Gay Bar – a historical romp through the history of queer havens
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.
Read and excerpt below:
Historically, gay bars were the only spaces where queer people could be visible, as if that visibility could exist only within the imagined. Now it seems that reality outside the bar is so grim that people would rather preserve this fantasy, not just out of safety but as an emotional necessity.
—Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, 2017
It’s starting to smell like penis in here.… His words hovered in the claggy dark. The other men laughed soundlessly. I couldn’t be sure how I’d arrived in their circle. The room had become crowded like a bumper car rink, until I was no longer steering but carried along by collisions. I must have willed this, really. Still I hadn’t discerned how these men formed one group. Their bodies circumscribed a turf, as on a playground or prison yard. If I’d encountered their type someplace else, I’d be averting eyes and stammering. I still was, but they not only sniggered, they touched me.
That is a ripe arse you have, man, the youngest and blondest had remarked in a maybe Irish accent. Whether or not I deserved the compliment, I would take it. I’d manifest the ass he desired. I would do so by tensing it slightly. I’ll have a piece of that, or you’ll suck me, the blond continued, pushing me to my knees as he and the others closed in. Someone else commanded, G’on—suck it, you’ll like it, it’s the biggest one here, like a benevolent bully. Then with a kind of brutal elegance, the group spread apart like the blades of a pocketknife.
That’s when: It’s starting to smell like penis in here.…The voice was at once queeny and thuggish, the line nearly sung, a lewd here we go again…trailing off as he moved away, leaving me on my knees to the blond. The room did smell of penis, maybe. Like fog machine or nitrites, syrupy lager spilling over thick fists, smoker’s breath, someone’s citrusy cologne, the bleached vinyl seats. It reeked of toxic masculinity. It stank of the clammy skin of white Englishmen, which is like wet laundry hanging to dry without wind. Overhead, passing trains shook the black ceiling. The rumble disturbed the black partition that bisected the room at a diagonal, a false horizon promising someone better just out of reach.
The night’s men-only rule was proclaimed on a printout along with the name of the event, Brüt, in a tool-kit typeface connoting a narrow definition of gender. 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. The haircuts were skinhead or fade. Leather daddies were present, but the group I’d fallen in with wore the uniform of rough council estates: polo shirt with collar popped, white trainers, white cap. It crossed my mind I was playing with men who emulated porn actors pretending to be rough trade.
I saw these men as being in their domain, depraved and sketchy, whereas I was just passing through. Then again, I understood I’m the company I keep: a man over forty with a Friday night hard-on, passing as desirable in the dark. I didn’t end up here out of loneliness. I’d arrived with my companion, the Famous Blue Raincoat. We’ve been domestic for years. ‘It may seem difficult to understand why two men who are happy with each other will take the risk of going to these places where the whole atmosphere of the group will tend to drive them apart,’ wrote Gordon Westwood—a pseudonym—in his 1952 book Society and the Homosexual. It was the author’s hunch there was no other spot for these coupled men to rendezvous. To the homosexuals, ‘in a pathetic kind of way this place is their home.’
But that was another era. I hadn’t been driven to The Bar by society’s lack of understanding. Throughout the twentieth century, London pubs, cafés and clubs would be taken over—‘selected’ as Westwood put it—by a homosexual clientele. The unofficial meeting places could be so discreet most other customers wouldn’t notice, and occasionally so brazen an orchestra would strike up a tribute when an attractive male entered the room. Proto-gays were segregated by class as much as anything else, sticking to the exclusive cellar bar at the Ritz on the one hand or an East End boozer on the other—or, in the case of privileged men in pursuit of a bit of rough, moving from the former to the latter. In this diffuse network of commercial spaces, the clientele might be tolerated to various degrees because it brought business. (Matt Houlbrook, an authority on London queer history, figures: ‘The pink shilling was a potentially lucrative market, and men’s demand for a “home” always ripe for exploitation.’) Now we were being elaborately catered to: The Bar was designed for a demographic of masc-presenting homo satyrs.
The steel and brick and the exposed, girthy pipes declared this as manly terrain. The hint of disco in the DJ’s mix got me thinking about Andrew Holleran’s 1978 novel Dancer from the Dance, in which hedonistic gays haunt Manhattan’s derelict warehouses, abandoned factories and dilapidated piers. ‘We were ghosts,’ the narrator says. In 1918, the British war poet Wilfred Owen wrote of loitering along the wharves on the River Thames, where ‘I am the shadow that walks there.’ The final line—‘I with another ghost am lain’—could reference troops in the trenches, but really must mean horny men who move that way to this day, as phantoms, with that slow walking, the opposite of rush-hour commuters who dart quickly but attempt to avoid collision. The cruiser ambles in pursuit of contact. It’s a saunter that wills a larger terrain, populated by more attractive men. I’d determined myself into that pace. I had not gone upstairs to be anything but another ghost.
We go out to get some. On certain evenings Famous and I intuit we’re going to end up in such a place without the need for discussion. We go out because we’re thirsty. We go out to return to the thrill of the chase. We want to be in a room full of penises wherein each contains the strong possibility that it is, to use the old-fashioned queer initialism, tbh—to be had. That phrase looks forward to fondly looking back, all about the conquest and bragging about it later. But I could be at home, thumbing through a grid of tbh torsos on my phone. We go out for the aroma. Some nights just smell like trouble. The city at dusk carries the scent of all its citizens commingled. We head out on the dopamine. There are nights that have an audible pulse, so we dance.
I thought then of two lines from Paul Verlaine: ‘I dance to save myself, and find / Swimming in sweat, it’s in our common breath I fly.’ We were not dancing, exactly, but the DJ was building up propulsive tracks, throbbing and hissing. I turned my cap backwards so the brim wouldn’t impede my access to the blond’s full shaft. I wanted my snout buried as much as anything else to prove my commitment to the scene. His pale foreskin was pulled back. The penis had been overhyped, but I decided still it was lovely. It was pleased with itself, like a toddler standing proudly at a scene of destruction. I plunged onto him, the decision to do so lagging behind the act. I reached to one side toward an onlooker, thinking: why not roll with this and grab a random dick. I touched something like a rubbery cauliflower. Its owner swatted my hand away. I left the voyeur to whatever that was: eccentric prosthesis or zealous case of HPV. He’d be happy enough just watching. Then the blond lad was yanking me toward the cubicles, and one of his mates fell in line.
In turn, I grabbed Famous, who pulled up his waistband and grinned as he joined us, abandoning unknown paramours. I got him those trackies—boys’ size 13–14 he’s so skinny. We formed a chain like kids on a field trip. Then, four in the box, we made a sight to peep from the glory holes, pressing together and kissing like an onanistic king rat. Other limbs tried to force the door ajar, as the blond shoved it closed with his forearm. When men barricade in a dark room, it turns certain other contenders into zombies. You’re never sure which ones they are, because they lay in wait until your consummation begins. Then, out of sight lines, they try to wedge their way in, to prize open doors, pound on them.
Suddenly, the blond lad pulled back and stumbled out, muttering either need a cigarette or not feeling it. It was brighter in the cubicle, and the light must have disabused him of the impression of me as one archetypal thing. His mate was unamused: What th’ FUCK, the fuck ya goin’? The blond moved across the corridor crabwise past men who leaned against walls with flat palms as if load-bearing. He was shaking his head in the inebriate way that indicates an aversion to listening.
Downstairs, near the bar, a couple of younger guys actually danced. A wryness tugged at their lips. One had brown skin. A tall figure in high heels swayed near the DJ, as if they’d walked from the nonbinary present day into a clone scene from the seventies—checked their pronoun at the cloakroom, hoping the bouncers wouldn’t look down at their feet. For over a century, policing queer sites entailed the persecution of the effeminate, the screamers—in powder and perfume, perched on a knee, calling one another girl or queen. After the late thirties, the monitoring of London venues shifted from surveying the people inside to targeting the premises, so that a landlord could be accused of keeping a disorderly house if he was host to gender deviance. Masculine—normal—men with stealthy predilections could be invisible and thereby beyond the law. Properly behaved places were left alone. This encouraged what Matt Houlbrook describes as a collusion between proprietors and patrons ‘to construct a queer consumer who was not obviously queer.’ At The Bar, masculinity had been twisted into something perverted, yet still functioned to banish effeminacy. We were now self-policing—and frankly that contributed to the arousal. But I for one was pleased to see those high heels slip through.
* * *
The Bar had been trading less than a year. When it opened in 2017, everyone said gay bars were doomed. (Financial Times: ‘The party is coming to an end.’) More than half in London had folded within ten years. This was blamed on property developers, apps, assimilation. In Britain, the steep decline came not long after civil partnerships were introduced in 2005. When same-sex marriage was legalized in New York in 2011, the journalist June Thomas wrote, ‘I can’t help wondering whether, as gay rights move forward, the gay bar—the place where it all began—may get left behind.’
The name of a gay bar, Stonewall, provides the metonym for gay liberation. It figures the place was a dump. The Stonewall Inn, like other gay bars, was mafia-owned, selling watered-down drinks to a clientele of both the furtive and the flagrant. The 1969 uprising against police raids there—the fabled brick crashing through the window—makes a fabulous origin myth. But gays had been acting up in their chosen watering holes and all-night cafeterias for years. Just around the block from the Stonewall Inn is Julius’—where, three years before the Stonewall rebellion, a trio of activists drew attention to exclusion by pronouncing their homosexuality to the guy working the bar. He took his cue to turn them away. An image of the bartender placing his hand over a glass was snapped by photographer Fred W. McDarrah. This raffish provocation—a sip-in—marked a step toward establishing the right of gays to assemble in the state. Younger-generation gays stand on the shoulders of such insurgent bar patrons, but we form a precarious pyramid. We’re shaky on details, partly down to the booze. Certain pivotal events come across as staged: when the New York Times covered the sip-in, the headline was ‘3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars’ with the subhead ‘But They Visit Four Before Being Refused Service.…’
Now our turf was under threat not so much by police, but a juncture of economic factors like unchecked property speculation and an upsurge in stay-at-home gays. I responded to the closures with an automatic, nearly filial sense of loss, followed by profound ambivalence. The gay bars of my life have consistently disappointed. Activists claim they should be kept open to facilitate knowledge passing between generations. Had I ever received wisdom on a barstool? Not really. Instead, I recalled a dive in Los Angeles that I’d timidly entered in my youth, only to be told You’re too good for this place. The gentleman rested his hand on my thigh with an infuriating lack of intent. Not long ago I looked that bar up online, and read a pundit’s one-star review complaining that the crowd there groped him when all he wanted was to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his wife and friends (‘all Heteros,’ as he wrote). ‘I certainly don’t expect to have my physical space violated just because I may choose to party in a gay area,’ he asserted. I thought: to be violated was my expectation back when I ventured in.
Perhaps the bars were only ever meant to be a transitional phase. When a BBC article queried ‘Do gay people still need gay bars?,’ I wondered which people and what places. It’s been proposed that in less liberal countries the advent of gay bars will be eclipsed by hookup apps. Was the BBC talking about those citizens? About lesbians, who barely had any places left anywhere, or young queers who anyway tend to prefer roving parties that reflect their fluidity? Was the BBC talking about me? I had to consider whether gay bars promised a sense of belonging then lured us into a trap. In a gay bar, am I penned into minority status, swallowing drinks that nourish my oppression—have gay bars kept me in my place?
The BBC could just as well have asked ‘Do gay bars still need gay people?’ Straight drinkers now blithely invade our territory like the gaggle of sloppy strangers who show up at the end of a house party. The New York Times put it this way: ‘How “Gay” Should a Gay Bar Be?’ The article discussed another spot I used to know in West Hollywood, where it eventually got to the point that every table was booked by bachelorette parties; the owner placed a moratorium on their presence until gay marriage legislation passed. When that happened federally in 2015, and the gals piled back in to take group photos with the go-go hunks, the management opened an adjacent space devoted to a clientele of actual gay men.
‘What are they doing at the hall of the outcasts on this night?’ wrote Donald Webster Cory—another pseudonym—back in his 1951 book The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach. ‘Did they arrive by accident, or have they friends or brothers here, or are they among those rare souls who especially enjoy the company of gay folk, although they are not themselves gay? Or perhaps, are they thrill-seekers and slummers who have merely looked in upon another world?’ We’d since been outnumbered: more fag hags than fags. The misogynistic old trope of a lonely heart attached to sexual criminals out of compatible ostracization had been replaced by one of basic bitches latching on because the gays turned out to be winners. They’d shove me out of their way and cry yasss. When Famous and I returned after many years to a rustic gay saloon in the woods of northern California, a bartender approached midway through our first Lagunitas. I want to thank you for coming, he said. And for being, I presume, gay. Not sure how to respond, I tried: You, too. He continued, It’s changing here, now that ‘gay is accepted.’ A bar rag hung from his air quote. Weekends all you’ll see is bachelorette parties. I nodded. Frankly, it was better when we were unacceptable, he said ominously.
And yet: in 2017, a poll revealed homophobic attacks in the UK had surged eighty percent in the previous four years. In the States, the year 2016 marked the most violence against gays ever recorded, even without the forty-nine casualties at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. A Vanity Fair article on the tragedy was headlined ‘Mass Murder at the Gay Bar: When a Refuge Becomes the Target.’ The journalist Dave Cullen began by disclosing his position. After publishing a book on the school massacre at Columbine, he’d become a go-to consultant every time a mass shooting occurred. ‘And then, when my part is over, I need a drink. I’m gay, so that means a gay bar,’ he wrote. I recognize myself in that line—and how what seems obvious to him (and to me) may need pointing out to readers who’ve never frequented such a place. He declares an affiliation—leading me to wonder why it is that certain of us don’t hesitate to regard the gay bar as our natural terrain.
If the habitat—the gay bar—faces extinction, the possibility arises that gay identity is an endangered species. I’m talking about gay rimmed in lightbulbs, GAY shouted in all caps, G-A-Y spelled out like the namesake of the British nightclub chain. To many, that’s nothing worth preserving. But, confronted with the husks of gay bars on city streets, I found myself increasingly in support of that brand of gay—as in blatant, an embarrassment, a blight. I’ve found myself drawn back to the ghetto, where groups of gay men converge to lick one another’s wounds, or pour salt on them, and in other ways behave inappropriately. If my experiences in gay bars have been disappointing, what I wouldn’t want to lose is the expectation of a better night. Gay is an identity of longing, and there is a wistfulness to beholding it in the form of a building, like how the sight of a theater stirs the imagination.
The closing gay bars had me thinking about the finitude of gay. The American activist Harry Britt once said, ‘When gays are spatially scattered, they are not gay, because they are invisible.’ The question becomes whether that dissolution of identity is the ultimate civil rights achievement. By 2018, an opinion piece in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz declared, ‘Being Gay Is Passé.’ A few years prior, one poll showed half of young people in Britain were identifying as not completely hetero, with most of those placing themselves in a nonbinary area on a scale of sexuality. So, not completely gay. I came across a statement online by a woke young person expressing his consternation that cis gay males remained the most culturally validated type of queer. He himself identified as a gay man—but as much as anything, he clarified, as a reminder of his privilege. I questioned how I would speak with him about his daddies if given the chance—they were far from perfect, some outright villainous, but they’d been through it. And they aren’t a monolith. I struggled with how we could reframe the narrative when we were each trepidatious about the word gay, yet both still inclined to use it. The identity, foisted upon me since the days when other boys in my scout troop noticed my bubbly handwriting, had come to have a faded quality. I considered I might have Stockholm syndrome for the epithet. But more and more I heard myself defaulting to queer, somehow both theoretically radical and appropriate in polite company. The word gay was intoned like a joke or an elegy.
Then in London a handful of new venues popped up, often not gay bars but queer spaces. Many folded in no time. Itinerant parties were a more feasible or cooler option (a return to the peripatetic socializing of London before gay bars, when homos assembled at whichever spot was in favor). Sober nights were tried out as a thing. Events were developed for trans, femmes and womxn of color. There, inclusivity might not mean everybody. It could indicate the rest of us. Inclusivity could be enforced by a strict door policy, raising the question of how identity is legible—how to differentiate, for example, a questioning person from a voyeur. Some parties issued charters that proscribed judging and patriarchy, as well as groping and leching—all of the stuff encrusted like grime in the gay bars I’d known.
* * *
The Bar was a throwback—randy and problematic. At a glance, the homo- prefix meant not just same sex but same gender, race, class. It seemed to me it was not only the dominant demographic of white men that hearkened to an earlier time, but the propensity for barebacking. The club opened on the brink of the distribution of PrEP. (Patrick Califia predicted in 1998: ‘When there is a vaccine or an effective treatment or, please Goddess, both, some will return to pre-AIDS sexual behavior. And that’s as it should be. Because there was nothing wrong with that behavior in the first place.’) England’s National Health Service enrolled ten thousand people on a PrEP trial starting in the autumn. Promiscuous gays seemed to think they got their magic bullet, and apparently then all went to The Bar.
It was in Vauxhall, just south of the River Thames, having taken the space over from a hip-hop club shut with ignominy after a series of violent incidents, culminating in the death of an aspiring pilot after being held down by the bouncers. By contrast, The Bar’s application for a late license played the gay card, brandishing words like community, cabaret, eclectic, diverse. A member of the House of Lords wrote a letter of support in which he elucidated the need for safe spaces—a term entered into the Merriam-Webster dictionary that year. The letter alluded to the dangers associated with meeting strangers online, suggesting that gay bars facilitate a vetting and self-monitoring among members of a community. The year before, the Old Bailey had handed down life imprisonment to a serial killer who drugged, raped and murdered four young men whom he’d met on apps.
In actuality, the place turned out to be, if by no means unfriendly, not exactly what the term safe space brings to mind. Whatt’ya need a Viagra for, an ursine bartender grumbled to a bouncing young man fiendishly trying to secure a pill. You kids today, he added kindly, as the boy began to totter and sway. The place offered that kind of camaraderie—a gruff maternalism simultaneously defaulting to certain Vauxhall stereotypes: masculinist, debauched, dodgy. Vauxhall was saddled with a reputation in the aughts as a destination for those with a death wish—heavy drug users and bug-chasers, the bad seeds of the gay populace. The risk taking seemed to have been sublimated into a risky aesthetic. Crossing the empty dance floor at The Bar, Famous and I were once stopped by a manager and asked to present more fetishistically. Famous shrugged and took off his t-shirt. I winced and pulled mine over my shoulders like a harness. That’ll do, the man said.
Our first time there, it was just before Christmas. We’d been down the street at the Eagle London watching yuletide Golden Girls episodes. The Eagle too once had a dark room and sold poppers, but after someone collapsed naked on the dance floor, it cleaned up its act—planted ivy on the roof and began hosting vegan barbecues. The Eagle is part of an informal network of leather bars going by the same name in several different cities—at its peak, there were some fifty in the convocation. Since its makeover, the London iteration had become a spot for healthy-looking men with neat beards and t-shirts with social media slogans (#mascfag)—the type Famous and I call happy gays. But on this night, there was hardly anyone there, just a couple of nicotine-stained men and their bosomy friend hacking over Sophia’s insults and Blanche’s side-eye. The beer went down cold in the empty room. Gay bars can be festive—a bunch of bears singing along to ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You.’ (On Christmas day of the previous year, Famous and I found ourselves at another Eagle, in Los Angeles, dancing to George Michael songs just hours after it was announced the singer was dead.)
Having had our fill of Rose’s idioms, we thought we’d walk to The Bar, a new cruise club in the arches I’d seen listed in XY. It was barren there, too. A brawny little Polish guy made out with us briefly, then declared he preferred one-on-one, also noting that the scene paled in comparison with that of Berlin. We wound up giving head to a man who told us it was his birthday and that he didn’t want to blow his load—he’d been edging for days—but we finished him off, bringing his party to a fizzle. Because he was pockmarked with big feet, I’d perceived him as brutish. But, awkwardly waiting next to him at coat check, I clocked his outerwear, a practical navy number from Michael Kors, and any such delusion faded.
Available from Little Brown
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist based in Toronto with a focus on tourism, lifestyle, entertainment and community issues. He has written several travel articles and has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He’s willing to take on any assignments of interest, attend parties with free booze, listen to rants, and travel the world in search of the great unknown. He’s eager to discover the new, remember the past, and look into the future.