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Nonprofits helped grow Rehoboth’s LGBTQ+ community

Katie Tabeling

REHOBOTH BEACH — For roughly half a century, Rehoboth Beach has been a prime mid-Atlantic resort for the LGBTQ+ community, supported by a flourishing coalition of events and nonprofits to cultivate a welcoming atmosphere.

Letters from Camp Rehoboth May 2019 newsletter | PHOTO COURTESY OF CAMP REHOBOTH

While CAMP Rehoboth first started as a newsletter for the queer community back in 1991, it’s grown into an advocacy organization that works to make safe communities where gender identity and sexual orientation are respected. The nonprofit now has a community center on 37 Baltimore St., and serves as an unofficial chamber of commerce and resource center for visitors and residents.

“CAMP in some ways really became the heart of the community. We don’t operate in an official capacity to impact businesses, but there’s been so much crossover in the past three decades,” said Chris Beagle, a realtor and past CAMP Rehoboth board president. “I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard from people who identify as LGBTQ that the main reason they moved here was because of how safe and included they felt.”

Rehoboth Beach’s status as a gay-friendly resort is said to start at least in the 1940s, but modern news reports hint it became more visible in the 1970s. Gay men from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Baltimore would summer there, and house parties were the common meeting space. Gay dance clubs like the Boathouse and the Renegade opened that decade, thriving off the disco scene and running occasional drag shows.

“It wasn’t until I started working at the Renegade [as a remodeling contractor in 1997] that I learned what it meant to be transgender, and it was all because the drag queens told me I couldn’t compete because of it. They knew what they were talking about,” said Kathy Carpenter-Brown, president and owner of Brown’s Real Estate Services. “I’d get my information from my peers there, because people talk. It was a beautiful thing — Renegades was where we came together.”

By the time the ‘80s and ‘90s rolled around, Rehoboth Beach was adding more gay and lesbian bars and eateries, like the Blue Moon, Cloud 9 and Tijuana Tavern, more restaurants were adding contemporary cuisine. But as the queer community became more visible, residents started to worry about the city’s reputation. Bumper stickers reading “Keep Rehoboth a Family Town” appeared.

In 1993, four men attacked two gay men on the boardwalk with a bottle and a baseball bat. Amid all this turmoil, CAMP Rehoboth — an acronym for “Create a More Positive” Rehoboth was established. Letters from CAMP Rehoboth first started with four pages, and now have grown to 120 pages and are mailed to several cities in the mid-Atlantic region.

“CAMP is kind of a home base for the community. If you’re a gay boy from Arkansas or Missouri, and you see Letters, you can find out about all the bars, restaurants and what’s going on,” said Freddie Lutz, owner of Freddie’s Beach Bar who came to the beach in the 1990s, and went bar hopping at various venues for years, and eventually returned to open his second location in downtown Rehoboth. “CAMP is really where you can go for any advice, help — anything you need.”

Under the leadership of Steve Elkins and his husband, Murray Archibald, CAMP launched health programs like HIV testing and various support groups, as well as various arts programs. But its largest legacy may be its work toward legalizing gay marriage in 2011. The couple testified in support of the bill and Gov. Jack Markell signed the bill at CAMP Rehoboth. The first same-sex marriage in Sussex County happened at its community center, cementing the marriage between Beagle and his husband.

“When I came into this, we were fighting for basic components of everyday life: to not be worried about losing your job, the right to get married legally. People were dying left and right, and they needed support,” he said. “While we were advocating [for that bill], I started to hear from people in Seaford and elsewhere in the state, asking to create a CAMP for them. That was when we became, in a small part, a voice for the community.

Today, CAMP Rehoboth has created an environment ripe for different initiatives and nonprofits. Rehoboth Women’s FEST, a collection of national and regional entertainment to celebrates women in its 22nd year, is looking to a future that welcomes all people, no matter sexual orientation or gender identity. Sussex Pride launched this year, aiming to highlight health, housing and community resources for all LGBTQ+ residents in Sussex County.

While the gay and lesibian community and businesses quickly knitted itself together, Carpenter-Brown said that the trans community struggled to gain that kind of acceptance. So in 2017 she helped create Rehoboth TransLiance, a social group for transgender and gender-diverse individuals in the Rehoboth Beach area — in what she sees as another sign of progress for the community.

“I love our beach towns, and I really see it becoming more welcoming. Back in the 1990s, gay bars were the thing. If you were a gay business owner, gay people were your clients, and at some points it was beneficial to your business. But if you were identifying as trans, no, they did not want to do business with you. But now, no one cares. You can be whatever you are. It’s dramatically different,” she said.

CAMP Rehoboth is also changing with the tide. Elkins passed away in 2018, leaving behind a leadership team to step up. In 2019, David Mariner was hired as executive director until he resigned this year to form Sussex Pride.

CAMP Rehoboth named Lisa Evans as interim executive director last month. She will serve until the board has completed strategic planning for the organization’s future, Beagle said.

“I think one of CAMP’s strengths is its ability to adapt and respond to the time, and you saw that in the advocacy back in 2011 and more recently. It’s become a symbol of our success to rally. In 10 years, we’ll have so many thriving LGBTQ organizations, and I’m going to look back and be proud of the impact,” he said. “I believe collectively, we’ve become a stronger voice now more than ever.”

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