When Did Rehoboth Go Gay?

A friend recently gave me a musty, old, dog-eared book called The Gay Insider USA by John Francis Hunter, then a columnist for The Advocate and a self-proclaimed gay activist. Published in 1973, it’s an eclectic guide to where homosexual men can find love, companionship, truth, beauty, sex, God, good food, a crash pad, group therapy, politics, and poppers.

A lot of it reminds me of the old Damron gay travel guides. And sure enough, in very small type in the front of the book, I see Barfly 1971, Bob Damron’s Address Book acknowledged as a primary resource.

If you take Hunter’s word for it, not much that was gay was going on in Rehoboth back in 1973. You could cruise the Henlopen Hotel bar or drive down to Bethany Beach to The Other Room at the Nomad Village. That’s it, according to The Gay Insider.

Clearly, Rehoboth wasn’t a popular stop on the gay travel circuit in the early 70’s. But we know gays and lesbians were visiting Rehoboth in the late 1930’s. The opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952 made it easier for gay Washingtonians to begin frequenting Rehoboth. And, gays owned homes and spent summers in Rehoboth during the 60’s and 70’s.

All this leads me to the topic of this column and my attempt to answer a question I’m often asked. When did Rehoboth go gay?

The first article in the Washington Blade touting Rehoboth as a gay vacation destination appeared in 1978. Sun, sand, surf, sex, and sociability — that’s the picture of Rehoboth painted by the author. Hundreds of gays congregate just south of the Boardwalk to play frisbee or volleyball. After the beach are cocktails, followed by dinner at The Back Porch Café, a new upscale restaurant.

Three years later, the Blade story “Rehoboth Natives are Nervous” talked about the growing unease among locals due to the increasing numbers of gay vacationers, gay bars, gay restaurants, and gay businesses. Locals were afraid the homosexual presence might harm Rehoboth’s family image. Glenn Thompson, owner of the Renegade gay bar, however, poo-pooed that, telling the Blade he was certain Rehoboth would never become another Fire Island or Provincetown.

But the gay migration to Rehoboth continued, driven by word of mouth among the burgeoning gay populations in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Wilmington, especially during the late 70’s and early 80’s. It coincided with a new era of gay pride, disco, coming out, and increased activism following the assassination of Harvey Milk in San Francisco and the anti-gay tirades of Anita Bryant in Florida.

I think another factor was the decline of Atlantic City as a gay beach destination. When the gambling casinos came in, they displaced a lot of the city’s gay bars and motels. Consequently, a lot of guys who used to go to Atlantic City began going to Rehoboth.

By the mid-80’s, mainstream newspapers in Philadelphia, Wilmington, Washington, and Rehoboth had begun reporting on the gay proliferation in Rehoboth and wondering if the quiet town was becoming another stop on the summer circuit of gay resorts along with Provincetown, Fire Island, and Key West.

Rehoboth’s Mayor at the time exacerbated the issue by speaking out to journalists about the town’s “gay problem” and the damage to its reputation. According to the Mayor, Rehoboth could absorb a small number of high-tone homosexuals, but not an influx of the seamy, promiscuous gays having sex in the dunes and drilling holes in bathroom stalls.

Of course not all straight folk in Rehoboth shared the Mayor’s sentiments. Many recognized that gays were good for business and brought an air of sophistication and fine dining to compete with the crab houses and pizza joints. I find it particularly interesting that the gays interviewed in these articles scoffed at the notion of Rehoboth ever becoming a gay resort.

Like old man river who just knew something and who just kept rolling, so too the gays and lesbians kept rolling into Rehoboth. Tensions escalated during the late 80’s – lots of anti-gay epithets, irate letters in the local papers, and even the occasional violence. Delaware’s Republican Speaker of the House went so far as to claim Rehoboth Beach was the East Coast distributor of AIDS. Straight boys occasionally lobbed bottles at the Blue Moon. “Keep Rehoboth a Family Town” bumper stickers were plastered on cars and disputes over awarding liquor licenses to gay establishments divided the town.

All this started changing in the 90’s. I don’t know exactly why, but I would point to the efforts of our own CAMP Rehoboth, founded in 1991, as helping to defuse the situation by building common bonds among gays and straights. Another factor has to be the real estate boom that started about a decade ago. It united gays and straights in the mutual quest for nice houses, a nice community, and nice profits, and in the process produced a new common enemy – greedy real estate developers. Depending on who you talk to, developers are destroying Rehoboth’s character or they’re upgrading it. Does this debate sound familiar?

I think it’s fair to say today that gay and straight folk get along just fine. Two of the city’s commissioners are gay. Heck, even the straight boys are serving bottles of beer in the gay bars instead of throwing them. I like to compare Rehoboth to a good Manhattan cocktail. It’s a mix of straight Bourbon and sweet Vermouth. You can take it on the rocks or straight up. Garnish it with a cherry or a lemon twist.

When people ask me when Rehoboth “went gay,” I hem and haw. The answer depends on how you define “going gay.” I think of “going gay” as that time when a place becomes openly talked about as a gay place and the locals get scared. At that time, the dye is set and there’s no going back. So, I would say Rehoboth “went gay” about twenty to twenty five years ago. It’s been evolving since. And I’m not even going to try and predict its future.