Disappointed — as well as welcomed, astonished, exasperated, intimidated. The bars both affirmed and challenged his sense of identity. In the opening scene, Atherton Lin and his partner (rather regrettably referred to as the Famous Blue Raincoat, after the Leonard Cohen song) go out to a London gay bar, looking for a little adventure, and enter a crowd: “With a kind of brutal elegance, the group spread apart like the blades of a pocketknife.”
He describes the bars not as sanctuary but as refuge, a more complicated concept. “The Latin root refugium positions a refuge as a place to which one flees back — indicating regression, withdrawal and retreat,” he notes. “The question arises as to what distinguishes an enclave from a quarantine, and whether either is any longer necessary.”
The book is broken into sections, each devoted to a particular bar and city. Atherton Lin is a skilled reader of the signifiers of clothes and architecture, the fetishization of working-class fashion, for example, and how the rise of AIDS influenced design decisions: “A new type of gay bar began to appear in London’s Soho in the ’90s — airy, glossy, continental. The design sent a clear message: In here you won’t catch a disease.”
But Atherton Lin is even more talented at seeing what no longer remains, of deciphering places as palimpsests of a kind, with their traces of fragile, fugitive queer history. Sometimes that history is his own.
“Gay Bar” offers a twist on the conventional memoir; it’s a life seen in snapshots, the bars as the backdrop. The book opens in 1992. Amaretto sours in West Hollywood, Atherton Lin in college, still strenuously dating women and meeting his first groups of gay men. “They assessed instead of greeted,” he recalls. “They were swishy — not mincing, but like a sword slicing air.” He’s awkward at the bars, before gratefully discovering that his uncertainty embodies “a desirable archetype of its own: the sheepish boy next door.”