ome might say that the end of the tension began with a bumper sticker, five simple words that started to appear on people’s cars as they drove up and down Baltimore Avenue during the late 1980s and early ’90s.
They weren’t especially slashing words, but they spoke volumes. They were a call to arms for those who agreed. To its intended targets, the sticker was a harbinger of growing intolerance. Those five words said more than any newspaper editorial ever could, preached more displeasure than the fieriest of speeches.
“Keep Rehoboth a family town.”
Everyone knew what the words really meant. The gays were taking over, and they wanted to transform the cozy coastal hamlet into a Mid-Atlantic version of Key West or San Francisco’s Castro District.
The assumption could not have been further from the truth, yet in the eyes of certain people and powers-that-were, the notion was unacceptable.
The bumper sticker wasn’t the only omen. Suspicion of Rehoboth’s growing gay and lesbian community had been simmering for decades, inciting everything from verbal harassment to the occasional violent crime.
The town’s reputation as a popular escape for gay and lesbian residents and visitors was no secret, nor was it entirely accepted. The sticker was one more indicator that something had to give. Either the people of Rehoboth were going to reconcile and move forward in unity, or they were going to widen the gap, tearing the town apart at its most vulnerable—and, arguably, most valuable—link.
At dawn on a Sunday in the summer of 1992, two young men took a walk on the southern end of the boardwalk. Holding hands and talking quietly, they never suspected they were being watched.
Without warning, a gang of teenagers appeared. They didn’t like what they were seeing. Words were exchanged. Then one of the teens hit one of the men several times across the head with an aluminum baseball bat. The victim was knocked unconscious and, potentially, paralyzed for life.
The incident shocked the town. Old frustrations spilled over the edge of acceptance. A snarky bumper sticker was one thing. A brutal attack was another. It was a tragic turn, but it became the catalyst everyone needed to make peace.
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“That was the first time the gay community, the police, the politicians and the business community all came together and said, ‘We’re not going to take this,’” says Steve Elkins, executive director of CAMP Rehoboth Community Center. CAMP is a non-profit gay and lesbian community service organization founded to Create A More Positive relationship among all the people of the area. “It was definitely the galvanizing point. It certainly wasn’t the first gay bashing in this community, but it was the most violent.”
At any other time in the town’s history, Elkins says, Rehoboth officials would have been OK with sweeping the incident under the rug. After the attack, the tension could no longer be ignored.
“Even though it was the start of the summer season that year, [the city] wasn’t going to pretend these things weren’t happening,” says Elkins. “I’m sure it would have happened one way or another, but it took this tragedy to force the issue.”
Today the anger and tension and bumper stickers now feel ages removed. Not only does the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered community thrive in Rehoboth, it does so in harmony with the larger population. But the journey was not easy.
Reports of Rehoboth’s vibrant gay and lesbian community go back as far as the 1930s, when actors and actresses from Hollywood and Broadway would visit, bringing with them alternative lifestyles and friends. Rehoboth’s proximity to the nation’s capital also made it an ideal place for gay lawmakers and staffers to escape judgmental Washington, D.C. As word spread throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Rehoboth attracted more and more of the LGBT community.
“It was so close to so many cities, but it was also far enough away that [gay men and women] could have house parties and gather socially without the fear of being found out,” says Fay Jacobs, who was the executive director of Rehoboth Main Street from 1999 to 2009. “Remember, back then you could be fired for being gay, so people needed a place to escape.”
In response to the influx of new vacationers and residents, gay-friendly bars, restaurants and hotels began springing up. In 1950 the Pink Pony Bar opened at Olive Street and the boardwalk, attracting a gay and straight clientele. Saturdays often saw gay men gathering there for afternoon “tea dances” and happy hours. In the ’60s The Pleasant Inn and several other guesthouses gained a word-of-mouth reputation for being inclusive of all lifestyles. The movement, driven by equal parts progressive thought and good business sense, would continue for decades, giving rise to now-storied establishments such as The Blue Moon and The Back Porch Café.
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“Those were some of the early pioneers, the ones who opened restaurants and businesses and did things that seemed to say, ‘We’re willing to be a community that’s open to all people,’” says Elkins, whose CAMP Rehoboth has been perhaps the most galvanizing force toward LGBT unity in the town.
One of those pioneers was Joyce Felton. In 1979 Felton, who was living in New York City, was invited by a business partner to visit the sleepy beach town and explore the possibility of opening an upscale bar and restaurant. Impressed by the town and its people, Felton immediately realized there was a large population in Rehoboth that was not being catered to. So in the spring of 1981 she opened The Blue Moon, which would become one of Rehoboth’s most celebrated and popular gay-friendly institutions.
“It was a long, hard road,” recalls Felton, who sold the restaurant in 2008. “There was certainly resistance to an establishment that would be all-inclusive. There was a strong status quo and a lot of people who wanted things to remain pretty much the same.”
Felton says her intention wasn’t to open a gay restaurant. She was more interested in catering to a sophisticated palate, diners who wanted more than boardwalk pizza and fries. She wanted to help put Rehoboth on the culinary map.
“We knew there was a need for another outlet, and it was almost like we were honoring the community that was already there,” she says. “We wanted to bring a higher-end sensibility. Along with that there was a gay clientele that had been underserved for many years. We saw that the community wanted and needed and desired somewhere else to go—and not just the gay community, but a lot of wealthy residents who had spent millions of dollars on property.”
Felton says that when she arrived, the gay and lesbian presence in Rehoboth was well-known, yet almost invisible on the street. But with a restaurant like hers suddenly creating a gay nightlife scene in undisguised fashion, it was impossible for people to pretend that gays didn’t exist.
The restaurant had large French doors that opened onto Baltimore Avenue, so passers-by could see what was happening inside. Some people were horrified. Some people’s eyes were opened. And some people were just as accepting as they had always been.
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The first decade of The Blue Moon was the most difficult. Felton has “many stories of ugliness” that unfolded during the formative years: verbally abusive teenage drive-bys, rocks and beer cans thrown through windows—even the occasional firecracker, which would sometimes ignite the restaurant’s canvas awnings. Felton says she often comes into contact with those former teenagers today, many of whom have grown up to become electricians, plumbers, and vendors that have done work with The Blue Moon.
“I’ve forgiven those people now,” she says. “Their actions came from a place of fear. Their sense of stability was being challenged, and they saw it as a threat. They wanted Rehoboth to stay a certain way, and they thought they could control that. But you can’t.”
Another factor in the transformation of Rehoboth was the profit motive behind tolerance. During the real estate boom of the 1980s, Rehoboth simply couldn’t afford to say no to the waves of wealthy investors and new residents that poured in weekly, many of whom were gay. The purses of the town’s Realtors, developers and business owners swelled, and they were thrilled with the commerce, even if their elation was tempered by a begrudging acceptance of the lifestyles that came with the money.
By the mid-90s, the economic boom turned bust. That, too, was a blessing in disguise for Rehoboth’s LGBT community.
“I think everybody came together at that time,” says Jacobs. “The mid-’90s, like today, saw an economic downturn. The real estate was in trouble. Businesses were in trouble. And suddenly everyone was working together to make this a thriving town. The more people put their problems with the gay community aside, the better off everyone was. It was the beginning of a really good collaboration.”
The collaboration yielded remarkable results. By the time Jacobs took over as head of Rehoboth Main Street in 1999, more than a quarter of the town’s businesses were gay owned and operated. “It was a terrific coming together of people,” she says. “Everybody was working toward the same goal.”
In addition to its business owners and residents, Rehoboth’s religious community struggled to find a place in the town’s evolution. Jonathon Baker is senior pastor at Epworth United Methodist Church in Rehoboth. The church slogan declares “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” As a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network—a nationwide, interdenominational faith network committed to inclusiveness of all races, denominations and sexual orientations—Baker’s church is unique. It was the first and only congregation to open its doors without exception to Rehoboth’s LGBT community. The decision to do so was not an easy one, but Baker says it was essential to his church’s mission.
“There is a difference between tolerance and acceptance, and even a difference between acceptance and giving people a sense of belonging,” says Baker. “There were a number of people who came to us in the late ’80s and early ’90s that we embraced and who embraced us, people we got to know as people rather than as titles or stereotypes.
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“It was a transformative time, and there came a point where many of our members saw people in the LGBT community as human beings struggling with the same issues we all struggle with. We laugh, we hurt, we cry, we rejoice. It’s all the same.”
Just like opening a gay-friendly bar or hotel, deciding to make Epworth fully inclusive came with inevitable consequences. Members left. Threats were occasionally made. Even the broader Methodist community had difficulty accepting Epworth’s stance. But like everything else in Rehoboth, someone needed to bear the torch of progress. Members of Baker’s congregation decided it was their calling to do so.
“It has been a very positive experience,” says Baker. “Rarely do I or our members ever hear, ‘Oh, that’s the gay church.’ You don’t hear that. What you hear is that it’s a church with a mission in outreach. It’s not a whipping post.”
Eric Morrison is president of Delaware Pride, which has been hosting its annual Pride Festival in Rehoboth Beach for nearly a decade. At 35, Morrison is too young to recall a time when the town wasn’t as welcoming to the LGBT community as it is today.
“I know there were a lot more challenges in the early days,” says Morrison. “I was only 10 at the time, but I knew there was a pretty small area of town that was known as quote-unquote gay, and a lot of the gay people stayed in that area.
“Now it’s grown to where it’s much more expansive and the entire town is welcoming,” Morrison says. “I think a lot of the locals and people in business and politics down there have come to realize what an incredible contribution the LGBT people make to the town.”
Once it had become apparent that Rehoboth was on track to make its LGBT community a visible and welcomed part of life, one question—some might say conflict—remained: What did the future look like?
Elkins says there were some who wanted Rehoboth to become a more dazzling, ostentatious version of itself during the early years of the past decade. But that, he says, was never part of the plan. One of the primary reasons the gay community gravitated to Rehoboth was the same reason everyone did: It is quiet, family oriented, peaceful. In other words, if you want Key West, hop on a plane headed south.
“The town didn’t want Rehoboth to become a large gay or singles resort, and neither did we,” says Elkins. “We liked the diversity of Rehoboth. We didn’t want that to change.”
Morrison says this particular issue arises almost every time the annual Pride Festival rolls around.
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“One of the things we’re adamant about is that we want everyone to feel welcome, and I think that’s an important part of Rehoboth’s character,” Morrison says. “It’s true diversity. If you want the nightlife, it’s there. If you want to have a quiet, relaxing weekend, that’s there, too. Whatever you want, you can find it.”
Indeed, this narrative may suggest that Rehoboth is now a veritable Eden of inclusiveness and good vibes, a place where
everyone respects everyone, where no lifestyle is marginalized. This, however, would not be entirely accurate. There are still some lingering sentiments from “the old days,” a few individuals who are not entirely comfortable with the town’s gay community. And though verbal assaults and moments of prejudicial treatment are fewer and farther between, Elkins cautions against forgetting the last half-century’s struggles, lest they rear their heads once again.
Besides, Rehoboth is only one square mile of the state, and there is still plenty of progress to be made beyond its borders.
“We still have problems, and it’s always a concern that we are going to continue to face those problems in the future. But we’ve made great strides,” says Elkins. “This is still such a small area of space where people can go out and be openly involved in a gay relationship and have the community celebrate those relationships.”
In an effort to expand that notion of inclusion and acceptance, Governor Jack Markell signed Senate Bill 121 into law last summer. Specifically, the law added sexual orientation to the state’s anti-discrimination statute, which already bans discrimination based on race, gender, age, religion, nationality and handicaps.
Where did the governor choose to sign this piece of landmark legislation? CAMP Rehoboth, of course.
“I think the story of Rehoboth has been an educational process for everyone,” says Felton. “Neighbors that may have once been fueled by anger or fear now have come to realize that everyone has a common ground. And that common ground is to see Rehoboth really flourish.”
Here she pauses, lost for a moment in thinking back on the early days while considering how far it’s come.
“I couldn’t have wished for it to be as cohesive as it is today,” she says. “I couldn’t have painted this picture in 1982. There is such a great blend of shopping and eateries and fine dining and—well, it’s more beautiful than I ever could have imagined.”