Devastation in Paradise
The Paradise Guest House (PGH) opened in 1979 as Rehoboth Beach’s very first openly gay-owned and operated business intended expressly for gay people. Soon after and throughout the 1980s many other gay businesses opened in the area. For the very first time in its history, word was spreading very fast about Rehoboth Beach, especially among the LGBTQ+ population residing in many nearby cities. This gay bloom in downtown Rehoboth was resisted by many, including local city residents, visitors, the police department, and even the city itself.
While we have previously touched on the subject of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, you may be surprised to learn about its severe impact right here in our local community. The main reason Paradise is becoming more and more historically significant is that this one small, forgotten property was a perfect example of that pandemic’s devastation. It was nothing short of awful.
In 1979, gay men were not aware of HIV/AIDs. The free-thinking lifestyles many sought in the 70s led to the PGH opening its doors. Often, the house held more than 100 men inside or around the property. These men explored their gayness in a variety of ways. Some would just converse and make friends. Others would dress in women’s clothes and experiment with different desires. However, most would take the opportunity to explore themselves sexually.
PGH was open for only eight years, but in that short time, thousands of men visited. Guests from Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Washington DC were the most common. Secretly, many men visiting had yearned their entire lives to have a gay experience. But they feared public humiliation, termination from their jobs, abandonment by their family and friends, religious persecution, physical/mental abuse, and even actual criminal charges. However, PGH offered a sanctuary in which they might experience for themselves what they always had craved. Many felt it was worth the risk.
After just a few years running the PGH, Herbert was starting to feel sick. Soon after, his friends began to come down with the same strange symptoms. Then his customers began reporting illnesses. By the mid-80s, gay men had become very aware something terrible was happening to them, but they still didn’t know what to believe.
In 1986, Herbert began to notice the classic signs that the virus had taken complete control over his body. He knew he was going to die and that he was going to have to abandon his dream of creating a gay paradise. Herbert moved to Key West, Florida, deciding it was the place he would prefer to die.
But in a very last bit of heroic effort, Herbert listed the property for sale in only one place. He put an ad in the Washington Blade, hoping—if nothing else—he could at least ensure this incredibly special property would be in the hands of another gay person who might continue his legacy. As you will soon find out, it worked.
The hardest part of this project, for me, has been making the effort to reach out to the people who visited the PGH during its prime. Instead of my hoped-for conversations with older men who would share with me their memories, I almost always found myself reading yet another obituary. These men, for the most part, should still be alive (given their ages).
So far, I’ve been able to find only nine men from that era to talk with. Interestingly, they each had thought long and hard about why they are still here. Most credited the fact that they liked to watch more than participate. Or, they had been God-fearing and only came to make friends. All are still dealing with classic survivors’ guilt.
Many of the men who died suffered lonely and painful deaths. Families and friends feared them, and doctors and hospitals were sometimes too terrified to provide treatment that would allow for a comfortable, peaceful death. Many would die slowly, alone, and quarantined. Public opinion often held that their illness and suffering were “deserved.” Many in the LGBTQ+ community would go to so many funerals it became too much to bear.
Hero lesbians often were the only humans willing to sit with or treat infected gay men. These women often provided the men with their only chance to die with dignity.
In 1987, the Paradise Guest House closed. That same year, our dear friends Murray, Steve, and their friends would attempt to open The Strand. The Berthas were strongly opposed.
Today I am sitting here—over 30 years later—with Murray Archibald, about to find out what happened next…. ▼
Tom Kelch is the innkeeper and property manager of the Rehoboth Guest House. He is excited to write this new series for Letters and thrilled to share these stories with Letters’ readers.