Gay Bar: why we went out
Jeremy Atherton Lin is a writer from California whose new book, Gay Bar, asks: does gay still have a place? With queer venues closing around the world, Gay Bar is a hilarious, arousing and challenging reminder, not just of where we went out – but why.
Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Order your copy here.
In Blackpool, nearly everyone was as white as a seagull’s belly.
Census reports indicate less than five per cent of local residents are not. Some are actually burnished red, or grey from nicotine. An emaciated woman who stumbled toward us along the concrete steps of the north shore was alarmingly green. At first, I thought she’d painted herself that way, like a Kathakali dancer, then wondered what cheap drugs she’d been taking. It was a Saturday at the end of September and a rare occasion of unclouded sky. A sunbather with skin as bright pink as her hair spilt a premixed cocktail out of a plastic bottle in the shape of a palm tree. The puddle she straddled was preternaturally blue. “Toxic,” she pronounced. When she discovered it had saturated her spliff, she added, “I’ve nothing to live for. Throw me into the sea.” This was delivered to a mannish woman I took to be her partner, who chortled.
The population of Blackpool has been declining since 2001. There are high rates of depression, obesity, smoking and liver disease. In the city’s poorest ward, men have the lowest life expectancy of any in the country. The week we were there, the BBC announced that eight of the nation’s 10 most deprived neighbourhoods were in Blackpool. In 2016, over 67 per cent of its voters cast their ballots to leave the European Union, returning the largest majority in the North West region. In Blackpool, the line seemed to be: there may be nothing to live for, but at least you can always hurl yourself into the sea. It wasn’t up to me to determine if the intention is to drown or prove you can swim. There, I glimpsed an Anglo national identity articulated on the esplanade and in karaoke bars – a dignity in mess, resilience, a binge-drinking stiff upper lip, the art of salting the chip on your shoulder. What I hadn’t anticipated was how this identity could also be so gay.
At night, the gulls were lit from below by the signage of nightclubs and arcades, and the humans also took on glints of the town’s neon as they darted across streets or stood smoking. On arriving with my companion, the Famous Blue Raincoat, I pulled our suitcase on wheels from the train station through a residential neighbourhood made remarkable only by the signs indicating that many of the terraced houses were actually small hotels, and of those several included some semblance of a gay bar in the lobby. They are called Legends or Chaps or the Prince Albert. Guests may be treated to amenities such as two bags of Haribo on the bed and a bottle of Rush on the adjacent sling. Famous pointed out a hotel called Trades, with a baleful façade and members-only sign. I’ve read that another local guesthouse briefly called itself the Viagra (“We will keep you up all night!”) until a horrified mother went to the press, the council intervened and the proprietor facetiously switched the name to Niagra (“We will keep you wet all night!”). It was our neighbours back in London, Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, who had urged me to visit Blackpool. The two artists probably went to more gay bars in the nation than anyone while making their 2016 video archive project, UK Gay Bar Directory. They told me that the bars in Blackpool were filled with older people and women, an unusual mix, unlike anyplace else. When Famous and I saw them again and mentioned we’d bought the train tickets, they reminded us that Growlr, the men-only club, was held above Man Bar.
We first went to Peek-a-Booze, which was heaving. I moved through the crowd sideways, new in town and ready to be appreciated. But the few eyes that caught mine were indifferent. Above us was a low grid of flame-resistant tiles, an office ceiling. The barroom floor and stage were fitted in tartan carpet, with a linoleum dance floor between. I ordered two gin and sodas. “Doubles,” the butch bartender assumed. “Singles,” I replied. She shot me a look of mock disapproval. I corrected myself. “Any fruit?” she asked over the giant goblets. I could only think of lime, which further disappointed her. She threw in some juniper berries. Neither could I think of anything to add to meet the credit card minimum. “Shooters!” she proclaimed, gesturing to a display of tiny bottles behind her in an array of shocking hues. We opted to add another gin and soda. On the stage behind us, a man in a metallic top under a denim jacket stood in front of a twinkling curtain, singing a slightly off-key rendition of Grace Kelly by Mika. When the singer went into falsetto to hit the octave jump, the bartender mouthed along spiritedly. I happened to have seen a young drag queen perform the same song on stage at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern not long before. While their avant-garde clown make-up and stunning vocal range were objectively more impressive, it was here that I suddenly, as if for the first time, heard the lyrics. Apparently, Grace Kelly is a song about going identity mad, which entails the attempt to mimic iconic celebrities, then exploring all the colours one could be: brown or blue or – octave jump – violet sky…
Famous and I found a place in a corner, standing at a tall table. I dumped half of the third drink into each of our glasses. “Triples,” I said. Bald men in tight T‑shirts stood around us in cliques of three. Less predictably, at large tables along the far wall, were groups in a wide range of ages, genders and body types. They faced toward the dancefloor and stage wearing expressions like residents at a retirement home, at once unimpressed and content. A variety of people wearing mother-of-the-bride dresses sipped through straws. A diminutive woman in a wheelchair wore a top hat with a glittery skull sash around the brim, while her giant companion donned a ruffled shirt and high black boots. The place seemed to perform multiple functions at once: village hall, working men’s club, trans support group, senior citizens centre. Middle-aged cross-dressers moved through in tea-party frocks with no attempt to transform their heavy gait. The singer had moved on to Bob Marley, informing the room that everything was going to be alright. When he took a break, a drag queen DJ put on Together in Electric Dreams. Groups of women danced with evangelical arms. A pair of transvestites fell into an embrace at the word “together”. A small guy with a crew cut and cocky swagger, wearing a shiny black tracksuit and black polo buttoned all the way up – a Blackpool tuxedo, maybe – squeezed through. The bartender who’d poured our big drinks walked past collecting glasses. She goosed a woman she knew, and they broke into laughter.
A club around the corner beckoned with a long illuminated sign box reading “it’s a gay thing!”. It was nearly empty and smelled of stale cleaning solvents. I watched as the teenage bartender attempted to impress his female colleague by hocking a loogie onto the wall over the sink. Down the street, the Flying Handbag was more upbeat. There were wooden tables and booths on either side of the central bar, sprawling like a restaurant in the American suburbs. But it was a distinctly Blackpool trope when the chubby drag queen DJ picked up the microphone midsong to toss out sardonic comments. I couldn’t understand anything she said, as her Northern idioms rumbled against the grille of the mic. I thought a pair of conferring lads resembled Famous and myself until it dawned we hadn’t been that young for ages.
At Man Bar, we ordered a drink from a bartender who stood with pride in front of some 80 different brands of gin. We then gave cash to a boy at the end of the counter, who handed us each a paper wristband granting admission into the cruising club, Growlr, and took the stairs. It was almost a gentlemen’s parlour, with its stuffed furniture and wood cabinets, the size of a standard two-bedroom apartment. Objects were suspended from the ceiling: skinhead braces, handcuffs, jockstraps, football shorts, a deck of playing cards. We peeked into a side room with metal gym lockers and walls painted gaffer-tape grey, with hi-vis gear and hard hats dangling overhead. The foyer was fitted with a velvet settee, painted with tree murals and strung with camouflage netting. A rifle case was mounted to the wall; boots, rucksacks and camo overclothes dangled from the ceiling. This was a perverse homage to the homophobic father of Barry, the leatherman who once managed the bar. As Hannah and Rosie had heard it, Barry’s father had been imprisoned for attempting to shoot his mother with a hunting gun. Barry had cut the crotches out of his dad’s trousers and strung them above the private booths. “Queer talismans,” Hannah and Rosie thought, but Barry explained it as the best revenge he could think of.
It was a very Caucasian room. The Union Jack bunting I found ostracising; the American flag made me feel no more welcome. On a high shelf, a green wooden sign spelled “Cocktail Bar” in golden gothic lettering. A pair of black bovver boots with white laces was placed centrally in front of it, leaving only “Cock Bar” visible. At the far end of the club was the maze. At its threshold, we got the impression of how tiny it was – truncated down to its dead ends. A few men bumped around without much room to manoeuvre, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to enter.
Instead, we took seats on a circular bench facing a porn of beautiful young Slovak men. I wondered how often the locals had anonymous sex here. Tourists surely passed through, but generally the men – already a dozen or so present – were chatting away with a familiarity that made the sex club set-up seem more decorative trope than fit for purpose. The delirium meant to fill a cruise bar was acknowledged rather than experienced. A notice prohibited drugs and sex. Growlr was, it asserted, “a cruising and posing club only”. Still, out of habit, I broke a blue pill in two, and we each washed down half with our gin.
Just as we were swallowing, a man swooped onto the bench next to Famous. “Are you two together?” he asked. We nodded. He looked at me. “Can I spend some time alone with him?” He pointed at Famous. “NO,” I snapped, vehemently. He began to speak to Famous anyway. He rambled about being from a small town in Yorkshire, and how there was nothing going on there. “And I’m not gay,” he said. “Oh, wait,” he corrected himself. “I actually am. I keep forgetting.” The man alluded to Trades, the sketchy looking hotel we’d noticed earlier in the evening. According to him, the darkroom there was even darker. “You can’t see anything at all,” he reported. I pretended to watch the actors rimming each other on the TV.
We wrangled ourselves away, moving through a group of middle-aged men in tight Fred Perry polos. The alpha slipped his hand onto my ass. Famous and I peeked into the locker room again, surprised by a group of passably attractive young men in a confab around a table. None looked up. They seemed to be playing a card game without cards. We landed on the velvet settee under the dangling field sports gear. We’d reached an impasse: I fumed that Famous had blithely led the creep on. Famous explained he hadn’t heard the man ask my permission to take him away, and thought him harmless. Couples in gay bars is a tricky thing. Jealousy and envy can entangle so that they can’t be told apart.
An attractive young Black guy made himself known to the room. He glanced back a couple of times as he slipped out onto the smoking terrace. Through the glass door, the man and I looked at each other, him smoking silently, me in heated discussion with Famous. Back inside, he passed the pack in polo shirts, and the alpha grabbed him. I registered the fact that he and I were the only two non-whites in the room, and wondered if that coincided with this man’s entitlement to our bodies. I thought about what each of us represented to the other. That Union Jack bunting taunted me, and each of the other objects around us appeared totemic of patriarchy, maybe even white supremacy.
We left for some fresh air, moving toward the seafront past a windowless building flying a rainbow flag, with a dull lightbox proclaiming it a men’s sauna. It gave no sign of life, not even steam piped into the air. We took the concrete steps down to the water. The ocean was black in the night. Looking back at the town, I saw the signs advertising fish and chips and knew we’d have to get some greasy potatoes eventually to absorb the gin. But, for now, we stood apart on two different levels looking over the inscrutable sea.
Extract taken from Gay Bar published by Granta on 4th March. Descriptions are based on cultural and geographical context. Terminology is not always neutral, but reflects the experience of the moment, geddit?