When Gay Bars Gentrify

For a certain type of NPR-devoted socially-conscious queer beer aficionado (aka most of the people who run this website), two of the worst things in our world are 1) the decline of gay bars and 2) gentrification. But what if there’s an uneasy relationship between the two – what if the emergence of new gay bars meant gentrifying the surrounding community?

To examine the issue, Amanda Hess looks at the town of Herndon in Fairfax County, VA, where neighborhood bar So Addictive began with a drag night and dyke night and has begun to transition into a full-time gay bar. But Herndon has traditionally been, as locals put it, “not exactly the most hospitable place for gays.” What does it mean for or about the town that a new gay bar is coming into its own when most gay bars around the country are dying out? Herndon residents have differing opinions on the issue. Are gay bars gentrifying because gay people are hip, trendy, and rich, like on the teevee?Girls Outside Bar

“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.”

Or are they a sign of ‘decay’ – more Stonewall and less Ladies Night, when working-class queers needed a space of their own?

“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.”

Or is this about good old-fashioned homophobia?

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?”

Like virtually everything else gay, the socioeconomic significance of gay bars doesn’t have a lot of research to its name. The information that can be found via a cursory Google search seems like it mostly pertains to the idea of isolated gay communities; what happens in a situation like this, where there’s one largely gay institution in the middle of the most “walkable” area of a “family-friendly” city?

Without research on the economic impact of gay businesses, the issue of what So Addictive’s transition to a gay bar means really comes down to what gay people mean, to residents of Herndon and to the wider community. Are we upper-middle class hipsters who can stimulate the local economy but simultaneously displace and alienate older residents? Or are we social undesirables who will lower everyone’s quality of life with our deviant, beer-swilling, rainbow-flag-waving ways?  The answer is that there is not just kind of one gay person, or one kind of gay bar, or one kind of gay anything. What will happen in Herndon? No one can be sure, but the future is bright, and it promises karaoke.

Profile photo of Rachel

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 771 articles for us.

31 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    OMG. I live in virginia! like, kind of but not reallly close to Herndon. I had NO idea there was a gay bar there but I am totally going to go. Also, ps, I would never have classified Herndon as a place where the trendy, affluent, “alternative” crowd lives. Its where your mom lives. Its a very suburban, housing development, cookie cutter, place. But okay.

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        Wow, Herndon? I used to live in the DC area, and Herndon is about 30 minutes from the city. In the past 10 years it’s been best known for the anti-immigration laws passed there, or attempting to be passed there. Oh, look, it’s still in the news for that…sigh. http://www.myfoxdc.com/dpp/news/virginia/immigration-groups-demand-herndon-repeal-anti-solicitation-law-010411
        Anyway, it’s pretty amazing that a bar would be able to even head in the gay direction in Northern VA. The DC lesbian club scene went from bad to worse while I lived there, and the only club still standing is in an area most people would not want to be at night (but it’s really fun, I promise!). Herndon became somewhat of a fringe area over the last few years due to the immigration issues, and from what I recall, there was a bit of white flight going on there when the housing market was still good. Yay for the attempt at a gar bar, though!

        • Thumb up 0

          Please log in to vote

          Meredith,
          Get a grip. Herndon is not anti-immigrant anything. The laws passed have nothing to do with immigrants. If anything, it’s the effects of ILLEGAL immigration that are the focus. Please note the difference.
          The link you posted should say a lot. That group has no members in Herndon and are simply outsiders trying to make a name for themselves.
          On to So Addictive, it’s not going to be an issue. Sure, there may be some who would like to see it go away, but there are many more who look at it and say “So what?”
          Herndon is a bit more accepting than most people give it credit.
          Since So Addictive started having gay nights on Wednesdays, and then going almost fully gy, there has been no controversy.

  2. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Gee. I didn’t know you had to choose between a gay rainbow flag waving establishment and a town with family-friendly character. Aren’t gay ppl a part of families?

    Anyway, had no idea about the connection of gay bars and gentrification. That’s kind of a weird parallel to me.

    Hasn’t this bar been open for biz for a while? If it turns into a full-fledged gay bar I predict it will bring more money in on account of the idea that businesses usually make decisions based on the bottom line- and it seems their bottom line is being met by us. Of course, it being one rare gay bar in that area, might attract ppl who aren’t considered “gentrified” and that might be the towns reason for concern. IDK. don’t know much about this topic but throwing it out there.

    If it is asked to not “wave it’s flag” it just might be considered homophobia if they think it might hurt the town’s bottom line.

    I think it’s a mixture of bottom lines and conservative thinking that believes a gay bar will cause their family friendly character of a town to decay – hence, losing money.

    We shall see. Money or gay, it sucks.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      “Aren’t gay ppl a part of families?”

      No, we’re pieces of shit off to the side. When will you learn?

      “I think it’s a mixture of bottom lines and conservative thinking that believes a gay bar will cause their family friendly character of a town to decay – hence, losing money.”

      That, and people are douches.

  3. Pingback: Can a Gay Bar Help Gentrify the Surrounding Real Estate? « Gay Realty Watch

  4. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    hmm. first off, anti immigrant sentiment ‘legal’ or not is fucked.
    here in nyc, theres a big gay hipster scene. gentrification is one of the hugest problems in nyc. i grew up and live in the biggest POC immigrant working class LGBT community in the US, so this can be done, no gentrification required.
    the problem isnt so much gay bars moving in and pushing folks out, but with upper class white hipster queers gentrifying the heck out of these communities. some of the most popular queer parties in the ‘scene’ happen in these gentrified communities.
    this is sad.

  5. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Gentrification wouldn’t happen if gays could open bars and live safely anywhere. Even upper-class gays wouldn’t have to make their own communities by gentrifying poorer neighborhoods if they were comfortable living in any upper-class neighborhood.

    I’m a lower-class queer living in a rural area. I couldn’t afford to live in a gay community. But I dunno….I think people forget that upper-class white gays experience systemic homophobia as well. I mean, when you get out into the suburbs there’s gated communities of straight white upper-middle class people with their homeowners associations keeping others out. Sometimes, just having money doesn’t get you into places.

  6. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    The gay bar in Canberra is ok. Unfortunately there’s one ‘Ladies only’ night that happens about once every 6 weeks or so. And also, SO many straight girls are there, I don’t mean to heterophobic but man, it’s kind of annoying in that a) There are so many other bars and b) They take up all the room on the dancefloor dancing with their gay boys. Cube is becoming more and more male focused and with way more straight people there. And, I’d argue that almost every lesbian is looking alike there. Either labre piercing, lip piercing, smoking, Biebians, or a combination seems to be the stock look nowadays. It’s fine if you like that and while I don’t mind the Bieber hair, I’m not so into the piercings and definitely not the smoking. I haven’t tried Hush Lounge though. I hope it’s a bit better.

    Even though I’m not of age, here in Honolulu the bar scene is so male focused and there’s no scene/social groups for queer women. It disappoints me a bit. But at the end of the day, I guess there is quite a strong Christian hold here.

  7. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    hmm no. gentrification and queer/transpobia are a part of the same oppressive system. one didnt force the other. the idea that rich + white = safe is pretty dangerous to me. there are racially diverse queer friendly neighborhoods; i think this is something folks might wanna strive toward, not the chance to live in gated homeowners associated neighborhood watched grossness. that just sounds like we want more PRIVILEGE. not safety. difference.

  8. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    number one feeling: where is the post re: you “queer beer aficionado[s]”

    number two feeling: i don’t know if i necessarily see a correlation between gay bars & gentrification. seems to be operating on the stereotype perpetuated by ‘the l word,’ ‘the real l word,’ ‘the a list,’ etc., that all homogays are ‘privileged.’ like we all just have three million dollars lying around after dating lance bass and then having a wrestling match in cream corn.

    my point is being a hipster is expensive.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      katch brings up an interesting and, I think, important point: Most mainstream representations of the community portray predominantly well-to-do (and usually white) queers. I suspect that image carries over to a lot of people/communities that don’t know better – even some other gay folks, sitting in front of their 15-year-old TVs, wearing jeans and t-shirts, wondering why the hell every other gay but them is so damn rich.

      Obviously, like straight folks, LGBT people occupy all social, economic, and racial groupings. Despite what the media might have us believe.

      There certainly seems to be something to the idea that gay bars traditionally had to move into poorer neighborhoods because it was the only place that would have them – and that sometimes that meant the gay community that came along with the bar would spruce up the area while they were at it.

      But there are plenty of gay bars that are just regular ol’ bars for regular ol’ folk in regular ol’ neighborhoods. So I’m not sure the gay bar + gay patrons = gentrification equation really holds up.

      Crowds of rich hipsters moving into the area, though? You should probably expect some gentrifyin’.

  9. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    All I got is anecdotes, and maybe that’s all anyone has. When I lived near Myrtle Beach, the city council stop a gay bar from opening on the main strip because they wanted to maintain their “family friendly” image. (But apparently the hookers and people walking around in thongs were okay?)

    Meanwhile, there was a gay bar 2 blocks away from the main strip in what some people called the bad part of town. I didn’t know it was the bad part of town until I told someone where I buy my comic books. This block had a gay bar, an art gallery, a coffeehouse and a comic book store….and people thought it was the bad part of town. Eye of the beholder I guess.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      “This block had a gay bar, an art gallery, a coffeehouse and a comic book store….and people thought it was the bad part of town. Eye of the beholder I guess.”

      That sounds like my neighborhood, which is decidedly one of the nicest ones in Baltimore. (And no, would-be wise-crackers, it’s not because “it’s Baltimore” – actually visit the city before you decide that The Wire is an accurate depiction of it.)

  10. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I think it’s interesting that queer bars are singled out as family-unfriendly. Aren’t straight bars just as family-unfriendly?

    I mean…
    a) the main reason for going there is something that kids are not allowed to do
    b) many of them don’t allow under-18s or under-21s in at all
    c) with so many drunk people in one spot, there’s going to be a lot of the sort of language and activities that people don’t want their kids seeing

    Plus, if I were a parent, I would be way more worried about my kids witnessing the sort of “casual” misogyny displayed by straight men toward women at your average straight bar, than I would be about them seeing rainbow flags and drag queens. Get your priorities straight!

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.