Pulling into the parking lot at Epworth United Methodist Church in Rehoboth Beach on Monday, I was directed toward an overgrown field, a makeshift overflow parking area, because the main lot was already full 40 minutes before the start of a memorial service for Steve Elkins.
If you don’t know Steve, then you’ve probably never been to Rehoboth.
Along with his devoted husband Murray Archibald, Steve founded the CAMP Rehoboth community center and served as its executive director for 25 years until his death in March.
The service on Monday served as a moving reminder of Steve’s incredible impact on this community; he played an integral role in Rehoboth’s transformation from sleepy beach town hostile to new gay visitors to the vibrant and inclusive resort town it is today.
Elkins and Archibald saw 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 25th anniversary in 2015. It was the late 1980s when the Rehoboth Beach Homeowners Association produced a bumper sticker that read, “Keep Rehoboth A Family Town.”
The slogan was an obvious homophobic response to the influx of new gay and lesbian tourists.
“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.
And therein lies Steve’s genius. As friends and family members recounted during four emotional eulogies on Monday, Steve understood that in order to change minds, you had to meet people where they were. Preaching and yelling wouldn’t do. And so he began the slow and deliberate work of engaging local residents. And training police officers in LGBT sensitivity. And opening a visible, LGBT-identified community center on Baltimore Avenue. The change Steve sought didn’t come overnight. He endured countless setbacks, from the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, to the financial challenges inherent in creating a non-profit, to entrenched anti-gay animus that stymied legislative progress.
Steve understood that you have to put in the time to bring about lasting change. This would not be instant gratification. He was strategic, smart, patient and kind. And ultimately his vision won out as Rehoboth grew into a popular LGBT resort town; mayors and police chiefs went from hostile to supportive; and the Delaware Legislature finally passed marriage equality.
The writer Fay Jacobs delivered a pitch-perfect eulogy that rightly put Steve’s legacy into perspective for the packed church. She declared that most of us wouldn’t be in Rehoboth at all if not for Steve. Her spot-on observation triggered an outpouring of electric applause that filled Epworth.
As Steve and Murray fought for the right of Rehoboth residents and visitors to merely be treated equally under the law, more and more LGBT people flocked to the beach town — first as weekend tourists, and many now as retirees.
Steve’s achievements are well known and documented. But his most lasting impression on me will always be his kindness. In the face of bigotry and discrimination, many of us — myself included — have often responded in anger. That wasn’t Steve’s way. He was always quick with a hug and a smile and eager to invite you inside CAMP’s walls for a chat.
In 2015, Steve talked to the Blade about those early days in Rehoboth. This quote from that interview sums up Steve’s vision and legacy nicely: “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. And once we started talking about what we had in common we find we have a lot more in common than we have differences.”
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.