It’s the weekend of love, so I thought I’d explore a little of love and its flip side. Tom Kelch is the Innkeeper at the Rehoboth Guest House, and he has a lot of love: love of the people who stay at the B&B, love for the city of Rehoboth and then there’s his hubby Keith, who he describes as the most incredible person ever. Sadly, on the other end of the spectrum, he’s had to recently deal with hate that was directed at the historically queer landmark. But first I decided to find out a little bit more about the affable Mr. Kelch, and I have to say, I haven’t laughed so much during an interview in a while. There were too many instances of us both giggling for me to note it each time, but a good time was had by all.
I believe that I read that you’re originally from West Chester, PA, tell me about growing up there.
Yup, I’m from West Chester, I come from a pretty big family, I have 4 brothers and 2 sisters. My father was a commander in the navy and my older brothers were all military and into sports. About the straightest type of people you could imagine! My sister wanted to be a sports journalist, and my mom would have been a nun if she didn’t marry my dad, and then my gay ass popped out. [Laughing] It was definitely an interesting experience for everybody! I was completely different from everyone in my family. It’s still tough to this day. Though believe it or not, my dad was awesome in terms of being accepting. My almost nun mom was not. Her religion got in the way.
How did your father respond?
Well, I was basically outed by the local newspaper for something crazy. My parents read the local paper every day so I knew they would see it. I told my dad, “I have to tell you something. I’m gay.” He looked at me and said, “Well I had 7 kids, so I figured one of you was gonna to be queer!” From my father, who was usually Mr. Serious Military Man, it was completely unexpected. And he continued, “In the military, we always had guys where we thought something was going on, but they were nice and did their jobs, and didn’t bother anybody.” So he was perfectly fine with it. He’s 93 now and has memory loss and health problems, and my mom’s died but I keep finding these little stories of things my dad did that surprise me.
In the 90’s he took my sister to a Phillies game, and at the game she accidentally spilled her giant soda on the two guys sitting in front of them. As the one guy was helping the other, It was clear that they were a couple. The people around them started making fun and heckling them and my father turned to my sister and said, “I don’t understand what the problem is. They’re two people who clearly love each other and aren’t bothering anyone else in the world.” So my sister knew that he was accepting, but because of many different things that happened to me, I grew up believing that my family was not gay friendly.
For example, my aunt, my mom’s sister, was married and had 7 kids and she came home one day and found her husband in bed with another man. Over the years we would hear from my mother how disgusting it was and how gay people slept with dogs and spread disease, and that they were dangerous people. We went to every Catholic youth group and services where I was constantly berated with feelings of guilt, just for who I was inside. I never ever felt close to my family, not in my memory. I moved out of the house before I was 18. I found my family with friends, held Friendsgivings and Christmas with them and had enjoyable, happy holidays for the first time. I met the friends who supported me and it’s the reason that I am where I am now, doing the things I’m doing.
Where do you fall in the family lineup?
I’m the second youngest and the youngest boy. My mom had me when she was almost 50. You know those Irish Catholics, every time she got pregnant it was “a miracle!” [Laughing] Nope, every time you do it, you get pregnant. You’d think after 6 kids you’d figure that out.
What was an early sign that you were gay?
It’s funny, most people were shocked to hear that I was gay. To the point that my mother literally had a family counselor come in to sit down with the whole family because she was so sure it was going to be a disaster when they found out. Most of the family handled it surprisingly well, especially since it was revealed because of a negative situation.
When I was younger, I reached out online, back then it was the AOL male 4 male chats. [Laughing] I took a picture of myself with a Polaroid camera and mailed it to some man I met in a chat room! I did not realize that he was a family friend. He was much older and took advantage of me and eventually got caught by the police and that’s why I was in the paper and how everyone found out. My mom arranged that family meeting to tell everyone that I was gay and had been abused by that family friend for 3 years. It was very awkward!
But I do remember the first time I realized something was up. I was in kindergarten and we were sitting at a little round table and the boy next to me drew a stick figure of himself and he drew a little penis on it. It made my entire day and made me want to see his penis in person! Nothing ever happened, but I remember being infatuated with him and from then on I realized that all my attractions were male. I never had any kind of sexual attraction to a women that way, ever.
What did you do after high school?
I started to go to college for film, but didn’t like it and then switched to culinary. But it was ridiculous, I was working in the bakery for Giant Foods, I started there when I was 15 and worked there for 16 years. I went from baker to supervisor to management training, etc. I got very good at cake decorating, wedding cakes and all that. So I was going to culinary school where they were teaching me to ice a cake and make a rose and then I’d leave to go to work to pay for my tuition, and I’d make 50 cakes, all iced! My paycheck for making cakes was going to the school to teach me what I already knew, so I dropped out. I don’t think school is for everyone, and a lot of money gets wasted because people are pushed into something that is not right for them.
Agreed. Switching gears, what was the first gay bar you went into?
It was the Lark Bar in Norristown. It was terrifying walking in there. It was intimidating going into that part of Norristown, for someone who grew up in a rural area, it looked a little sketchy. Gays were not accepted back then and if you remember the set up, you had to park your car in a dark lot in the back of the building and go up this crazy set of metal stairs to the back door. But once you walked in the door, it was the most welcoming place in the world. To be around people who understood me was a great feeling and I made friends and did all the kinds of things that young gay men do. [Laughing] It was a wonderful time!
I think the last time I was really drunk was at the Lark, and I apparently did a very passionate rendition of TLC’s “No Scrubs” at Penny’s Karaoke and sang it all the way home.
That’s funny! I remember Penny and the pool room and the cigarette machines; good times.
Unfortunately, the young folks today don’t seem to have the same fun at the clubs that we had.
No, Grindr has taken that all away. It’s taken away some of the best parts of the community. People have lost the experience of having to learn how to talk to someone. To approach and learn all about someone you just met. It wasn’t about getting “likes,” it was about making connections. And now the gay bars seem to be filled with straight people. [Laughing] There used to be a time when I was younger and better looking when I could go into a bar, have a conversation and put my hands in someone’s pants and we’d have a good time. Not the same anymore!
But now you probably get to have a lot of interesting conversations at work. Tell me about how you got involved with the Rehoboth Guest House?
I was living in Bethlehem, PA working at the Giant with a crazy ex of mine, who had introduced me to a gay couple, Frank and Garrett. I was young and didn’t know too many gay people, especially not two successful gay men. It was a refreshing and amazing thing to see a young gay couple with good jobs and a nice home, who owned multiple properties. I looked up to them; it was not something I even dreamed could be a reality for gay men, to have a happy life with a home on a beautiful cul de sac. They were buying a B&B in Rehoboth and needed someone to run it. They asked my ex to run it, but long story short, he wasn’t very responsible and after he and I parted, they asked me to take over. It was the best thing to happen to me. It’s such an incredibly special place, you can feel it the moment you walk in the door.
What’s the history?
The building has been here for 148 years and it was the first gay business to open up in Rehoboth. It’s now the last gay guest house, at one time there were 35 different gay guest houses here, but no more. This is so much more than just a job. I meet so many people in different circumstances, I’ve had people come out of the closet in front of their spouses. I had a lady have a baby in one of the rooms. I’ve had the straight-laced business man who checks in wearing a three piece suit and then comes down to breakfast in a gown and sparkly shoes. I’ve had groups of little old ladies rolling joints while they knitted; it’s wild.
Before this it was the Paradise Guest House and it was essentially a gay bath house with performance stages and secret rooms, and sex swings in the basement! One of the best things about being here are the incredible stories from people who had been coming here for 30 years, back to when it was the Paradise. I decided to start a research project about it and it was surprisingly hard to find out information because at the time, this was a Methodist town and they really didn’t keep records of property sales. I’d go door to door and ask old timers to find out the real story and what I discovered was incredible. You had a town full of conservative Methodists and in the middle of it, a bathhouse with men running around naked and having lots of sex.
For Pride, I started posting some of the stories, and now it’s blown up. I think between the different social media platforms over 450,000 people have read the articles. It’s pretty exciting!
Wow! I read a little about it, there’s so much info I’d have to do a whole other column to fit in all the stories! So the place went to being unpopular with the religious locals, to being an accepting gay mecca, but now I understand that you’ve had a disturbing incident recently.
Yes, we caught a guy on camera pulling down our Pride/Black Lives Matter flag. He then kicked, stomped, spit on his hands and rubbed them on the flag, and then buried the flag in the snow. Then he got up and slashed a tire (off the camera view). In order to slash the tire, he clearly had a weapon on him. He buried the flag so deep only a small part of the pole remained visible. Fortunately, they caught him but the frustrating part is that despite all that, they’re not charging him with a hate crime. So I’ve been working with Camp Rehoboth and we’ve been contacting numerous people including the mayor to see what can be done.
So sorry to hear it, but I’m glad they caught him. Well, let’s go for some random questions. With such an old building have there been any paranormal experiences?
Lots! But all friendly! We love the property and it loves us back. Not long ago I had a guest who was in touch with that kind of stuff and she told me that the spirits communicated to her that they knew about the research that I was doing and really appreciated it. It was kind of cool, it made me feel supported by the house itself.
What’s your best Valentine’s day?
Every Valentine that’s happened since I met my husband Keith. He’s the most incredible person in the whole world and I feel so lucky that I’m with him.
How did you meet?
He was a guest at the Bed & Breakfast on New Year’s Eve and we just had the best night ever. He started coming back to stay almost every weekend and now we’re married!
[Laughing] Are you sure he didn’t just want a free room?
Yeah, it could have been that! But then he bought me a house, sooooo!
What alcohol can you never drink again?
Any of it! I’ll stick to weed!
What personal trait has gotten you in the most trouble?
[Laughing] My ho traits! That got me in a lot of trouble in my younger days!
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a marine biologist but I found out that I was terrible at science class. And I was a terrible swimmer, which is still a problem to this day. It’s embarrassing considering I live at the beach!
Since it’s almost Valentine’s Day, tell me about your wedding.
It was actually very simple. Neither of our families were likely to come to our wedding, so we decided to keep it low key. We went to the courthouse, got married and went out to dinner. It was wonderful, no stress, we didn’t invite anybody, so no-one could be mad about being left out. For a honeymoon, we went to Universal Studios in Orlando and acted like children. It was so much fun, I wouldn’t change a thing.