At some point on a night out an older queen will swing down from the rafters to let you know you’re too late. Five, maybe ten years ago, he explains, it was much better here. The music was better, the clientele was better, the neighbourhood was less gentrified, more authentic. What is he still doing here then? It doesn’t matter. Encounter him often enough and you begin to understand that lost time can’t be regained, only embellished. It’s important work; eventually, you’ll learn to do it yourself.
Gay history, particularly the history of gay social life, is difficult to reconstruct. Gay spaces were illegal; gay art and literature were banned or never published, organised in secret and never archived, their creators and audiences harassed, shamed and murdered by strangers, cops, family and lovers; the whole scene was flattened by Aids. In 1970, a year after the Stonewall Uprising, the American sociologist Laud Humphreys published his PhD thesis, Tearoom Trade, an ethnographic study of the ‘deviant subculture’ of men who have sex with men in America’s public toilets. Humphreys’s dubious innovation was to pretend to be part of this scene in order to observe the ornate dance of invitation and proposition. (Several years later, he came out as gay himself.) The ensuing furore resulted in a petition to Washington University to rescind Humphreys’s PhD. Half of the sociology department threatened to resign. Humphreys survived, however, and his methods proved influential.
Better histories of gay men’s lives followed, written by openly gay writers. In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), Samuel R. Delany described ‘certain social surfaces’ in the porn cinemas of Times Square, from their peak in the 1970s and 1980s to their Giuliani-sanctioned demolition in the late 1990s. He likened his sketch of New York’s queer past to Ezra Pound’s concept of the periplum – a map of the coast made from the vantage of the choppy sea. In Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-85 (2003), James McCourt described the mid-century gay bars, cinemas, nightclubs, salons, restaurants and tea rooms as a ‘roman fleuve … far richer and far less verbal than anything described in Ulysses’. Unfortunately, as McCourt noted, this great living novel was written on the air, entirely dependent on fickle – and fading – memories, as well as shameless untruths. ‘All memory is an inhalation,’ he wrote, ‘followed by a holding of the breath.’
Gay Bar: Why We Went Out (Granta, £9.99), Jeremy Atherton Lin’s memoir of bars he has frequented in the US and UK, begins with first impressions. The Bar in Vauxhall is ‘syrupy lager spilling over thick fists, smoker’s breath, someone’s citrussy cologne, the bleached vinyl seats’. It reeks of ‘the clammy skin of white Englishmen’. He visits clubs and saunas in San Francisco, LA, Whitechapel, Vauxhall, Blackpool. But by 2017, half of London’s gay bars have closed. Grindr, Scruff, Hinge and Tinder are doing away with IRL cruising grounds. Lin, domesticated now but no less enthralled, wonders: What was the gay bar? And what was it for me?
He compensates for the patchiness of gay history partly by supplying his own stories. The book is divided into seven chapters, each relating to a different bar or neighbourhood. In LA, Holly Woodlawn (a former Warhol superstar) sizes him up with a look. He already feels ‘part of a lineage. I didn’t know how else to learn history but to try it on.’ (There ought to be a history of the post-Warhol lives of the superstars; they continued to influence generations of queers.) At the same time, ‘trying it on’ is also a way of dealing with the territorialism of the gay bar. He adopts a succession of identities (‘queer’, ‘fag’, ‘post-gay’, ‘gay shamer’, ‘cub’, ‘pig’), and contends with racism and ‘gatekeeping’.
In the vacuum left by the cops, gay men stepped in to police their own spaces, and were sometimes just as ruthless. Community organisers in LA boycotted Studio One – the site of Axis, one of Lin’s gay bars – in 1975, after it emerged that the club’s doorman required Black and Chicano men to show at least three forms of ID before they were admitted; it wasn’t until the mid 1980s that American cities began to ban ‘multiple-carding’. More than forty years later, versions of this practice still continue, both online and off. In 2017, employees of REBAR in New York accused it of discriminating against Black people, who were often told the club was ‘at capacity’ when it wasn’t. Inside the bars, other forms of racism persist, some of which have been folded into entertainment. One of the contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race performed in blackface at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern for fourteen years. (He retired the act in 2015.) In 2018, the gay rights organisation Stonewall found that 51 per cent of ethnic minority LGBT people in the UK experienced some form of discrimination on dating apps or in queer venues. ‘I was under the impression I was always late to the party,’ Lin (who is Asian American) writes about Axis, ‘but in fact I may not have been invited.’
But then we should never assume that the gay bar is a safe space by nature. In his chapter on The Apprentice in London’s East End, Lin discusses the gay skinheads and white nationalists who used to frequent the local pubs: violence within as well as without. This isn’t some far-off past. In 2011, East End Gay Pride was cancelled when it was discovered that one of the organisers had connections to the English Defence League.
If gay bars were near fatally injured by the rise of the iPhone, Covid has worsened their predicament. A quarter of London’s nightclubs have closed. Some bars have had to rely on community donations to stay open. ‘What was being lost as all the gay bars folded,’ Lin writes, ‘was that particular satisfaction of the company of strangers.’ Internet dating makes you smaller, flatter; the apps reduce you to your age, picture, habits, desires. The features designed to inject some fun into the experience – the screen prompts, the voice messages – come off as creepy reminders of how inadequate an encounter this is, how poor a replacement for the smell and taste as you step into a crowded room, the dislocation as your eyes adjust to the darkness, the sound of a voice whispering urgently in your ear, glances exchanged, the feeling of watching a body dancing, before you’ve even said a word, before he even knows you’re watching. Nothing on a phone can come close.