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Gay Bar

Jeremy Atherton Lin

Granta, 2021

Review by Paul Mendez


Lockdowns have provided us with ample opportunities to question the conventions in life that we take for granted, with our social lives often foremost on the agenda. Jeremy Atherton Lin, a flaneur of the dancefloor who finds himself thinking of lines by Paul Verlaine as he pleasures a stranger, got ahead of the game and has produced a text for our times that should become a classic. Deftly combining memoir and social history with an effortless command of queer and critical theory, Gay Bar preserves and rehabilitates interior spaces with detailed memories of Atherton Lin’s own and an unwavering interest in what the spaces themselves remember, although he admits, ‘We’re shaky on details, partly down to the booze’. If gay history takes place in gay bars, then, due to a combination of drink, drugs, disease and discretion, it is set to die with those who witnessed it.

Queer history needed to be discreet, because, for a long time, homosexuality was against the law. Stories were not recorded, so the memories faded before they could be passed on. What goes into history is the words of someone deemed to be reliable, delineating the situation as they saw it. As Atherton Lin says, ‘Gay history is a palimpsest of “what ifs”’. There are fewer more pertinent ‘what ifs’ in history than what if no AIDS. AIDS ‘created a chasm between generations’ of gay men: on the one hand, those who witnessed Stonewall and the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality at the end of the 1960s and, on the other, those for whom HIV had become a manageable, chronic illness. Of changing attitudes among his circle, Atherton Lin, born 1974, says that HIV-positive status became ‘something to work with, not recoil from’ and that ‘Life is risk, you don’t give up living’.

Gay Bar lingers often on the promise and experience of sex, both inside the bars and in the apartments and hotel rooms repaired to afterwards. The five senses are privileged. The vocabulary is precise and sensuous: ‘pilose beard’; ‘sudor of scrotum’. At the centre of Gay Bar is a love story between two men, one who leaves rural Gloucestershire (his boyfriend, the pseudonymous ‘Famous’), the other (Atherton Lin) who comes to Europe having studied theatre in Los Angeles. Prior to the story of their entanglement, Atherton Lin’s language is singular and melancholy: ‘I went out to tag along’. He and Famous separately gravitated to a Britpop-inspired club night called Popstarz, that replaced the Muscle Mary with the poetic, geeky fop as the gay ideal; here, men could blend with the prevailing Britpop aesthetic and be homosexual. And Atherton Lin, who is of mixed heritage, did not have to use a Clinique face powder to lift his skin tone, as had been recommended to him by an early LA lover.

The best bars during my gay-space glory days were inclusive; on any given night at Dalston Superstore, circa 2011, casting an eye over heads I saw black, white, brown, lesbian, gay, trans and straight, everyone united by the music and the vibe. It was a place to be seen and to look. But that was a rare utopia; gay bars have also been responsible for racist door policies, and for squeezing lesbians out of their spaces. Summing up why he went out to gay bars, beginning amid the peak-AIDS hellscape of LA in 1992, via San Francisco at the turn of the millennium and the emergence of the east London ‘triangle’ of the George and Dragon, Joiners Arms and Nelsons Head, Atherton Lin says: ‘Gradually, I learned to give in to the experience for what it is: tacky but effervescent, artificial, cutthroat, cringe. I discovered that gay bars are about potentiality, not resolution. Gay bars are not about arriving. The best ones were always a departure.’ After the tragic closures of so many historic gay spaces over the last decade, it remains to be seen what the future of the gay bar is, although there are signs of life, such as the success of the Friends of the Joiners Arms in obliging developers to plan for a suitable new queer space on the historic site. ‘A good gay bar is a vacation, promising the novelty of a resort full of strangers, making me want “to please others and to possess them”,’ Atherton Lin says, quoting Proust.