Author James T. Sears talks ‘Queering Rehoboth Beach’

A colorful painted image of blue dolphin sculptures atop a building on the bustling boardwalk.
Cover art for ‘Queering Rehoboth Beach: Beyond the Boardwalk.’

“I think the assumption that people have is that Rehoboth is this outlying mecca of queer life and that Rehoboth, like the name suggests, is welcoming to all — and that is partly true and partly not true,” said James T. Sears, a retired professor and independent scholar whose book “Queering Rehoboth Beach: Beyond the Boardwalk” focuses on how the town earned that reputation.

Early in the book, Sears describes a queerphobic and racist incident — a negative encounter that sparked his interest in learning more about why Rehoboth, Delaware developed is known as a queer sanctuary. The experience and his following attempt to raise awareness about the issue made him question whether or not that reputation is an accurate reflection of the shore town’s culture.

“Depending on who you are, what you have, what color skin you have, what kind of bank account you have, etc. — that makes a difference,” he underlined, noting that today’s Rehoboth isn’t that much different than the one that existed before LGBTQ+ people were openly included.

“Is Rehoboth an embracing community? Yes. Does it try to embrace other people of different backgrounds? Yes,” he added. “But we can also say look at the reality that if I’m in Rehoboth in 2024 and I go back to the Rehoboth of 1984, how many differences will I see? I’ll see differences certainly with respect to gay flags, but I’m not going to see much differences with respect to the color of faces that are walking the boardwalk. That openness is there, but it’s a restrained openness.”

“What we liked about Rehoboth was that it was a small town but also was a very open and progressive community — seemingly,” said Sears, who started visiting the area with his husband after hearing about the gay-friendly atmosphere. After the incident — which targeted Sears and his husband in 2019 — Sears said he spent three years “trying to unravel and see both the ways it was progressive and the ways it wasn’t progressive.” His new book intends to help readers ask questions about the way communities develop, how they change over time, and how to influence their next direction.

Sears conducted interviews with LGBTQ+ people who remember the scene in Rehoboth from the 1950s and beyond, many of whom worked hard during the ’90s to shape the space as people know it today. This includes early activists who lived and worked across the region and even lobbied in Washington, DC but spent summers and weekends at the beach. He lets those figures share the burdens and joys of presenting the town’s history through their own narratives, capturing their memories and the milestones of queer reclamation in Rehoboth through that storytelling.

“They all have very different backgrounds, and they’re not all necessarily progressive,” he said. “But those individuals took control over their own lives by refusing to succumb to what was sort of the heterodoxy of Rehoboth or the hegemony of heterosexuality which permeated Rehoboth.”

“One of the things that’s interesting about taking charge of history is that in order to do that, you have to have some sort of context for understanding history,” he said about the decades that preceded the town’s reckoning with LGBTQ+ justice.

Like many of the shore towns along the mid-Atlantic coast, Rehoboth was influenced early on by conservative religious beliefs. Even before it became a gathering place for retreats during the religious revival of the 18th and 19th centuries, conservative Methodists had already imposed strict rules related to lifestyle, dress and behavior on its residents and visitors.

Sears explained that later the town was intentionally segregated to keep people of color on the western outskirts of town. LGBTQ+ people were part of all aspects of society but were not always visibly queer. They sought each other’s company on beaches just beyond the town’s boundaries or in private gathering spaces, often remaining quiet about their LGBTQ+ identities even as they began businesses and renovated homes. 

Over time, that secrecy shifted — and news about LGBTQ+ expression traveled during the ’80s. This was met with opposition — including harassment and physical attacks — to which queer people resisted in their own ways, eventually leading to more formal efforts.

CAMP, an LGBTQ+ nonprofit organization, was formed in 1991. Previous generations impacted the way the more modern community developed and in turn influenced the way people pursued LGBTQ+ justice.

In the book, Sears describes the emergence of CAMP as a “middle way” for LGBTQ+ advocacy, as it pursued common ground between LGBTQ+ people and cis-het norms by presenting a counter narrative of LGBTQ+ existence. At the time, CAMP’s literary magazine, fundraisers and training events helped LGBTQ+ people become more accepted but the organization also condemned certain aspects of queer expression as not suitable for Rehoboth.

One of the questions Sears is asking now is whether or not the changes that took place in Rehoboth then could take place today.

“I think the answer is no,” he said, explaining that in order for LGBTQ+ people in Rehoboth to become more open and accepted, people on all sides of the conversation had to commit to listening to one another — which doesn’t happen easily or often right now. “But that’s the question I want to pose to the readers.”

Sears is also concerned that efforts toward intersectional liberation could be stifled by a refusal to dig deeper when confronted by the need to continue working toward progress — for instance, the need for queer-specific organizations to ally with movements that protest other injustices. 

“The problem is like, ‘I got my little piece of the pie, so now I’m okay.’ And people don’t see it that way — but that’s what’s happening,” he said about the inability or unwillingness to consider how some people continue to disproportionately benefit from historical contexts. “So to me this is much more than a story about a beach town… If we only rely on what we’ve accomplished and don’t see that it’s a small stepping stone to what needs to be done, then we fail.”

Sears will be speaking on a panel hosted by CAMP on June 2 that will explore what’s happened since some of the events described in the book and discuss what it looks like to move forward as a community.

“Historically and contemporarily now, we need to be able to see ourselves as agents for change — because the agents against change are so strong that they will overwhelm us,” he underlined. 

James T. Sears will be participating in a Q&A and book-signing event at Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room (345 S. 12th Street) on July 19 at 6 p.m. To save the date, visit https://www.queerbooks.com/event/queering-rehoboth-beach/?sd=1721426400.

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