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We work in collaboration with thousands of local partners and grassroots leaders across the nation who share our commitment to advancing shared prosperity, creating resilient economies, and improving quality of life.

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Two community members in Emporia Kansas pose with a sign saying "I'm a Main Streeter"

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Made up of small towns, mid-sized communities, and urban commercial districts, the thousands of organizations, individuals, volunteers, and local leaders that make up Main Street America™ represent the broad diversity that makes this country so unique.

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October 29, 2020 | Community Spotlight: Rainbow Flags on Main Street: Attracting LGBTQIA Businesses and Customers | By: Alexander M. Padro, Executive Director, Shaw Main Streets | 

Photo credit: Campwillowlake

October is LGBT+ History Month, one of the many annual national events that provide an opportunity for Main Street businesses, gay-owned and otherwise, to celebrate the diversity of their communities. The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Ally (LGBTQIA) community is often on the forefront of revitalizing neighborhoods and commercial districts. Pride festivals and other events, as well as national and local media and LGBTQIA organizations, are ideal vehicles for promoting a Main Street as a gay-friendly destination eager for visitors and investment. Keep reading to learn from Main Street communities that welcome LGBTQIA businesses and customers and find out strategies to attract LGBTQIA entrepreneurs and visitors downtown.

With an estimated population of 11 million, LGBTQIA Americans have a combined estimated annual buying power of $900 billion. The worldwide figure is $3.7 trillion. The percentage of LGBTQIA people ranges from 2.7 percent in North Dakota to 9.8 percent in the District of Columbia. The high disposable income of DINK couples (Dual Income, No Kids) allows many LGBTQIA partners to dine out, attend theater, shop, and travel more than average Americans.

Flying Rainbow Flags

Businesses commonly display rainbow flags in front of their establishments to demonstrate that they are either gay-owned or operated or welcome LGBTQIA patrons. Main Streets seeking to diversify their business mix can actively promote their districts as being gay-friendly, in order to attract LGBTQIA entrepreneurs and customers. This can take the form of adding gay pride events to annual promotional event calendars, advertising the Main Street organization in local and regional LGBTQIA media, recruiting LGBTQIA board members and volunteers, and supporting organizations like PFLAG (formerly Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Gay-friendly businesses (those that welcome and embrace LGBTQIA customers) benefit from word of mouth referrals and social media exposure.

Washington, DC’s annual Capital Pride parade draws as many as 150,000 people. Photo by Pleasant Mann, Courtesy Shaw Main Streets.

Florists and hairdressers used to be stereotypical LGBTQIA-owned and operated businesses—two business types where gay people found acceptance by the community at large. Gay bars, nightclubs and bathhouses, often in less desirable neighborhoods, were among the few places where the LGBTQIA community could safely gather. But today, as gay rights have become more established, LGBTQIA entrepreneurs are more comfortable being out and owning businesses of all types, and non-LGBTQIA businesses actively seek customers that identify as gay.

Change can be Difficult: Barriers to Equality

Anti-LGBTQIA discrimination can be an issue, especially in smaller, more conservative and rural communities. While same sex marriage is now legal throughout the US, many jurisdictions do not offer legal protections to their LGBTQIA residents. As diversity and equity issues are explored and systemic biases are challenged, more businesses and consumers will feel comfortable expressing their gender identity and sexual orientation.

Legal challenges, such as the “gay wedding cake” case that reached the US Supreme Court, have highlighted the resistance on some business owners’ part to serving LGBTQIA customers. While that case upheld the right of a Colorado bakery not to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding reception, many business owners are solicitous of such business, seeing it as an opportunity to expand their customer base.

Attracting LGBTQIA People in Cities

Washington, DC’s Shaw neighborhood, voted three consecutive years as being the city’s Best Gayborhood by the local LGBTQIA newspaper, has been home to some of the nation’s capital’s largest gay businesses, including nightclubs and bars. But as acceptance of LGBTQIA people has grown, such businesses have become more inclusive. Nellie’s Sports Bar, which opened in 2007 and was voted the Best New Business that year in an annual poll, initially projected that their customers would be 70 percent LGBTQIA and 30 percent non- LGBTQIA. But the bar’s offerings, including weekly drag bingo events, became so popular with the community at large that it was attracting 60 percent non-LGBTQIA clientele. Nellie’s has since become an annual citywide award-winner in a variety of categories.

LGBTQIA Shaw residents also own businesses, ranging from a large art gallery and event space to one of the city’s favorite Thai restaurants. Non-LGBTQIA-owned businesses of all types actively seek LGBTQIA customers.

But this was not always the case. In the mid-2000s, Shaw Main Streets and the community successfully defeated an effort by neighborhood churches to prevent a gay-owned bar from opening. No further challenges to LGBTQIA businesses opening in the neighborhood have materialized subsequently.

Most major US cities actively promote their LGBTQIA attractions though their convention and visitor bureaus. Some places have branded themselves as LGBTQIA destinations. Key West, FL (pop. 24,600), was the first US city to actively market itself to gay tourists and the first US city to elect a gay mayor. IGLTA, the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association, has over 2,500 North American tourism business members and promotes the social and economic impact of LGBTQIA travel. GayCities.com features over 160 US destinations for LGBTQIA travelers.

LGBTQIA-Friendly Districts in Non-urban Areas

Less urban Main Street communities have also embraced LGBTQIA businesses and consumers. Rehoboth, DE (pop. 1,500), known as the MidAtlantic’s Key West, is a popular beach vacation destination for LGBTQIA residents of the Washington to Philadelphia corridor, with some 200 bars, nightclubs, hotels, restaurants and other businesses welcoming gay guests. Approximately 50,000 people descend on Rehoboth Beach every summer. In the early 1990s, some longtime residents were concerned that LGBTQIA newcomers were threatening the city’s family environment. A ban on non-restaurant bars was imposed following an LGBTQIA bar being denied a liquor license. CAMP (Create a More Positive) Rehoboth, an LGBTQIA non-profit, conducted extensive outreach that helped heal divisions and build a more diverse and inclusive community.

Provincetown, MAFerndale, MI (pop. 20,000) is well-known as the most LGBTQIA-friendly neighborhood in the greater Detroit area, home to many LGBTQIA organizations, businesses and residents, who made it the first city in Michigan to elect an openly gay mayor in 2007. Ferndale’s walkable downtown is home to a variety of businesses that are owned by or support the LGBTQIA community, as easily evidenced by the many rainbow flags flying throughout. Ferndale Pride, listed on the After Ellen website as a “Small City Pride That is Worth the Trip,” draws more than 25,000 attendees to Downtown Ferndale.

“Small rural communities also have the potential to attract more diverse audiences,” according to Valecia Crisafulli, former staff member at the National Main Street Center and now board president of Madison Main Street in Madison, IN (pop. 12,000). Madison has seen an increase in its gay population over the past few years, with many single professionals and couples buying homes, opening businesses, and socializing in the National Historic Landmark District.

Crisafulli credits a recent arrival from California for starting Madison’s Rainbow River Club, a new social group that gathers monthly in different downtown locations. “Larry was very inclusive in his outreach to gay and straight people in the area, as well as all age groups,” Crisafulli noted. “And in return, Main Street businesses have lined up to host the River Club events. Businesses see the potential for new customers. The partnership is a natural one, and it’s working.”

Madison businesses, many of which are focused on the arts and vintage audience, are a draw for LGBTQIA customers, and several new gay-owned businesses have opened in recent years, including retailers offering home decor, high-end furniture and antiques, and women’s apparel.

“The community needs to signal that it is a welcoming district,” Crisafulli said. “Many of our businesses proudly display ‘We Are an Inclusive Community’ and ‘Everyone Is Welcome Here’ signs. Our businesses owners actively support Rainbow River Club and PFLAG events, and that is a powerful signal for residents, as well as visitors to the community.”

Complete this assessment here to determine if your business district is LGBTQIA-friendly.

About the Author

Alexander M. Padro is executive director of Shaw Main Streets in Washington, DC, winner of the 2016 Great American Main Street Award and the 2015 Innovation on Main Street Award. He has served as the program’s manager since 2004, and has been a local LGBTQIA elected official for 20 years. He organized and presented at a 2008 National Main Street Conference session entitled “Rainbow Flags on Main Street.”