On Going Out

R. Michael Kelley, Photograph of Chuck Arnett's Tool Box Mural (1975)

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin. 306 pages. Little, Brown & Company.

What does being out mean now that we are in for what can seem like an endless perpetuity? Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar offers something like a eulogy for gay bars, those spaces of exploration where many went out in the search for a queer life. Writing before COVID-19 radically restructured our forms of social life even further, Atherton Lin already is focused in a past tense on “why we went out.” Atherton Lin’s book is a hybrid and particular, a personal accounting of the bars he inhabited in San Francisco, London and LA alongside a wider researched history of these spaces and communities. What proved especially riveting for me were the more extensive histories Atherton Lin researches and describes. Late in the book while attending a fundraiser at a gay bar for Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (a slightly altered resurrection of a prior activist slogan), Atherton Lin’s longtime partner, who he names only as his “Famous Blue Raincoat,” picks up a T-Shirt which reads NOT GAY AS IN HAPPY, QUEER AS IN FUCK YOUR BORDERS. Atherton Lin writes, “the slogan reclaims gay as a form of queer (one that can still be about, as Famous put it, outrage, activism, organizing.)” This moment shows in micro some of the ultimate ambitions of the book: finding ways for thinking about and being invested in what gay identity offers in our current moment and connecting this identification to outrage, activism and organizing. What is significant in Atherton Lin’s book, to me, is his writing in the present day to past gay identities, including his own, not holding on but seeing change as central.

The image at the top of this review comes from Atherton Lin’s San Francisco chapter, when he writes about a demolished leather bar. The author writes, “when the Tool Box was torn down for redevelopment in 1975, its murals remained. This is a very San Francisco story: the weatherman wall stood exposed, some reckon, for another couple of years—near a freeway ramp bringing drivers into the city.” This strange role of the mural, between presence and absence, endurance and destruction, perhaps encompasses the discussion of gay bars here—part of the landscape of Atherton Lin’s life, both past and present. I thought of how many social spaces, DJ nights and queer events popped up on Zoom in our perpetual lockdown—perhaps like the demolished Tool Box, despite all the changes of our landscape, a desire for queer community still remains. “I was preoccupied with the relationship between people and places, and noticed the realms I inhabited were conspicuously mortal…This was my domain: I loitered in the fading away,” writes Atherton Lin. This mural shows us the fade, both how present and past the Tool Box remained as it turned into landscape. By recognizing this sense of loss and shifting as continually central to gay and queer identities, perhaps new things can be opened. “Identity is articulated through the spaces we occupy but both are constantly changing,” he writes. Gay Bar asks the reader to look back at some of these shifts and, in the author’s words, to try history on.