The bar stool over by the window is all yours.
Maybe that’s because you’ve spent a lot of time there. It’s the right height, you can easily see who comes and goes, and the bartender knows your favorite drinks, so why not? In the new memoir Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin, that stool is one of the best places to be.
Long before it was legal for him, Lin, like most gay teenage boys, dreamed about going to gay bars. Ironically, he says, “I can’t remember my first.”
As someone with a foot on two continents, he has a long list of old favorites—places that have mostly closed, been re-named, or relocated. He’s danced in them and had sex in them. Some were carved out of a back room or basement—places that used to be something else. They might be packed with men dancing or doing drugs, or thick with bachelorette parties and tourists (to the annoyance of the gay men who are regulars). Some of them were routinely raided by the police once upon a time.
And they’re all an important part of being a gay man pre-Stonewall, pre-AIDS—and now, post-pandemic.
You can’t stop Lin from sharing fond memories of those nights in the Castro or Los Angeles or London—even though, he says, “There does remain something embarrassing about a gay bar.”
You could be forgiven for wondering what you’re getting yourself into while reading the first few pages of Gay Bar. Lin leaps right into a hazy description of a night on the town. Clarity comes later, and it’s fragile. He assumes that readers are familiar with the men he mentions, or others exactly like them.
Still, his sex-and-booze-filled tales of drag, dance, and la dolce vita are compelling as he weaves gay history in with interesting then-and-now comparisons and explicit tales of life as a young gay man.
While each chapter takes us through doors of a particular gay bar, once we’ve entered with Lin, there are times when we feel like we’ve been abandoned, the music’s too loud, and we just want to go.
In spite of those rough spots, the surreality of Gay Bar is not insurmountable. In fact, if you wait it out, you’ll be mostly glad you did.
Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar: Why We Went Out is now available on Amazon.
This article appears in the May 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.