Washingtonian is spending the day exploring Crystal City. Read all of our Crystal City Day coverage here.
I first stepped through Freddie’s lavender entrance on a date with a startlingly pretty girl, and my stomach was flipping. We were there for the king show. For the uninitiated, that’s queer women performing as their masculine alter-egos in ripped muscle tees and drawn-on facial hair over The Weeknd and Bieber beats. I was too nervous to eat most of my Reuben, but a few beers later I had stopped being awkward, I think. The interior is stacked with plastic flamingos and Barbie dolls–delightfully tasteless and oddly calming, a physical eye-roll at pretension. The drag queen MC with red flowers in his beard had us belly-laughing. It all felt like being enveloped in a big gay hug.
Even in the age of queer-friendly settings on Tinder and OkCupid, it’s hard to understate the importance of spaces like Freddie’s–for battle-hardened butches and bumbling baby gays and everyone else. My date and I emerged grinning and slightly tipsy, trying to figure out who was going to ask who to make out. We’d advanced not half a block before two bros loomed over us, liquor on their breath, demanding high fives. It was dark by that time. Worryingly they trailed us, complaining about what assholes we were when we didn’t comply–a harsh reminder that we were back out in the “real world.” Still, on the Metro ride home I felt peaceful just knowing Freddie’s existed.
Over the years, the odd purple beach bar has been a safe haven for queer people of all stripes. Before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was struck down, the rainbow-festooned walls shielded gay service members who wanted to be themselves in peace. Its proximity to the Pentagon made it an ideal haunt. It’s also become the unofficial hangout for Washington’s trans community. The patrons are an unusually diverse bunch. There are even straight people–owner Freddie Lutz wanted it that way. The Arlington native is the son of an Army colonel, and he takes pride in cultivating a place where everyone can feel welcome as they are. He wants to bring people together.
“I don’t know how we’ve managed to get the most diverse clientele of any bar I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Lutz says. “That’s one of the magical things about it that I just love. We have the most unbelievable mix of people here and everybody gets along…especially in the current times it’s important to be all inclusive.”
Sometimes big-city gay scenes can feel, well, scene-ey. DC boasts bear bars and older-lesbian hangouts and electro parties for hip young queers. Meanwhile, as far as he knows, Freddie’s is the only gay bar in Northern Virginia. Everyone comes–a glorious mélange less fettered by the rigid norms that subcultures often impose. Many city bars try very hard to look this cheap, but Freddie’s is the real deal. Lutz has picked most of the decorations out of the trash or from the side of the road over the years.
“I’ve been collecting [Barbies] ever since I was a little girl, and now people give them to me,” he cracks. He’s lost count of how many he owns, but he adores the Cher and Marilyn Monroe and Wizard of Oz ones. His favorite? “I love Gay Bob in the Closet. He’s actually in a closet,” he chortles.
Lutz is mustachioed and cheerful, deeply involved in the community. He still lives in the house he’s been in since he was 3 years old. He’s on the board of the Crystal City Business Improvement District, president of the 23rd Street Merchant’s Group, and an OUTstanding Virginian, awarded for his significant contributions to the LGBT community. He has well over 3,000 friends on Facebook and as we talk he’s answering a stream of phone calls and messages. You can usually find him by the bar, bantering with patrons or moving furniture around to prepare for the night’s show. He’s a master cracker of dad jokes.
“When I see people on the patio I say, ‘It’s a nice view of the ocean, it’s too bad they built these buildings,'” Lutz chortles. He keeps a small jar of sand on top of the bar, solely for the purpose of pointing to when people ask, “Where’s the sand?”
Lutz attended the Rhode Island School of Design and worked as a maitre d’ at the Italian joint down the street for 25 years before opening his own place. Regulars come for drag bingo on Wednesdays and “Freddie’s Follies” drag queens on Saturdays. There’s karaoke almost nightly, but Sunday is a favorite–gay church of sorts. Recently, a local high school drama club put on a play on the bar’s little stage. One of the regulars started tearing up watching. Freddie asked what was wrong.
“He said that when he was in high school his drama coach got fired for being a lesbian, and he said ‘I can’t believe these kids are up on the stage in a gay bar performing,’” Lutz says. He pauses. “It’s pretty terrific.”
Freddie didn’t exactly come out to his parents; his mom guessed as he was about to spring the news. She said she supported who he was, but was sad for him. The gay people she knew lived furtive lives.
“For the people she knew back then, it was a sad life. They were keeping everything inside,” Lutz says. “But it’s not anymore. I think if she were alive today she would realize it’s actually a very happy life.”
I ask if that’s the point of Freddie’s, to create joy for himself and others. He pauses a moment, his face spreading into a smile.
“I guess. Yeah,” he says.