Rehoboth Beach police officers handed out civil citations to six men for carrying open containers of alcoholic beverages and two men for urinating in public during a Memorial Day weekend enforcement action at the popular resort town’s gay beach.
The enforcement action prompted several of the hundreds of mostly gay men who regularly congregate at the south end of the town’s boardwalk known as Poodle Beach to unleash an email campaign aimed at the Rehoboth mayor, Board of Commissioners and other officials.
“[T]he police swarmed the gay beach at the end of Queen Street, conducting arbitrary searches and writing citations,” says one of the emails, which was also sent to news media outlets. “We were left with the impression that our community was selectively targeted,” it says.
The email also says group houses in the town were being unfairly targeted through a newly strengthened noise ordinance by residents “because they do not like vacationers and/or LGBT people.”
Rehoboth Police Chief Keith Banks told the Washington Blade his officers responded to calls from nearby residents about widespread consumption of alcohol on the beach, which is prohibited by another local ordinance, as well as complaints that men were urinating next to nearby sand dunes and in homeowners’ yards where they could be seen by passersby.
“We are here to enforce the rules but we are also here to make sure it’s a safe, enjoyable environment for all,” Banks said. “Everyone is welcome, and I take pride in that. We never, ever try to target anyone.”
Banks said just one noise-related citation was issued to the lease holder of a house near the beach after a neighbor called police three times to complain about noise. He said it was a civil citation, the least serious one under the noise ordinance that carries a $100 fine.
One weekend resident of the house, who spoke to the Blade on condition of not being identified, said it’s a large group house where as many as 20 gay men stay during the summer months.
Steve Elkins, executive director of CAMP Rehoboth, an LGBT advocacy group and community center, said CAMP Rehoboth has worked with Banks and other Rehoboth officials for a long time and nearly all have been supportive of the LGBT community, especially Banks.
“If the city commissioners were homophobic they would never have hired a lesbian city manager,” he said.
Elkins was referring to the hiring last year of out lesbian Sharon Lynn as city manager. Lynn had previously served as city manager of Provincetown, Mass., a popular beach resort town with a large population of LGBT residents and visitors.
Lynn couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
“I think it is incorrect to say that gays were singled out,” Elkins told the Blade. “Whether you are gay or straight you can’t pee in people’s yards.”
Noting that the gay beach is located about eight blocks from the closest public bathrooms, Elkins said he favors the placement by the town of one or two portable toilets at the south end of the boardwalk next to the gay beach during daytime hours.
“The state and the commissioners would have to approve that,” he said.
Elkins said he was opposed to the commissioners’ decision earlier this year to strengthen the noise ordinance with the apparent intent of cracking down on large group houses that some nearby residents say create late night noise and neighborhood disturbances.
In an action considered highly controversial, the Commission adopted a new method for measuring noise in residential areas that replaces the use of decibel measuring devices with a “plainly audible standard” that is based on whether any noise coming from one person’s house or yard can be heard by the residents of an adjacent home.
“I don’t agree with the noise ordinance,” Elkins said. “But it is not targeting gays. It’s targeting group houses.”
The email sent to Rehoboth officials and the media was unsigned. Lee Whitman, a D.C. resident and Rehoboth summer vacationer, told the Blade he knows those who wrote the email.
“Among them are doctors, lawyers, a CNN producer, staff members of the Washington Post, members of the current presidential administration, and a three-time Emmy Award winner,” he said in his own email accompanying the one sent to Rehoboth officials. He did not identify them by name.
“We are skilled. We are talented,” he wrote. “And if we continue to feel persecuted we could easily pull every gay dollar from your city. Not just the money from those that were there this weekend, but all gay dollars.”
A separate email sent to the Blade by a gay Rehoboth vacationer, who also asked not to be identified, says he and his partner were present at Poodle Beach on May 24, and they witnessed what he says were many gays acting irresponsibly.
“This past Sunday was unlike any time I’ve ever experienced on Poodle Beach,” he wrote. “In the roughly four hours my partner and I spent on the beach that day, the behavior we witnessed was appalling.”
He said the beach was “trashed” with litter by people who ignored easily accessible trashcans placed on the beach.
“We witnessed guys walking around from gaggle to gaggle carrying full glass liquor bottles, openly,” he said. “We even witnessed guys walking up into the dunes…and urinating in plain view. Not one or two guys, but probably one or two dozen guys.”
According to Banks, “Two people got a citation for urinating in the dunes right in front of the officer while he was trying to clear them out.”
He said officers had responded to calls from one or more homeowners complaining about the urination. While arriving to respond to those calls, Banks said, the officers noticed the public drinking on the beach and called for additional help to respond to that issue.
Another gay man who was at the gay beach at the time, who asked not to be identified, reported seeing officers walking through the beach and approaching people who appeared to be drinking alcohol. Banks said alcohol consumption in all public places in Rehoboth is prohibited by law.
“They went from person to person to anyone drinking out of an unmarked container or cup,” the man said.
The writers of the email sent to Rehoboth officials also claim police may have conducted searches for alcohol and issued citations in parts of Poodle Beach that are outside the Rehoboth city limits.
Banks disputes this claim, saying no citations were given beyond the Rehoboth boundary. He said officers may have issued a warning to people in areas outside the boundary line, which he and city officials say is just south of Penn Street past the end of the boardwalk.
Banks said those caught drinking alcohol or in possession of an open container of booze were given a civil citation carrying a fine of $100.
“The biggest thing we try to get out to all the news media and anybody that wants to listen,” said Banks, “is these were complaints driven, not by the Rehoboth Beach Police Department, not by city officials, but by citizens. In other words, people called our dispatch center for a police officer to respond. And that’s what we did,” he said.
“I’m saddened to hear that some people want to say that it is a gay issue. That’s not what we do here at Rehoboth Beach. We want all people here.”