Even before I ever went inside a gay bar, I was aware of the smell. A mixture of cologne and BO, it’d waft out of the open doors of the cavernous establishment down the street from where I lived, like man cake emanating from a queer bakery. I’d walk through that smell almost every day while still in the closet, holding a steadfast, soldierly resolve to stare straight ahead. Surely if some passerby saw me even casually glance in, they’d figure out I was gay. Not only that, but they’d also run and gossip to all my friends and family. The neuroticism of being closeted is like that stress of seeing a cop while you’re stoned, but 24/7, and also, you like gay sex.
It turns out that Gay Bar Smell (a free cologne idea one of the Queer Eye guys should cash in on) was an auspicious introduction for me, and an iconic one at that. It’s even referred to in the very first line of Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, the recently released book written by Jeremy Atherton Lin that aims to capture the intricacies, complications, and fabulousness of this culture. In the first words of Chapter 1, there it is: “It’s starting to smell like penis here…” William Faulkner couldn’t have conjured up a better opening. “I wanted to let the reader know that I wasn’t going to start with a sanitized version of what these bars could be,” Atherton Lin, a writer and editor based in London, told me when we spoke earlier this year. “It’s rather a dirty version, where people can feel a different kind of ease and be true to themselves.”
Yes, gay bars are more than whatever combination of sweaty armpits and Calvin Klein Eternity the nose picks up implies. A safe space, a therapist’s office, a dance club, a live theater, a place to get super drunk (or pleasantly tipsy), a spot to find a hookup, an establishment to drown sorrows, and an oasis to escape reality are just some of the ways to describe what queer watering holes mean to the gay masses. Throw in the fact that the modern day LGBTQ rights movement started when a diverse array of patrons, trans activist Marsha P. Johnson among them, participated in the 1969 Stonewall uprising at the eponymous New York City bar, and you have not just a place to guzzle down vodka sodas while dancing until 2 a.m. to Whitney Houston. Though, that absolutely happens too; nothing pairs better with the third spin of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” than a plastic cup of seltzer that tastes like rubbing alcohol and lime.
“Some people treat them just as a bar, but to so many others it’s a community,” Steven McEnrue says. He’s the general manager of Metropolitan, a gay bar located in Brooklyn, New York. “You see familiar faces and get to have that camaraderie with everyone. That’s why it’s a personally rewarding job and one I feel the responsibility of pretty heavily. It’s keeping something alive and thriving that gives back to many people.” David L. Cooley, the owner of the popular Los Angeles gay bar the Abbey, tells this story: “One time a kid was put on a plane by his parents at LAX, but instead he snuck off and took a cab here,” he recalls. “When they realized he left the airport, there was an Amber Alert looking for him. We came to find out that they were sending him to a conversion camp. He didn’t want to go and said he knew he’d be welcome at the Abbey.”
Simply put, Atherton Lin writes, “A gay bar, it will be said, affords refuge.”
Before I realized the importance of having a strong LGBTQ community around me, gay bars were an ominous mystery. Much like gender reveal parties today, they seemed both obnoxious and dangerous to a closeted me, ignorant of the mere idea of a gay community. The first time I reluctantly stepped inside a gay bar was at that effervescent spot around the corner from where I lived, because a friend had made it his mission to bring me. I mentally prepared myself ahead of time (a.k.a. got hammered), trying to muster courage as if I were about to storm the beaches of Normandy. Inside, I was intimidated. I had never seen so many gay people in one room before. After a half hour, I begged to leave. This was a facet of my gay evolution that I was only reminded of after reading Gay Bar.
“You get a lot of first-time bar narratives, especially from older gays,” says Atherton Lin of the rite of passage, as important as your first kiss, or the realization that “poppers” isn’t a nickname for buttered corn. “People always say that they nervously walked around the block, didn’t go in, and then the next day they finally did and discovered their true selves.” But he calls this narrative the “utopian ideal,” reserved for those who already knew their identities. “For me, I was taken along. I was in a friend group of girls that overlapped with gay boys. But being taken along is something that gets kind of forgotten.”
Gay Bar: Why We Went Out makes the reader recall stories of their own in a vicarious way, even if they never went to the kinds of bars Atherton Lin writes about—in London and San Francisco. The author had his share of epiphanies when he was writing it, not only about himself but the culture he thought he knew so well, too. “The main discoveries of the book is that initially I thought a lot of the bars I was taken to in London were generic, cheesy, and cold,” he says. “I’m more forgiving about that era in the late ’90s and early ’00s, because a lot of them were the visible repudiations of the AIDS crisis. In reaction, gay culture was shaved chests and designed to look wholesome and healthy; striking back at this fear of contamination. The gloss and sheen made me feel uncomfortable, but now I realize why that happened culturally.”
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Still, he knows that the complicated history of gay bars, and the issues that still exist today, aren’t so easy to grapple with. “A lot of the banal and generic places that have these incredible histories are also problematic too, especially involving racism, sexism, ableism, and ageism,” he notes. “But at the same time, they’re rich spots where political progress was made.”
At Metropolitan, McEnrue has held a front row seat to that evolution for over a decade, long before same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015. “I remember what it was like pre-dating apps,” he says with a laugh. “It’s funny how things have changed [with gay rights]. Some for the better and some, I don’t know. When it comes to acceptance and exposure, we’re being represented across the board. I think there’s a general sigh of relief.”
Today, gay bars run the gamut from squeaky clean to utter grunge. I’m reminded of a recent trip to Seattle. One night I ventured to Queer/Bar, housed in a tasteful brick building with a sign outside resembling the CVS logo, the inside boasting purple lights and a shiny wooden floor. Another I went to, the Eagle, a historic chain that has locations around the country, resembled an aged, multi-story house-slash-dive bar, complete with metal fence accents and a reputation for being rough around the edges. (If you’ve ever worn a harness, you know about the Eagle.) Each flavor scratches a different gay bar itch. “The very nature of a bar allows one to drop some of our reservations and interact more openly,” Derek Danton, co-owner of the Eagle NYC with his husband, Robert Berk, tells me. “It’s a tough world, constantly having to measure what we say or do in public. In a bar, we can let down some of that guard and just relax.”
It’s a sad irony that the release of Gay Bar came at a time when many gay bars were either closed temporarily, in danger of closing permanently—like one of New York’s only Black-owned gay bars, Alibi—or done for good, like the Chicago Boystown mainstay Little Jim’s. “I miss seeing life in three dimensions,” says Atherton Lin of the void in gay culture left by them. “With social media, it’s really easy to be in one echo chamber and see things with very little nuance. But for me as a queer person, what I miss is how when you’re in a space together, you’re breathing the same air, spilling drinks on each other, and always being introduced to somebody new. To me, that involves a sense of forgiveness.” He has a point. Waiting in a coat check line and striking up a conversation with a stranger who becomes your new best friend would never happen in the digital realm. At least, not without sharing a picture of your penis first.
In Brooklyn, Metropolitan recently opened its doors for (seated only) revelry for the first time in a full year. (The time away was well-spent, as the bar took the opportunity to update the place, including its aging bathrooms, which would have made a black light overheat and explode.) At the Abbey, Cooley is looking forward to everyone finally dancing indoors to Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, and the subtler moments, too. “I can pick out the newcomers from far away. They’ll be standing nervously by the door and say they’re waiting for someone,” he explains. “I’ll be like, ‘Come on in and have a drink! I’m the owner.’”
Back at the Eagle, Danton couldn’t be more ready for the full return of gay bar culture. “Someone said that it will be the roaring ’20s all over again,” he says. “I believe that.” The signs of a rebirth are starting to show.
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Source : Esquire