Criticism & Features

Year 2021: 30 Books

Gay Bar by Jeremy Atherton Lin: 2021 Autobiography Finalist

By Heather Scott Partington

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin (Little, Brown)

“Gay bars are sites of genuine artifice,” Jeremy Atherton Lin writes in his memoir, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. “We go out to be real, which in gay argot can mean fake it.” This is the tension of his crackling debut: self-creation through the adoption of personas, and the paradox of self-discovery in a carefully curated space. “I went out,” he writes, “to get attention—or rather, to refract it.” Atherton Lin leads the reader through the gay bars of his own life—from LA to London and San Francisco—while elucidating the queer history of each city.

Atherton Lin came of age in the 1990s when the AIDS crisis left a notable gap in the narrative. The author’s work represents a turning toward the thing he initially resisted, an illumination of history that’s been intentionally hidden. Gay Bar is a study in frankness, of writing into those dark spaces. The dark spaces are sweaty, performative, and sexual, too: “[W]e made a sight to peep from the glory holes,” he writes in one scene of anonymous group sex, “pressing together and kissing like an onanistic king rat.” Atherton Lin’s writing is equally sure when it’s historical, erotic, or tender. The author is a master of the hybrid genre, contextualizing gay history via his own story and vice-versa. This is a memoir that will be used to teach the possibilities of the form.

What does it mean to write about gay identity as the bars disappear? Atherton Lin admits “an agency in the retelling, in the self-deprecation and of course self-mythologizing. Memoir is how you groom yourself. Memoir is drag.” Gay Bar is a history of both queer and interior space. Its syntax sparkles with life and levity. It’s intimacy, fog, and pheromones. Armpits, architecture, penises, and painted windows. Cultural geography and cultural criticism. Voyeurism. Iconography. A filthy, formative, and spiritual education. It’s everything.

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