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Gay bars, gentrification, and homophobia

January 7, 2011 - 11:15 AM
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Last fall, Herndon bar So Addictive began stacking its nightly schedule with LGBT events: A Tuesday drag bingo night here, a Thursday lesbian mixer there. Soon, the bar had established itself as Fairfax County's first (almost) full-time gay bar.

The bar's switch has sparked speculation on the economic prospects of a gay bar in an area of the country that has been traditionally considered "not exactly the most hospitable place for gays." The arrival of a gay bar in Fairfax has also inspired debate on the LGBT haunt's effect on the surrounding economy. Is a pioneering gay bar a sign that an area is gentrifying? Or—in an already flush area like Herndon—does a gay bar's arrival mean the town may be experiencing an economic downturn? Fairfax residents debate the economic implications of rainbow flags and drag queens:

"Gay bars are associated with gentrification," one Fairfax resident argues. "They are often located in fringe areas where the affluent alternative lifestyle crowd moves in [and] improves the area." But the resident worries that the arrival of a gay bar in already-gentrified old town Herndon could signal that the area is flirting with the economic "fringe."

"In an emerging area," the commenter writes, "a gay bar is almost always going to be a good thing. In established Herndon . . . I'm not sure if it will detract more." The resident added: "I'd probably fall into the category that it could make Herndon appear 'trendy' if shown in the correct light. On the other hand, it could make the traditional old town appear to be decayed."

LGBT establishments have a complex history with the gentrification of cities. At a glance: In response to discriminatory zoning laws and social ostracization, gay bars traditionally set up shop in underdeveloped urban areas with lower rents and looser regulations. Around these establishments, LGBT neighborhoods formed, later attracting more well-to-do members of the community—and eventually, more affluent straights, too. The gentrification of a gay village signaled a certain mainstream social acceptance of gays—but it also meant pushing less affluent members of the LGBT community back on the social fringes. Straight gentrifiers of gay villages may be willing to tolerate wealthy gay yuppies, but they can also facilitate the marginalization of others in the LGBT community.

Of course, that nominal social acceptance of a certain sliver of gay culture can pop up in places that don't share that same history of gentrification, like Herndon. So Addictive's switch to majority-LGBT entertainment is likely less a comment on the area's economic trends than it is a sign that the area's straight community just isn't homophobic enough to have much interest in harassing or policing a single gay bar in its midst. "As to what sort of effect this is going to have on Herndon . . . aside from surprising a lot of people, I'm not expecting much," one resident writes. "The bar exists because there is already an LGBT community in western Fairfax and eastern Loudoun, many of whom work in the tech sector. I don't think it will cause an influx of gay people to move to Herndon and 'gentrify' it, or cause anyone to leave Herndon, or anything else."

Predictably, the development debate over So Addictive is focused more on appearances than it is legitimate economic concerns. In the past, homophobia forced gay bars to set up shop in poorer neighborhoods; now,  concerns over urban "decay" can serve as convenient covers for lingering homophobic attitudes. "I don't judge the lifestyle, but being one quite conservative when it comes to urban design, I do not like the idea of a rainbow flag flying across the street from the town hall," the gentrification-minded Fairfax resident writes. "The flag needs to go." He adds: "Will the drag queen action be kept inside or will the town lose it's family friendly character?"

"You're talking as if Herndon has never seen a gay person before," another resident chimes in. "Maybe it was that way back in the 1950s, but these days all sorts of people live in Herndon, including plenty of gays."

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  1. Chimer Chimer

    Tim Tom

    Jan 07, 2011 - 11:45:12 AM

    Guess I'll be the first to say that I won't be going to that place again. Not mad at the owners though, money is the same color not matter who it's coming from.

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