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For a beach town founded in the 1870s as a Methodist Meeting Camp, Rehoboth Beach developed a gay sensibility surprisingly early.
When the religious camp was abandoned, the area attracted visitors from within Delaware, assisted by a new boardwalk and a railroad that ran directly into downtown.
Shortly thereafter, Rehoboth Beach earned the designation it still has today: the Nation's Summer Capital, with Washington, DC lawmakers and their staff members coming here for weekend and summer getaways. Then, just as now, both the legislators and their support staff included quite a few gay people.
Lore has it that the DuPont property along the ocean was where Rehoboth's gay nightlife began. In the 1940s, Tallulah Bankhead and Hollywood cronies frolicked at the DuPont mansion and the local art league nurtured a cadre of women painters famous both for their canvases and their close camaraderie.
In the 1950s, the Pink Pony Bar opened on the boardwalk, with some gay men gathering at happy hour. Back then, liquor laws forbade customers from walking around with drinks-so people could speak only with the customers on either side of them at the bar-not exactly like today's Rehoboth bar scene.
Back in the 60s The Pleasant Inn, and several other guest houses, had a word of mouth reputation of being gay-friendly.
While The Pink Pony was destroyed by the great 1962 storm, several miles south along the shore, the Nomad Village had opened. Closed in the 90s, the hotel and bar complex catered mainly to men and women staying at the Nomad hotel. But word spread that the Nomad backroom was a great meeting spot for closeted folks from D.C.
Through the 1970s, Rehoboth's reputation as a traditional family resort continued while more gay visitors arrived. Two gay dance clubs, The Boathouse and The Renegade, opened to celebrate the disco era, and 300-400 gay men could be found on the south end of the beach on holiday weekends.
Then, in 1979, two restaurateurs, one gay and one straight, opened The Back Porch Restaurant and changed the course of fine dining in Delaware, adding fabulous contemporary cuisine to the fried seafood platters in town. In 1980, the pair opened The Blue Moon and gay owned and operated restaurants began their ascent.
While gay men gathered at The Blue Moon bar for Happy Hour, the restaurant won accolades from local and national politicians, straight summer visitors, and an increasing number of gay and lesbian couples.
Rehoboth still had its taffy and beach fries, but an increasingly urban crowd, gay and straight helped turn Rehoboth into the culinary capital of the state.
In 1988, a disco named the Strand opened in the center of Rehoboth Beach proper, turning an old movie theater into one hot nightspot. Often, up to 700 bodies could be found dancing under disco glitter balls long into the night.
But trouble brewed. With gays and lesbians being much more visible in town by the early 1990s, many longtime residents feared their town was being overtaken by these newcomers. Bumper stickers appeared saying Keep Rehoboth a Family Town and there were gay-bashing incidents.
When the Strand applied for a liquor license, the City homeowner Association drew a line in the sand, using noise, traffic and parking issues to bolster their pleas for denial. The homeowners won and the City voted to ban bars that were not connected to restaurants. The Strand danced on for a while, but without the liquor license eventually had to close.
As a result, CAMP Rehoboth was born, with CAMP being an acronym for "Create a More Positive" Rehoboth. The non-profit group of LGBT volunteers hosted meetings with local governments, conducted sensitivity training with the police department and met with homeowner associations to bring the diverse communities together.
As time passed, CAMP Rehoboth helped bring the communities together. Now there is a huge gay population, many GLBT owned and operated businesses, a throng of LGBT visitors, and last year, just as USA Today called Rehoboth one of America's best gay beaches, Reader's Digest anointed it one of America's top retirement destinations. It's a great mix.
Rehoboth is still a family town-for all kinds of families.