NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY: The New York Times * NPR * Vogue * Gay Times * Artforum *
“Gay Bar is an absolute tour de force.” –Maggie Nelson
"Atherton Lin has a five-octave, Mariah Carey-esque range for discussing gay sex.” –New York Times Book Review
As gay bars continue to close at an alarming rate, a writer looks back to find out what’s being lost in this indispensable, intimate, and stylish celebration of queer history.
Strobing lights and dark rooms; throbbing house and drag queens on counters; first kisses, last call: the gay bar has long been a place of solidarity and sexual expression—whatever your scene, whoever you’re seeking. But in urban centers around the world, they are closing, a cultural demolition that has Jeremy Atherton Lin wondering: What was the gay bar? How have they shaped him? And could this spell the end of gay identity as we know it?
In Gay Bar, the author embarks upon a transatlantic tour of the hangouts that marked his life, with each club, pub, and dive revealing itself to be a palimpsest of queer history. In prose as exuberant as a hit of poppers and dazzling as a disco ball, he time-travels from Hollywood nights in the 1970s to a warren of cruising tunnels built beneath London in the 1770s; from chichi bars in the aftermath of AIDS to today’s fluid queer spaces; through glory holes, into Crisco-slicked dungeons and down San Francisco alleys. He charts police raids and riots, posing and passing out—and a chance encounter one restless night that would change his life forever.
The journey that emerges is a stylish and nuanced inquiry into the connection between place and identity—a tale of liberation, but one that invites us to go beyond the simplified Stonewall mythology and enter lesser-known battlefields in the struggle to carve out a territory. Elegiac, randy, and sparkling with wry wit, Gay Bar is at once a serious critical inquiry, a love story and an epic night out to remember.
In this captivating debut, essayist Lin explores the gay bar as a cultural institution whose time may have passed. Focusing mainly on Los Angeles, San Francisco, and London, Lin delves into centuries of written and oral histories to chart the development of the first gay bars from as far back as the 13th century through to today, the roles different establishments played in gay liberation movements, and the many venues that have closed due to lack of traffic, rent increases, or transformation into heterosexual hangouts. He also muses on contemporary queer youth's desire for quiet "safe spaces" as opposed to the fun, raucous, and often "raunchy" meeting places of years past. It isn't all glowing nostalgia, though; Lin skewers what he sees as gay bars' "persecution of the effeminate" gay man, and recaps a mid-1970s racial profiling controversy at Studio One in Los Angeles in which claims were made "by black and Chicano men that they were frequently denied entrance." Lin's writing is mostly sharp, though there are some bumps, as with a staid academic reference to Foucault and wordplay that can land with more of a thud than a zing ("We head to a venue less sleazy, more cheesy," he writes about a bar-hopping night out). Nonetheless, this cogent cultural history sparks more often than not. Readers who want to go beyond Stonewall will find plenty to consider.