Steve Elkins, co-founder and executive director of CAMP Rehoboth, the LGBT community services center in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and a widely recognized advocate for LGBT rights since the 1980s, died March 15 following a battle with lymphoma. He was 67.
Elkins’ passing followed an announcement he made last month in what became his last column in CAMP Rehoboth’s newsletter-magazine, Letters From CAMP Rehoboth, in which he said he was taking a medical leave of absence and that his husband and life partner of 39 years, Murray Archibald, would be serving as the organization’s interim executive director.
“It is no secret that I have been fighting a very aggressive form of lymphoma since last summer,” he wrote as he announced the administrative changes for which he arranged during what he hoped would be his temporary absence.
“For CAMP Rehoboth, I fully expect the year ahead to be a successful one and that there will be much to look forward to in it,” he stated in his column.
“The CAMP Rehoboth family is heartbroken at the passing of our Executive Director and co-founder, Steve Elkins,” the organization stated on its Facebook page Thursday night.
“As he did throughout his life, fighting for the rights of so many in this state, he fought lymphoma with courage and dignity until the very end,” the statement says.
“For over 25 years as its Executive Director, Steve’s leadership and vision has allowed CAMP Rehoboth to become one of the most respected and successful non-profit organizations in Delaware, and has contributed greatly to establishing Rehoboth as a widely recognized community with ‘room for all,’” it says.
The statement mentions that the CAMP Rehoboth Community Center building on Baltimore Avenue in downtown Rehoboth would remain open throughout the day on Friday “as a place to gather,” with grief counselors present for those seeking support.
In an interview with the Washington Blade in 2015 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of CAMP Rehoboth’s founding, Elkins told of how he first met Archibald in 1978 at the time Elkins was working as an administrator at the White House in Washington during the administration of President Jimmy Carter.
Archibald, who at the time was working for a theater company in Birmingham, Ala., by sheer chance drove to D.C. to help a friend move a large painting to a White House office and met Elkins while undertaking that task, the two recounted. A short time later, Archibald moved to D.C. to live with Elkins as the two became a couple.
Elkins remained in his White House position until the end of the Carter administration following Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. He soon began a new job as sales manager at a computer company in New York City, where he and Archibald moved. That job ended when the company went bankrupt, prompting Elkins and Archibald to move to Rehoboth Beach in 1990, where they had been going for many years prior to that for summer vacations.
Prior to their move there, Elkins and Archibald along with some of their friends sensed the need for an LGBT support and advocacy group in Rehoboth around 1989 and early 1990, the two told the Blade at the time of the group’s 2015 anniversary. It was the late 1980s when the Rehoboth Beach Homeowners Association produced and circulated a bumper sticker that read, “Keep Rehoboth A Family Town,” Elkins recounted.
The slogan, which was quickly perceived to be an anti-LGBT message, came at a time when some of the town’s longtime year-round residents were becoming uncomfortable as Rehoboth’s reputation as a gay resort town and gay destination was becoming more prominent.
“I always said we wanted it to be a family town as well but families come in all sizes, shapes and orientations,” Elkins told the Blade in discussing his and Archibald’s decision to found CAMP Rehoboth.
“We thought everybody was focusing on the negative and we said, “Let’s create a more positive Rehoboth,” Elkins said.
Over the more than two decades, under Elkins’ leadership, the organization grew in leaps and bounds, purchasing new space and building a community center building in which its numerous community programs are carried out. Among the programs Elkins ran almost single handedly was an LGBT sensitivity training for Rehoboth police officers and Delaware State Park Police officers.
One of its largest programs, Campsafe, provides HIV prevention related services for people in Rehoboth and surrounding Sussex County.
Elkins’ outspoken and positive demeanor in his role as Rehoboth’s most visible LGBT rights advocate has greatly improved Rehoboth’s LGBT-straight relations, people who know Elkins have said.
“The thing I’ve always said is once we actually started talking to one another we all realized that we had the same desire – and that’s to have a safe and inclusive community,” Elkins told the Blade in 2015. “And once we started talking about what we had in common we find we have a lot more in common than we have differences,” he said.
“The evolution of Rehoboth Beach from a city where homophobia reared its evil head too frequently to the city that is truly accepting to all is largely the work of Steve Elkins,” said Delaware LGBT rights advocate and former Sussex County Democratic Party Chair Mitch Crane.
Longtime Rehoboth gay activist Peter Schott called Elkins’ passing a “great loss” for Rehoboth and Delaware.
“More than anyone else, Steve Elkins is responsible for transforming Rehoboth Beach to one of the most GLBT-friendly communities in the nation,” Schott said. “When he arrived there was an anti-GLBT community here, but through his persistence and hard work, he turned attitudes around.”
Veteran D.C. LGBT rights advocate Peter Rosenstein, who has a home in Rehoboth, called Elkins a “giant in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality.” Noting that he was in Rehoboth when Elkins and Archibald launched CAMP Rehoboth, Rosenstein said Elkins played a key role in turning Rehoboth Beach “into a mecca for our community and helped lead the fight that made Delaware a state with laws protecting the rights of our community.”
Elkins leaves his husband, Archibald, who carries on his work at CAMP. He also leaves his mother, Lucille Elkins, and sister, Judy Buchanan. He leaves nieces and nephews and too many friends to count.
A Celebration of Life will be held at Epworth United Methodist Church, 19285 Rd. 271, Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971 on Monday, April 9 at 11 a.m., where friends may visit beginning at 9:30 a.m.
Flowers are welcome and donations can be made to CAMP Rehoboth, 37 Baltimore Ave., Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971.
Friends can visit Elkins’s Life Memorial page and sign a guestbook at parsellfuneralhomes.com.