Gay Bar: Why We Went Out is a fusion of memoir and cultural history as Jeremy Atherton Lin charts the gay bars he’s visited, their importance in his life, and the wider history of gay bars as spaces in cities like London, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Split into sections that broadly cover different locations that he’s lived or gone out in, the book looks back both through a personal lens and a historical one, thinking not only about gay bars as a place, but also about the cultural around them and how ‘gay culture’ has evolved.
Starting this book, I expected more of a history of gay bars, but the subtitle is important: it’s more about that personal ‘why’ and how places impact a person. Jeremy Atherton Lin weaves his life throughout, notably a romance that starts on a night in Soho and reflects on being a mixed-race man in gay spaces. The memoir element is enjoyable, giving a sense of being out with him in these places and bringing together a topic that otherwise might seem disparate (so the focus is on the gay bars that he’s been to, not all the ‘best’ examples, whatever that could be). There’s something great about people’s personal experiences with LGBTQ spaces, like you or a friend are describing how places have been important to you, or you’ve met someone in a bar explaining the history to you.
It’s a weird time to be reading a book like this, when people haven’t been able to go out in a long time mostly, and that adds to the yearning sense of losing history as many gay bars close. There’s a good underlying criticality and reflection about some of the issues around gay bars, from race to what rules spaces impose, but ultimately it is about one person (well, at many points, two) and their experiences in gay bars, and that gives it a lot of heart.