REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — It always seemed logical that Provincetown, Fire Island, and Key West ended up as East Coast LGBTQ meccas. They’re so far afield that they attracted dreamers looking for escape. Writers, artists, and those simply seeking their own little corner of the world eventually found their way to these far flung locales.
But Rehoboth Beach? The Delaware beach town, located about 2½ hours from Washington, D.C., isn’t exactly remote or difficult to reach from mid-Atlantic metropolises, yet somehow it’s gayer than Fannie Flagg in a sequined T-shirt on “Match Game ‘74.” Don’t believe me? All the tell-tale signs are here: A beach of men with toned bodies in tight bathing trunks, a bar at happy hour filled shoulder-to-shoulder with smiling women in sensible shorts, plus the dreaded packs of boozy bachelorette parties roaming the streets. If this isn’t a gay beach town, I don’t know what is.
Also, its nickname of “Rehomo” might be a tip-off.
The history of how Rehoboth Beach turned from an 1870s Methodist camp to a gaycation destination isn’t 100 percent clear. According to the town’s unofficial historian, Fay Jacobs, there are a few theories. She said it’s likely that Rehoboth’s gay origins are the same as Provincetown, Fire Island, and Key West. Just like those locations, it was once difficult to reach.
“There was a ferry, but there was no bridge here,” Jacobs said referring to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which opened in the 1960s. “It was very isolated because the roads weren’t good. And it would take you a long time to get here. But then, as in now, there were a lot of workers in Washington, D.C., who were closeted gay people. This was far enough to come to get some privacy from their bosses.”
So they came seeking same-sex camaraderie in the gorgeous seaside town that the Methodists had all but abandoned. They first arrived at the turn of the last century, but a couple of decades later Jacobs said the secret was out.
“The earliest we know officially that queer people were coming here was in the 1940s and 1950s,” Jacobs said recently over lunch on a sweltering Sunday afternoon. “There were big guest houses, and they were having private dinner parties. It was an insider network of D.C. closet cases.”
As Rehoboth gained a steady gay following through the 1970s and 1980s, Jacobs said there was backlash. The town’s more conservative types put bumper stickers on their cars reading “Keep Rehoboth a Family Town.” In response to the homophobia of the era, the nonprofit CAMP Rehoboth Community Center was founded as a gay resource center.
The town, with a year-round population of 1,500 — swelling to 40,000 during the summer — has come a long way since those closeted pioneers and their clandestine dinner parties. This summer, Rehoboth will truly experience its moment in the sun. It’s now the home of the summer White House. The president and his wife have a vacation home in Rehoboth. By presidential beach house standards it’s fairly modest (a 4,800-square-foot, 6-bedroom home), but the Bidens have made a big impression in town.
“They’re absolutely lovely people,” said Lori Kline, owner of the popular Lori’s Oy Vey Cafe! She’s created a sandwich in their honor, which is half tuna salad (Joe’s favorite) and half chicken salad (Jill’s). Down the street at Double Dippers ice cream, owner Joe Mack is happy to chat about the president’s flavor of choice, a waffle cone with vanilla chocolate chip ice cream. Biden is also known to frequent Browseabout Books, which sells Biden candles.
But to be honest, I wasn’t in Rehoboth Beach to report on the Bidens, or the town’s history. I was here to have a gay old time. Rehoboth has a large number of gay-owned businesses, including clubs. The weekend I visited was the first weekend that Delaware had lifted many COVID-19 restrictions, enabling me do something that would have been unfathomable just a few months ago: I went inside a gay club.
After more than a year of quarantining and avoiding people, seeing dancing (inside!) at Diego’s Bar & Restaurant was a little jarring. As Gloria Gaynor would say, “At first I was afraid, I was petrified.” It was a shock to my eyes. Diego’s has a large outdoor area with a bar and a lot of sand. Inside, a couple dozen people were wriggling and hoofing it on what the club says is the largest dance floor in Rehoboth. I overcame my fears, following the age-old adage “When in Rehomo...,” and joined the modest group on the dance floor.
Many of the bars here aren’t about dancing. The LGBTQ population skews older in Rehoboth, so they prefer the simple pleasures of happy hour. Folks are happy to relax at the Purple Parrot, people watch at Aqua Bar & Grill, or meet up for a pre-dinner cocktail at Port 251.
Rehoboth isn’t simply gay bars and beaches. Given that Delaware is tax-free, there’s a lot of shopping to be had at cute stores in town. Along Route 1, which leads into the center of Rehoboth, there are an obscene number of outlet stores. When I first drove into Rehoboth, I was slightly terrified that the town would consist entirely of Banana Republic and Adidas outlets. (It doesn’t.) My hotel wasn’t gay-owned, but it was certainly friendly. The front desk clerk at the Bellmoor Inn and Spa was always helpful at pointing me toward the essential local attractions, and she put up with my endless questions with a smile.
Also not particularly gay is the wide boardwalk that runs along the beach and traffics in saltwater taffy, carnival games, frozen custard, and inexpensive T-shirts. Despite all the distractions to be had in town, I pulled my slightly hung-over self out of bed early one morning and biked along Gordons Pond Trail, through Cape Henlopen State Park to the Junction Breakwater Trail. The beauty of this ride is that it’s so flat and easy to maneuver that even the old queen I was biking with could handle the 18-mile loop with ease.
After biking I definitely deserved a treat. I decided to forgo local mainstay Kohr Brothers Frozen Custard, and instead went to Poodle Beach, otherwise known as Boy Beach, which can be found at the end of Queen Street. I spread out my towel, looked around at the couples and families sunning themselves, and realized just how fortunate I was. Instead of hiding away and keeping my life a secret, the way the Washington LGBTQ community of yore did less than 100 years ago, I was able to sit in the sun, openly snack on Lady Gaga Oreos, and make plans to attend a drag brunch the following day. My gay forefathers and mothers would have been proud, and probably quite jealous.