Peeking Inside Our Closets
Years ago, Rehoboth had blocks and blocks of rustic cottages—real summer places, with skimpy outdoor shower faucets, plank floors caked with sand, and furniture capable of surviving wet, mildewy towels.
And for over 70 years, the Rehoboth Art League has been hosting its wonderful Cottage Tour. Just like everything else in life, evolution has had its impact. These days it’s definitely not your grandmother’s summer cottage tour.
Nowadays the Art League’s Cottage Tour is part decorator showcase, part art appreciation, and part eat-your-heart-out-that-you-didn’t-buy-property-in-Rehoboth-when-it-was-affordable.
Back in the day, the Cottage Tour was one way for Rehoboth’s growing LGBTQ community to introduce itself to the population at large—especially to people who might not have frequented our early gay-owned restaurants and bars. And to folks who might have been fearful about the growing queer population in their town.
Let’s face it, the Cottage Tour is a nosy person’s dream come true. You get to check out the decor and personal effects of strangers. What better fun than to peer into other people’s living rooms, dens, bedrooms, and closets?
And speaking of closets, some cottage owners, intentionally or not, used the tour to come out to visitors. On my first tour, I remember a house with a framed National Coming Out Day poster in a guest room and copies of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth casually displayed in visible places. I was happy to see it.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, when I went on the League’s Cottage Tour, the throngs tromping through the residences were often as entertaining as the tours. At one home, above the mantle was an enormous and dramatic oil painting of the homeowners. It was beautiful and sensuous.
Two very senior ladies entered behind me. “Look at the lovely piano, and that wonderful paint.... My word, that’s two men. Oh my.”
Enraptured, they stared at the painting until I thought their little straw handbags would fall to the floor. It begged the question of exactly what Rehoboth rock they had been under, but it was surely a teaching moment.
As the ladies toddled off, they made a point of looking at all the personal photos in the subsequent rooms, confirming what they saw downstairs in oil paint. The pair seemed to suffer no ill effects from the initial shock.
At another rainbow abode, the homeowner was upstairs, gleefully showing enthralled visitors a Barbra Streisand video on his 2002, very new, high-definition TV. This caused the tour to back up like Saturday at Five Points. “Turn off the TV,” instructed the downstairs Art League docent. “We’ve got to get things moving!”
That charming Munson home with the light pink exterior was sadly demolished years ago.
As the cottage destinations included an increasing number of same-sex households, so too were the tour participants both straight and gay. And all of the homes were magnificent in their own ways.
It’s interesting to note that by looking at the bookshelves you couldn’t always tell a book owner’s orientation by the book covers. Sure, there were lots of fine art books and intriguing design tomes, but houses on both teams had John Grisham hardbacks and other popular fiction. A non-gay household had the latest Judy Garland bio. Perfect. Stereotypes be gone.
In those days, when many folks in town bumper-stickered their cars with the slogan “Keep Rehoboth a Family Town”—and we knew what that meant—the Cottage Tour went a long way in showing that our divided community was more alike than different.
As throngs of people tromped through the homes—often over 1,400 people over two days—the cottage occupants all chose different ways to wait out the busybody invasion.
Some of the gay men stayed home, offering meticulously decorated baked goods to the crowds, a further way of introducing themselves to the attendees. Conversations ensued and acquaintances were made.
The first female same-sex cottage owners showed off their personally-constructed, made-to-withstand-hurricanes outdoor shower. And their well-appointed tool shed. Yes, some stereotypes did remain relevant.
And, for the most part, the cottage-peekers were very well-behaved, ooh-ing and ahhh-ing at the properties, decor, art, and statuary. The army of volunteer docents, schooled by the homeowners, could point out particularly wonderful pieces of art or fill visitors in on the history or idiosyncrasies of each home.
On one of my early Cottage Tours, I actually witnessed two women walk into a gargantuan walk-in closet and study it. In a hushed, slow, and almost reverential tone, one woman said to the other, “Pants on the left; pants on the right…. I’ve never been in a gay couple’s closet before. This is so interesting….”
Seriously? Seriously. And so it went, with those Art League Cottage Tours helping to cement Rehoboth’s reputation as happily diverse, with room for all. ▼
Fay Jacobs is the author of five published books and is touring with her one-woman sit-down comedy show, Aging Gracelessly.