Fairfax County's first gay bar builds a following in Herndon
By J. Freedom duLac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010
Austin Jennings is the manager of So Addictive Lounge, a Herndon bar and grill, where he's learned that it's a lot of work, this business of going fully gay.
There are gay and lesbian bartenders to hire, and more drag queens to book, and fruit-flavored Michelob Ultras to add to the beer list, and an entire menu to be made over, with salads replacing all that deep-fried food, Jennings said, "because gay people are conscious of what they eat." And he has repainted, too. "Gay people have an eye for detail and decorating. It's a stereotype, but it's true."
So Addictive, which started out as a coffeehouse (thus the name), launched a weekly gay night last summer - a Wednesday gathering that initially consisted of four people, including Jennings and his boyfriend, drinking beer, watching "Modern Family" at the bar and wondering where everybody else was.
Now, the Wednesday night drag shows - featuring a wild mix of makeup, wigs, spangles and Lady Gaga impersonations - fill the place. Their success has persuaded Jennings and So Addictive's owner to swap out the bar's weekly hip-hop and Latin nights and turn their place into the only almost full-time gay bar in Fairfax County, home to more than 1 million people. The new format took effect on New Year's Eve; the only straight holdover on the schedule, for now, is heavy-metal Monday.
The arrival of a gay bar in the heart of a quintessentially suburban community nearly 25 miles outside of Washington is a milestone for the gay community. It's also a broader test to see whether a business that caters to gay men and lesbians can succeed and gain mainstream acceptance in a town that was once featured in a book on the 100 "Best Places to Raise Your Family" in the United States.
By flying a rainbow flag directly across from the old Herndon Town Hall on Elden Street, So Addictive already has become a key marker in the gay diaspora. Sarah Gustafson, president of the gay rights organization Equality Fairfax, recently e-mailed the 900 people on her list to announce the "fantastic news" that "yes, Virginia, there is a gay bar in Fairfax County."
"There's a tremendous amount of gay, lesbian and transsexual people who live in the county, so it's really great that a bar's coming to us," Gustafson said. "People might not realize there's a significant gay and lesbian population in the suburbs; everybody assumes we live downtown. But we are everywhere. We are your neighbors, and having a neighborhood bar finally puts a permanent face on that."
So far, a niche market
Along with Freddie's Beach Bar in Crystal City, So Addictive will be one of just two full-time gay bars in the northern half of a state that activists say is not exactly the most hospitable place for gays.
After Congress voted to end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy in December, for instance, Robert G. Marshall, a Republican state delegate from Prince William County, promised to introduce legislation banning "active homosexuals" from the Virginia National Guard. In 2006, Virginia voters approved an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage.
For years, state law prohibited drinking establishments from becoming "meeting places" for prostitutes, gamblers, drug users, criminals - and homosexuals. The reference to homosexuals was removed in the early 1990s, according to Philip Bogenberger, a spokesman for the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Still, many gays worried: When Jake's Restaurant and Pub in Manassas started a gay night several years ago, it billed the event as a "private party," because Jake's owner was worried about reaction from social conservatives in Prince William County. (Jake's has since become Mackey's, which does not have a gay night.)
So Addictive's transformation into a full-fledged gay bar has turned at least some heads in Herndon. At Horn Motors, an auto parts store one block down Elden, an employee who answered the phone Friday said of his neighbor: "I don't think you want to print what I got to say."
The general manager, Wayne P., declined to give his last name and wondered whether he should say anything at all, "because anymore you have to be politically correct." Then, he said: "I'm not going to degrade them in any way, shape or form. But I'll be honest with you, I don't believe in that type of lifestyle. But it's not affecting me or my business at all. As long as they keep it orderly, I don't have a problem with it. Hopefully, they work on it and take care of their business and good for them."
Jimmy Cirrito, the owner of Jimmy's Old Town Tavern, said he welcomed the gayification of So Addictive, which is across the street from his bar. "If somebody's against having a gay bar, then they're against America," he said. "It's freedom. We're all God's people. We do what we want."
Competing with D.C.
Historically, of course, the center of gay nightlife in the region has been the District, where bars such as Apex, Town and Ziegfeld's are like stations of the social cross. Some promoters and bar owners in Northern Virginia have scheduled weekly gay nights (at Majestic and Terra E Mare, both in Falls Church, for instance). But Freddie's, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in March, was the rare full-time gay bar and restaurant until So Addictive's switch. (Gays in Maryland also have limited gay-friendly options, outside of Baltimore; in the D.C. suburbs, there's PW's Sports Bar in Laurel but not much else.)
"We weren't the first in Northern Virginia," said Freddie Lutz, who owns Freddie's. "But when the Hunt Club in Alexandria closed, that gave us the title of the only gay bar in Northern Virginia, which we've kept until now. I don't know why nobody else has opened one. I think it's great that [So Addictive] is opening. We're all one big, dysfunctional family."
One recent night at So Addictive, a song by the flamboyant disco-rock band the Scissor Sisters thumped over the sound system. An hour before the drag show was to begin, Jennings scurried around, talking to customers and checking on performers. "You girls okay?" he said, and the four men who would become women said yes, as did the woman who was turning herself into a drag king.
The dressing room was nothing fancy - a massive container of corn oil sat in a corner, near a meat slicer - but LaCountress Farrington, the reigning Miss Gay Virginia, focused on putting on her face. "I consider So Addictive a very big deal because we have a huge gay community in Fairfax County and they finally have an outlet where they live," the performer said.
At the bar, Dewey Yen watched the crowd file into his establishment. Yen probably wasn't the most obvious candidate to become a pioneering gay-bar owner: A Chinese immigrant who came to the United States to study at the University of Maryland, he's an engineer by trade and straight as a chopstick.
He bought So Addictive two years ago and got the idea for a gay night from a friend of a friend. It only took off, he said, after he hired Jennings, who had worked at Freddie's and at a bar in Richmond - and who eventually drew up the business plan to take So Addictive full gay.
"I like the unique business opportunity," Yen said. If there are 7,000 gays in Herndon and Reston, and 25,000 in Fairfax County (both numbers were guesses because there's no reliable data, according to Gustafson), not to mention underserved gay people in Loudoun and Prince William counties, that seems to offer "great possibilities," Yen said.
Later, a young man walked through the doors, which now have rainbow stickers on them - an addition Yen insisted on, Jennings said, "so everybody would know we're gay." The young man was holding his girlfriend's hand.
"Is this a hookah bar?" he asked Yen as LaCountress Farrington did her furious and fabulous Tina Turner dance in the center of the room.
"This is a gay bar now," Yen said.
The potential customer did a double-take as two men kissed at the edge of the bar. He spun around and left with his girlfriend.
Outside, Shaye Dunn smoked with some friends, next to a sign that said "FFX County's ONLY Gay Club."
"Finally," she said.