We almost walk past it, it’s so still and dark. I double back and point the building out to my younger friend: it’s Henrietta Hudson, one of the last remaining lesbian bars in New York City, and, at 30 years old, also the oldest. On a cold pandemic winter evening, we go out to walk and talk, and our hangout begins to feel like a walking tour of Before. “Here’s Julius’ … There’s the Center, past the AIDS Memorial Park. Down that way is Cubbyhole.” At Henrietta’s we stop and read flyers pasted to the windows and doors. Beneath an image of Rosie the Riveter are updates I’ve been following online about the bar’s uncertain future and information on where to send donations to help offset expenses from its pandemic closure. These feel like signs of the end of an era, but what that means—particularly amid so many concurrent crises—I can’t quite tell.
It’s a signature paradox of our current moment that theoretically being able to be gay anywhere has resulted in fewer concrete places in which to be gay in particular. Over the past decade, queer life has, in many ways, gained visibility in mainstream US culture, thanks in part to increased representation in media and the availability of online social spaces, particularly for young people. At the same time, discrimination, homophobia, and violence are far from being eradicated. Given those contradictions, gay bars continue to meet a lingering need for queer social space. All along, they have acted as a central hub for queer social life, a point of arrival and departure: “coming out,” after all, used to mean coming out into a scene.
Henrietta Hudson is not alone in struggling to stay afloat. While the number of gay bars has been steadily decreasing overall (Greggor Mattson, for example, notes a 36.6 percent decline from 2007 to 2017), closures have disproportionately affected lesbian bars and bars that cater to queers of color. The COVID-19 pandemic’s outsize impact on women and people of color suggests that this trend may continue.
Jeremy Atherton Lin’s debut book, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, stumbles along with an ambivalence about the gay bar’s place in queer history. The book is organized around Atherton Lin’s attempts to make sense of the gay bar as an institution in his personal history and in the history of queer social life. In the hazy atmosphere of memory, “borrowed nostalgia,” arousal, and disappointment, he recounts his experiences in gay bars in Los Angeles, London, and San Francisco—cities in which he has lived. Part autobiography of Atherton Lin himself and part biography of the generic “gay bar,” the work is a collage of historical accounts, photographs, rumors, myths, and personal and secondhand anecdotes from the early modern era to the contemporary.
Gay Bar is both a record of historical queer spaces and an account of the historical feelings that have attached to queer spaces. For this reason, the book presents an opportunity to consider the significance of gay bars as physical spaces and imaginative touchstones for generations of LGBTQ people. In the twilight of the gay bar, there’s a confused consensus that the loss of discrete queer spaces is bad, even as the loss of the need for them is good. But what exactly constituted that historical need? And what can history teach us about the current moment’s contradictions?
When there’s a better chance of encountering a gay bar in a book than on a street, texts like “Gay Bar” help formulate the stories out of which impossible queer places are built.
In the recent documentary Pretend It’s a City, Fran Lebowitz tautologically explains, “One of the reasons people our age came to New York, if you were gay, is because you were gay.” “Now,” Lebowitz continues, “you can be gay anywhere, OK?” But that concept of being gay “anywhere” sits alongside some troubling statistics. “In 2017,” Atherton Lin recounts, “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.” When tolerance and violence exist comfortably together, “you can be gay anywhere” starts to sound like “you can be gay nowhere.”
The statistics about bar closures have inspired a reckoning about what would be lost if gay bars were to become historical ephemera. Coming across an article in the BBC asking, “Do gay people still need gay bars?,” Atherton Lin responds: “The BBC could just as well have asked, Do gay bars still need gay people?” Certain evidence suggests that both (gay bars and gay people) may be redundant in the contemporary (“Being Gay Is Passé,” Atherton Lin quotes from another recent headline). On the one hand, the near redundancy of gay people and places can be tied to the increasing popularity (and appropriation) of gay subcultural practices since the 1990s. Atherton Lin recounts the situation of one gay bar in West Hollywood that was so overrun with heterosexual bachelorette parties that it needed to open a second, smaller venue for its queer clientele.
On the other hand, queer as a fluid, progressive, umbrella term has at times relegated gay to the past. Once a radical reclamation, queer is now largely compatible with mainstream respectability, “somehow both theoretically radical and appropriate in polite company.” Jason Chen observes that how we identify sexually also subtly places us in (or out of) time: “To identify as gay when I have the option of queer does carry a tinge of quaintness that feels, if not retrograde, then slightly out of step with the progressivism of our current cultural mood.” In this contradictory context, where it is at once hip to be queer and deadly to be a queer, one gay bar owner bleakly tells Atherton Lin, “Frankly, it was better when we were unacceptable.”
To be marginalized—so the spatial metaphor suggests—is still to have a discrete (and discreet) place. Atherton Lin drags up from early 20th-century archives a police officer’s assessment that a low-lit cruising area around the Adelphi housing development in London constituted a “resort of persons of the Sodomite class.” A last resort, maybe, but a resort nonetheless; a place to negotiate the contradictions of identity and desire outside “polite company.”
These intracommunity negotiations have provided opportunities for transmitting histories that otherwise remain untold. Arguments in support of preserving gay bars—economically and historically—emphasize their role as a center of community and a site of intergenerational wisdom. “There’s not just a gap, but a chasm between generations that AIDS created,” Bus Station John, DJ of a gay bar in San Francisco, explains. “Their absence is felt by those of us who are old enough to feel it. But the younger ones are never going to know about them unless we tell them.” “We went out to be told,” Atherton Lin answers. “We went out to feel it. We went out to experience how it used to be.”
At the same time, Atherton Lin questions this activist common sense, citing the dearth of wisdom he has received on a barstool (“We go out to get some,” one answer to the book’s subtitle reads simply). In addition to failing to provide a space for edification, he points out, gay bars have also actively participated in the discriminatory practices that have denied Black and brown queers a space, period. And, as Cáel Keegan points out, many of the narratives that we attach to gay bars—think of “Stonewall” as the metonym for Gay Liberation—often “re-route the transformative power of queer and transgender histories upward and away from the most at-risk LGBTQ populations”: HIV-positive, working-class, of color queer, and trans populations.1
In the twilight of the gay bar, there’s a confused consensus that the loss of discrete queer spaces is bad, even as the loss of the need for them is good.
So, is the gay bar an anachronism, a relic of a problematic past, an impossible ideal, a nostalgic hang-up? Or is it an institution that still has a place in the present? The answer that Gay Bar proposes is coyly noncommittal and deceptively simple: it’s none and all of these. Rather, Atherton Lin approaches the gay bar as a physical manifestation of the limited tools we have at hand for telling history and for imagining ourselves in it. As he considers state-sponsored attempts to make queer history “heritageable,” he suggests that queer history is incompatible with official narratives perhaps because it posits an alternative entanglement of time, memory, identity, desire, and place. To tell queer history is to side with minor, personal, and ephemeral details, to weave “history, the subject you study,” out of “history, that thing you have with that guy by the jukebox whose name you can’t remember,” as Hugh Ryan puts it.
If queer history is a story of desire, it is also a story of desiring history. “Gay is an identity of longing,” Atherton Lin muses, “and there is a wistfulness to beholding it in the form of a building, like how the sight of a theater stirs the imagination.” As he describes it, this wistful imagination may vivify the world around us, but the world made by queer longing in turn becomes part of the story of who we are: “I can touch the bricks, and so for the moment don’t believe gayness is a social construct or stifling invention, but a legacy. So I overidentify.” An associate editor of the journal Failed States, Atherton Lin has long been considering the way that space and time are functions of narrative and identification. Founding editor Jamie Atherton quotes spatial theorist Doreen Massey to describe the journal’s aim: “If space is … a simultaneity of stories-so-far, then places are a collection of those stories.”
Atherton Lin is hardly alone in his tendency to overidentify and to traverse space in the present by way of stories from the past. If the past two decades have seen a substantial decline in the number of gay and lesbian bars open for business, the past decade has seen a rise in tools to open them up to our imagination—tools, as Atherton Lin might put it, of “borrowed nostalgia.” Interactive maps like the Addresses Project, NYC LGBT Historic Sites, and Evan Knopf’s map of queer San Francisco offer a way of “touching the bricks” across time and space. Here is another way to be gay anywhere: many of these places exist nowhere but in shared and dispersed collective memory.
Before the internet, before hypertext allowed us to jump into queer places and times, there was the rather crude tool of fiction. June Thomas, as quoted in Gay Bar, argues that the defining feature of a gay bar is that it has “more literature”: magazines, flyers, guides, or pamphlets with health information hang out on the bar’s periphery. But the inverse might also be true: there are more bars in gay literature. On just one page of David Feinberg’s Eighty-Sixed (1989), for example, my mind tours the Anvil, Paradise Garage, Ice Palace, and the Mineshaft (to say nothing of the bathhouses). And it is perhaps one of the ironies of historical progress that the “guided tour of all the lesbian bars below Fourteenth Street” that a lesbian activist gives to her mostly straight, married lover in Sarah Schulman’s People in Trouble (1990) has become a resource for me, a lesbian born at the time of the novel’s publication.2
Like Atherton Lin, I’m not sure I can recall the first lesbian bar I went to, but I can recall the books that have taken me to gay and lesbian bars that closed before I was born. Because queer novels have often served as guidebooks and historical records, it is fitting that the first chapter of Gay Bar begins with a reference to Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978)—an “it’s just past the post office” gesture that helps queer readers rendezvous in a place of shared historical memory. Similarly, I can recognize Atherton Lin’s early aughts San Francisco because Michelle Tea is his literal neighbor and literary fellow-traveler (in official historical time, I was in elementary school on the East Coast). I’ve walked these paths before, in other people’s memories.
Oscar Wilde says that memory “is the diary … that chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn’t possibly have happened.”3 Similarly, for Atherton Lin, writing a memoir is a process of “telling ghost stories,” a way of opening a city to “outlandish possibilities.” That’s why, sometimes, I stay in. That’s why I go to bed early, books like Gay Bar beside me on the nightstand. Atherton Lin jokes about being a “bad gay” when he has not gone out enough. For my generation, those of us who came of age during that period of 36.6 percent decline and counting, being “bad” doesn’t mean staying in so much as staying in time: closing ourselves off to the outlandish tense of what might have been. When there’s a better chance of encountering a gay bar in a book than on a street, texts like Gay Bar help formulate the stories out of which impossible queer places are built. So, as the weather gets warmer, as more outdoor venues open, I’ll head back to Cubbyhole and Henrietta’s, but, as always, I’ll bring a book.
This article was commissioned by Sophie Gonick.