History Matters: Delaware's Gay Beach
In the first of this month’s two part History Matters - produced in conjunction with the Delaware Historical Society and other history organizations in the First State, we offer you an oral history of the LGBTQ community’s roots in Rehoboth. In part two next week, we’ll examine how that history served as the foundation for efforts to establish equal rights for that community in the First State.
In the 70s and 80s, gay men from Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Baltimore would vacation on Delaware’s beaches. Rehoboth, with gay-accented bars like The Renegade and an entire section of its beach unofficially claimed by queer vacationers, quickly became a favorite. Men danced disco until the wee hours of the morning, experienced the tragedy of HIV/AIDS, and mobilized around a hate crime in the 1990s to fight for legal protections.
In this week’s piece - you’ll hear the voices of Steve Elkins, Max Dick, and Bob Hoffer from CAMP Rehoboth - which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The CAMP stands for Create a More Positive Rehoboth.
The three men, each with his own experience, represent different facets of the gay, male Rehoboth experience. Elkins was a staffer at the Carter White House?—?“sort of closeted” at meetings and on Capitol Hill— whereas Hoffer taught school in a rural town in Pennsylvania and constantly worried that his identity would be discovered and that he could lose his job.
Producer’s note: this piece focuses on the gay, cis-gendered male experience, but does not seek to limit or trivialize the experience of lesbians, bisexual, trans and queer folks who vacationed in Rehoboth during these years. Next week's piece includes voices of people with different experiences than those represented here.
Escape from normal life
Steve Elkins: It was pretty amazing, you would drive through on Route 50 and get to Annapolis. [You’d think], Oh my god, when are we gonna get there? And hit the Bay Bridge!And then the relief. It was almost as if it was a weather phenomenon that would take over, the relief that would come over your body. And [you’d] say, “I’m on my way to the beach, where I can be me.”
Bob Hoffer: It was like the highlight of our year, you know. we would go to Rehoboth a lot and we would also go to New York City a lot.
Steve Elkins: And we would drive into town, and all you wanted to do was unload the car, have a beer, and just say, thank god I’m here.
Bob Hoffer: I was an elementary teacher for 35 years in the small town of Phillipsburg. And I had to be very careful about my sexuality. I just felt more comfortable, that I could really be myself down here.
Max Dick: We grew up in a time where you just didn’t go around, especially starting in high school, like some of the kids are doing today, and coming out as gay! That was unheard of.
The gay beach
Steve Elkins: The gay area was south of what’s now, we call Poodle Beach. We’d have to go across the Carpenter Beach, the Dupont area, into a no man’s land, and that’s where we all would pitch our chairs and have our time to sun and have a good time.
Max Dick: Used to be of course everybody had to have the obligatory rainbow umbrella and the rainbow towel. That’s starting to get passe now.
Bob Hoffer: This would be our routine. We would go down there, stake out our place, and I would say to Max and our friends, ok where do you want to eat tonight for dinner? So we would decide, and then, this was way before cell phones, I would have to walk back up, on the boardwalk, call and make a reservation, but that was always first priority. Then we knew how long we could stay on the beach, and then go home, take our little nap, and go out for cocktails.
Disco dancing and themed parties
Steve Elkins: In the 70s especially [it] was house parties. People whose neighbors just sort of winked and turned their head, and gave a different eye to what was going on next door. First year we had a madras party. We painted the entire house. We had a fence in the back that we’d canvass with madras patterns that we did with a maze to get into it. Madras was the cocktail at the time, which was vodka and orange juice and cranberry, I think. The next year was an aquamarine and tangerine party where we repainted the house. It was the first year that I know of any house that we had our own business cards printed up, we had our own t-shirts, the boys of 24 Christian Street. A lot of people have gone on to do that since, but I think we were probably the first people ever to do that, and that was in 1983.
Max Dick: We would go out to the old Renegade.
Steve Elkins: Which was a big dance club with an outside area. And that’s where we’d go and we’d dance til 2, 3 in the morning.
Bob Hoffer: It was like the place to go. You would go out there, there was a cover charge of course. But you would just dance the night away.
Max Dick: Flashing lights and every once in a while the fog machine would come on and then they would have boxes where people would get up on top of the box and start dancing.
Bob Hoffer: It was a place to meet other guys. Whereas today we have social media, we have grindr, and people are always on their phones. They don’t have to go out to find someone to go home with. Where back then, that’s what a lot of people did. They went out to have fun and maybe find someone to take them home that night.
I never remember being there that there were fights that broke out. I think everyone was just so happy to be there and have fun. Were there drugs being taken? I’m sure there were.
The long shadow of HIV/AIDS
Steve Elkins: I was looking at a photograph earlier, it’s hanging in mine and Murray’s apartment. It’s a photograph from people that we shared a beach house with. There were nine of us in the photograph, and four of them are dead from HIV and AIDS.
Max Dick: CAMP Rehoboth, every December 1st, they have the AIDS day where they have a remembrance service. And we march down the street from the Pavilion and end up at All Saints Church. And at that time they read name after name after name of those that have passed away that either somebody down here knows or lived here or visited here. People are holding a battery candle, and whenever a name is read that they know, they raise it up in the air.
Steve Elkins: Starting in 94, we had a funeral almost every weekend for somebody that was dying of AIDS. I’m very fortunate that Murray and I, my husband Murray and I met in 1978. And it saved our lives. And to stand in a church and eulogize these friends was a turning point and a point in our lives where we said we have to do something about this. So CAMP Rehoboth, we have one of the major contracts with the state of Delaware, the division of public health, in educating people and last year I think we gave away over 70,000 condoms.
Tragedy begets activism
Steve Elkins: It wasn’t until the early 1990s that we finally said, we’re gonna put a face on this. No question there were a lot of gay people here before that. But in 1993 there was a horrendous gay bashing. There were four men mostly, I think from Virginia Beach. They had all been out on a Saturday night. It was about 1 o’clock in the morning. There were two sitting, two standing. When some young men from I think, Lincoln, Delaware came in town looking for a party. When they couldn’t find the party, one of them said, I got an idea, let’s go to the south end of the boardwalk and beat up some faggots.
One of them had a nylon sleeve, it had a little league baseball bat in it. He pulled it out and hit one of the gay men upside the head. Another one had reached into a trash can and found a champagne bottle and hit another gay man upside the head. One of the men we thought would never be able to walk again.
We had a Chief of Police at the time, Craig Doyle, who said, we may not have hate crime legislation in Delaware, but this is a hate crime. And I’m going to approach it as if it is. Then Governor Carper, Tom Carper, who’s now our US Senator, stood on the lawn of the police station in Rehoboth and signed Hate Crimes legislation that added sexual orientation, and he invited me to sit at the table.
The community of Rehoboth said, we’re not gonna take this anymore.
Max Dick: And it used to be we had to go to what would be a “gay bar” to feel comfortable. But now, I mean, one of our favorite places to go to now in town is the Purple Parrot, which gets a completely diverse crowd. And we’ve been there for some New Year’s Eves where on the dancefloor you get same-sex couples, opposite sex couples.
Bob Hoffer: I don’t think about it at all anymore. I am who I am. I have a loving husband, we’ve been together for 35 years, got married in 2012. If we went back right home now and I saw an old friend, I’d say, oh, by the way, this is my husband. I’m at the point in my life now of being accepted to myself that if someone doesn’t like it, that’s fine. That’s their opinion, and you don’t have to be my friend.