Gay Bar – Why We Went Out

After being told his hot new boyfriend is dangerous trash, gay bar ingenue Jeremy Atherton-Lin briefly despairs of the situation: ‘It was as if I’d been adopted by the wrong family – these nightclub people, thriving on secrets and risk.’ He’s consoled by his first sniff of poppers, and soon comes to his senses. Because as we know, secrets and risk (and poppers) are the main ingredients of a great night out.

After his initial wobble, Jeremy’s nightlife family becomes central, providing true love, a deep understanding of human nature and a growing sense of identity – as well as some highly illuminating identity crises. As he explores the shifting sands of the culture, and his changing place in it, he weaves a smart history of the gay bar into a beautifully written memoir. Each chapter is built around a particular bar, either in his native San Francisco or in London, where he moves in search of a Britpop waif. ‘Xuan had produced a spreadsheet of museums to visit. I was fixated on getting to Popstarz. I imagined a pale and interesting boy awaited me there.’

He tracks the gay bar’s development from clandestine Regency cellar to unspoken ’50s hideaway, via out-and-proud activist centre, vital community support hub, to an inclusive, non-denominational queer space that seems to have LGBTQIA’d itself out of an identity. And latterly to a raucous fun palace with more hen nights than homosexuals. When a recent BBC news piece asks, ‘Do Gay People Still Need Gay Bars?’ he laments, ‘Do gay bars still need gay people?’

The story is written in social and political realities – in the gay bar’s changing legality, appearance, purpose (ostensible and otherwise), and of course in its clientele. To the author it has been a place of liberation, education, exploration and occasionally disillusion. He admits he first ventured inside to learn about himself. ‘Of all human categories, adult gay males were amongst the least familiar to me,’ he writes poignantly, confessing he hoped to receive wisdom from his elders and to grow by emulation: ‘I didn’t know how else to learn history, but to try it on.’

We learn of the grand queer histories of London and San Francisco, filled with memorable nuggets and reverberations – and sites that have been gay for centuries. That the iron columns in the Vauxhall Tavern are all that remains of the great Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, where orgies took place in ancient row-boats hanging from the trees. Or that Villiers Street, home to Heaven, is named after George Villiers, a favourite of King James I, who gave him the land while calling him his ‘sweet child and wife.’ Villiers also gave his name to another famous gay bar The George, off The Strand, which hosted ’90s Britpop confection Popstarz, where the author does indeed fall in love.

He tells us that the first guide to gay London was a 1937 publication called For Your Convenience, printed between the leaves of a map of public toilets; how the tradition of drag queens performing on the bar was a smart way to avoid extra charges in the event of a raid – a show was harder to deny if there was a stage; that at one covertly gay place the orchestra would play a fanfare whenever a fit guy walked in, and how another would warn its patrons the police were on their way by playing the national anthem (ie ‘God Save The Queen’).

Occasionally something stuns. Like the fact that because the 1967 decriminalising of British gay sex only applied to private spaces, ironically there were more arrests after it was passed, as public meetings for sex remained fair game for the cops. Most of the history reminds us that the rich always had their safe spaces; for those less privileged there was usually danger and uncertainty.

Gay Bar is an exploration of masculinity, a nuanced dissection of gender politics, a homogeography of oppression and rebellion (including several events that predate Stonewall), and not least a collection of quirky characters and brilliant anecdotes. A favourite tale tells of a San Franciscan bar owner who bought hundreds of dollars’ worth of flowers after his place was busted, so as well as posting people’s bail, he could drape a garland round the neck of each arrested customer as they were released.

The writing alone will have you smiling throughout. In a leather bar he recalls ‘men built like chesterfields.’ Wolfgang Tillman’s subjects look ‘like beautiful weeds.’ He describes his college friend Xuan with the line, ‘She ordered both lipstick and photographs in matte finish.’ Noting the bizarre Aztec architecture of the MI6 building that dominates the Vauxhall riverside near the bar he’s in, he writes, ‘Like the men in here, it’s a little too much and it gives itself away.’

The opening scene is priceless: a hilariously candid sequence of him and his partner ‘Famous’ negotiating the delicacies of an orgy in a dark room filled with prowling suitors.

‘The men skulked in trackies, inhabiting or playacting working-class bodies. I thought then I had better not speak. My accent is too equivocal, scuppered somewhere on the Atlantic and apologizing. The point here was to be regular. The only distinguishing feature should be an erection the size of a Sky+ remote control.’

For those unfamiliar with the complex etiquette of such a situation, as the tale unravels Atherton-Lin’s sharp, thoughtful prose is hilariously informative. Frank Broughton

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© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton