For our second post highlighting the writing in the magazines we champion, we present a piece from the 10th anniversary issue of Port.
The magazine is celebrating its anniversary with a bold new logo from creative director Matt Willey, used in various ways across five different covers (above). Inside the issue, an annotated page of miniature spreads from their 2011 launch issue appraises what has changed in the ten years. One element that remains from that first issue is Porter, the opening section.
Our excerpt comes from an essay in the new issue’s Porter by author Jeremy Atherton Lin, based on his well-received book ‘Gay Bar: Why We Went Out.’
Port editor Thomas Bolger told us, ‘When we read Jeremy’s (at the time) upcoming book, we knew right away we wanted him to share his insight and experience of queer spaces, and gave him the unenviable task of condensing London’s definition of the gay bar – past, present and future – onto a single page.’ Here, Jeremy reflects on the beginnings and endings of queer sites of belonging.
Over to Jeremy…
There can be no gay-bar grand narrative. The first gay bar? Depends what you mean. There’s no Gay Bar Common Era, unless we presume to label a historical hotspot retroactively. The first recorded use of the term gay bar is a diary entry by comedian Kenneth Williams (“Went round to the gay bar which wasn’t in the least gay…”). That was Singapore, 1947. The venue he’d attended would have been specific to that time and place. It’s also possible he was merely being ironic, not intent on coining a name.
In London, theatres provided a location to rendezvous since something like the 16th century. The molly house, a meeting place for proto-gays and cross-dressers in the 18th century, is cited as a predecessor to the gay bar as we know it. There, lying-in ceremonies were held during the Christmas season, with the mollies gathering to witness one of their own ‘give birth’ to a jointed wooden doll. (Sometimes ‘the midwife’ instead delivered a block of Cheshire cheese.) This spectacle involved, according to a sensationalist exposé from 1709, much bustle and buffoonery.
In London’s Soho after the crest of AIDS, soiled pubs were replaced by gleaming bars purpose-built for a socially acceptable image of gay. Their sleek, sanitised interiors connoted a place free from disease, an aesthetic the scholar Johan Andersson identifies as ‘chichi’. The surfaces were smooth and impenetrable, like the staff. Through large plate glass could be seen gaggles of proudly out, wholesome gays. I assumed such places had been around forever, whereas gay bars had only recently been unmarked, with blacked-out windows. A few decades prior, a Soho pub was vulnerable to raid if it had the whiff of too much panache.
The slick, commercial gay bars of the ’90s demonstrate how social spaces that follow an epidemic won’t necessarily be a utopian reimagining. The future gay bar might err on the side of caution. It’s not hard to imagine a scant few remaining – operated by chains, with vaccinated but skittish customers at a distance, serenaded by rusty drag queens.
Then again, the proliferation of lockdown-breaking raves exposed the allure of the illicit, not to mention how the urge for social contact isn’t always matched by social responsibility. Walking past the nitrous canisters and rainbow flags chalked on pavements, I considered how easy it is to neglect the existence of vulnerable gay elders in our vicinity. By contrast, the team behind the Chateau – no longer a brick-and-mortar (and stained glass) venue – hosted an online event celebrating the story of another bygone south London institution, the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre. It was a deft move of using the dispiriting present moment to put things into perspective.
There’s much punditry about the death of the gay bar. But which one? The gay bar has meant mafia-owned dives, spit-and-sawdust rooms run by lesbian poets, S&M dungeons, touristy cabarets. Each has its issues, but cumulatively suggest all manner of hedonism. The lineage is multifarious and slippery. Another shakeup would only honour the spirit of the story. The gay bar need not be taken as a given.
Read the whole article in Port issue 28, Spring/Summer 2021