out in search of them, the fact of their closing can be quite sad. They are a theatre of gay life, drawing men to a place where they can fulfil a dream – not, says Jeremy Atherton Lin, ‘to be who they’d always been, but who they wanted to be’. Gay bars also hold a hallowed place in gay history. As Atherton Lin notes, ‘The name of a gay bar, Stonewall, provides the metonym for gay liberation.’
The term ‘gay bar’ covers many sorts of establishment, from 1990s hangouts like Rupert Street Bar in Soho (‘airy, glossy, continental. The design sent a clear message: In here you won’t catch a disease’), to big black boxes such as Probe in Los Angeles (host to ‘a weekly party of happy hardcore’), to dark rooms (places ‘full of penises wherein each contains the strong possibility that it is, to use that old-fashioned queer initialism, tbh – to be had’). Then there are leather bars, kink bars for specific delights, piano bars for a sing-along. Atherton Lin proves himself a connoisseur of each.
This book is both a personal story and a cultural history of the gay bar. The personal story is of an Asian-American coming out in LA, visiting Europe, becoming devoted to i-D magazine, falling in love with a young British boy with a retroussé nose he calls ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’,