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Why do so many gay couples open up their relationships?

Many of us are on autopilot, but we can build more meaningful connections

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open relationships, gay news, Washington Blade

As gay men, we’ve been through a lot.

For so many years we were deep in the closet, fearful of being arrested, and threatened with pseudo-medical cures.

Then came the Stonewall uprising, the declassification of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder, and the defeat of sodomy laws. And finally, the legalization of gay marriage.

Now—at least in some parts of the world — we’re free to live our lives exactly like everyone else. No one gets to tell us how to live, whom to love, or what we can or can’t do in the bedroom. We alone call the shots.

Then again, maybe we’re not as free as we think. Ever wonder why so many of us open our relationships? Are we always really deciding for ourselves how we want to live?

Or are we sometimes on autopilot, blithely following expectations and norms of which we aren’t even aware, oblivious to the possible consequences?

Spring, 1987: Although I didn’t know it at the time, my own introduction to the world of gay relationships was following a script that countless gay men have lived.

Growing up in that era, there were no visible gay relationships, no role models. Astoundingly, a gay porn theater/bathhouse did advertise in the Washington Post, my hometown paper, when I was a kid. While this was titillating, I dreamed of something more traditional and soulful for my future than the anonymous encounters and orgies at which those ads hinted.

So when hunky, adorable Justin* asked me out after a meeting of the campus gay group and we started dating, I was over the moon. That is, until my friends Ben and Tom, an older gay couple, shot me right back down to earth when, one evening over dinner, they asked if Justin and I were “exclusive.”

Huh? What a question!

“Just wait,” Tom said knowingly,  “Gay men never stay monogamous for long.”

More than 30 years have passed, and the world of gay male relationships remains pretty much the same. Working as a psychologist for the past 25 years, I’ve listened to hundreds of gay clients share their own versions of my long-ago dinner with Ben and Tom. “We just assumed we’d be monogamous, but then this older gay couple told us, ‘yeah, let’s see how long that lasts.’ So we decided to open up our relationship and start playing around.”

New generations have the possibility of proudly visible relationships and recently, marriage. And still, for many of us, open relationships are seen as the default choice in one form or another: “Monogamish.” Only when one partner is out-of-town. Never the same person twice. Only when both partners are present. No kissing. No intercourse. No falling in love. Never in the couple’s home. Never in the couple’s bed. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Disclose everything. Anything goes.

Examining our affinity for non-monogamy can be seen as judgmental or anti-gay, “sex-negative,” tantamount to suggesting that gay men should mimic a heterosexual model that is patriarchal, misogynist, oppressive — and maybe not even really workable for straight people. Questioning our penchant for casual sex while we are coupled is also seen as a challenge to the inspirational (to some) narrative that gay men, free of the constraints of history and tradition, are constructing a fresh, vibrant model of relationships that decouples the unnecessary, pesky, and troublesome bond between emotional fidelity and sexual exclusivity.

But we do not honor our diversity if we expect that any of us should choose (or not choose) any particular role or path. After all, gay men are just as multidimensional, complex, and unique as other men.

And while an open relationship may be the best relationship for some couples to have, successfully being in one requires capabilities that many of us do not possess. Simply being a gay man certainly does not automatically provide skills such as:

The solidity of self to be trusting and generous

The ability to sense how far boundaries can be pushed without doing too much damage

The capacity to transcend feelings of jealousy and pain

The strength of character not to objectify or idealize outside sex partners.

Yes, open relationships can be as close, loving, and committed as monogamous relationships, which of course have their own difficulties. But even when conducted with thought, caution, and care, they can easily result in hurt and feelings of betrayal.

Moreover, open relationships are often designed to keep important experiences secret or unspoken between partners. Clients will tell me they do not want to know exactly what their partner is doing with other men, preferring to maintain a fantasy (or delusion) that certain lines will not be crossed. As a result, the ways in which we structure our open relationships can easily interfere with intimacy—knowing, and being known by our partners.

Consequently, we gay men often struggle to form solid, mutually respectful attachments that include both emotional and physical connection. Might any of these scenarios be familiar to you?

Jim and Rob came in to see me after a disastrous cruise with eight of their friends. Although it had not been their plan, between them they had ended up separately having sex with all eight. This had broken several of their “rules,” although as Jim pointed out, the rules were unclear because they often made them up to suit whatever they wanted to do, or not allow each other to do. Each partner’s ongoing anger over how his partner was hurting him by ignoring admittedly ad-hoc sexual boundaries meant that Jim and Rob hadn’t had sex with each other in two years.

Another couple I work with, Frank and Scott, have had an open relationship from the start. When they met, Frank felt strongly that monogamy had no relevance to him as a gay man. Though Scott wanted a sexually exclusive relationship, he somewhat reluctantly went along with Frank’s wishes because he wanted to be with Frank. In recent years the two have become near-constant users of hookup apps, and recently Scott met a younger man on Scruff with whom he has “great chemistry.” Now, to Frank’s dismay, Scott is dating Todd.

Carlos and Greg came to see me after Carlos discovered that Greg was hooking up numerous times a month. Although they had a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” agreement and both assumed the other was occasionally having sex with other men, Greg’s behavior was far more frequent than Carlos had imagined or wanted to accept in his marriage. Greg was steadfast in his conviction that because he was following their rules, his hookups could not be negatively impacting his relationship with Carlos.

Beyond the hurt, enmity, reduced commitment, lack of connection, and distance they experience, men in these situations often tell me that their relationships and their lives have become overwhelmed by their pursuit of sex.

Another potential drawback to an open relationship: Yes, multiple partners are an easy (and fun) fix for sexual boredom. But when hot times can be easily found with others, we may feel little incentive to put sustained energy into keeping sex with our partners interesting. My educated guess: This is why many gay couples in open relationships have little or no sex with each other, just as a twosome.

Finally, it is troubling how easily, in our open relationship/hookup culture, we objectify those we have sex with and see other men as disposable, replaceable bodies. Treating others and being treated in this manner does not advance our respectfully relating to each other, nor does it benefit our self-esteem as men and as gay men.

What is influencing these behaviors?

Gay men lean toward non-monogamy for many interconnected reasons.

Men (stereotype acknowledged) often enjoy pursuing and having no-strings sex, so gay men readily find willing partners. Open relationships, seemingly fun and unconstrained, offering a stream of new partners to reduce the monotony of an ongoing relationship, can be intrinsically alluring. Gay men’s sexual connections have historically not been governed by societal rules, so we’ve been able to do pretty much whatever we want, as long as we’ve flown way under the radar.

And, open relationships are what we predominantly see around us as the relationship model for gay men, for the reasons noted above and also in large part due to the influence of gay history and gay culture.

For a deeper understanding of this last point, let’s take a whirlwind tour though gay male history in the Western world (much of which overlaps with lesbian herstory). Ancient, recent, forgotten, familiar, all of it is impacting our lives today.

Since at least the fourth century C.E., as Christianity gained influence, homosexual behavior was illegal in Europe, often punishable by death, and European settlers brought these laws with them to what became the United States. Some periods were relatively more tolerant, others less so. France became the first Western nation to decriminalize homosexuality after the 1791 Revolution, but harsh laws remained and were enforced throughout the Western world well into the 20th century. (And at present, 78 countries still have laws prohibiting homosexual behavior; punishments in some include the death penalty.)

Following World War II, America’s McCarthy “Red Scare” of the 1950s was accompanied by a campaign against the “Lavender Menace,” resulting in hundreds of homosexual government employees being fired. The anti-gay environment in the United States, similar to that in other Western countries, included FBI tracking of suspected homosexuals; the postal service monitoring mail for “obscene” materials including mailings from early gay rights organizations; prison terms for homosexual acts between consenting adults; and nightmarish “treatments” for homosexuality including chemical castration.  Obviously, under conditions such as these, gay men had a difficult time congregating openly, meeting each other, or forming relationships. Many gay men lived fearful lives of isolation and furtive sexual encounters. 

To get a chilling sense of what it was like to live as a gay man in this era, view William E. Jones’s “Tearoom” on the Internet. The film presents actual surveillance footage from a police sting operation of men meeting for sex in an Ohio restroom in 1962. The men’s fear is palpable, and the absence of affection or connection between them is heartbreaking.

While in 1967 parts of the United Kingdom decriminalized homosexuality, 1969 is known as the start of the modern gay rights movement because in June of that year, patrons of the Stonewall Bar in New York City fiercely fought back against a routine police raid. Following Stonewall, we began to congregate and organize openly, to throw off the cloak of shame, and to fight against third-class status. (In 29 of the United States it remained legal to fire someone simply for being gay until the June Supreme Court ruling in the Bostock case. The scope of that ruling is still being debated.)

During the 1970s, with sexual liberation coming on the heels of the civil rights era, the gay rights movement gained momentum. The American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. We became more visible, and gay culture—bookstores, bars, political organizations, and sex clubs—flourished as gay men rejected living in fear and openly celebrated their sexuality.

But by the late 1970s, HIV was silently making its way into the gay community.  As men began to fall sick and die in staggering numbers early in the 1980s, anti-gay sentiment again exploded, and we began to equate our own sexuality with death. Yet the AIDS epidemic ultimately led our community to coalesce and strengthen, organizing to care for our ill and to fight for effective treatment, leading to greater visibility and acceptance, and providing some of the organizational groundwork for the equal rights battles that continue today.

History influences culture, and both our history and culture influence who we become, and how we lead our erotic and intimate lives. Modern gay culture developed in an environment of justified fear. 

Often, the only possibility for us to meet for any sort of intimate encounter was through hookups and anonymous encounters. When connecting, we had to keep one eye over our shoulders, scanning for danger (this can literally be seen in Tearoom). Can such connections really be termed intimate?

For most of us, the days of outright surveillance are over. But the patterns of interacting that developed over many years have been passed down through the generations and still influence us in the present, even those of us who don’t face losing our jobs, family support, freedom, or lives if our sexual orientation is discovered. The longstanding need to hide, scan, and be vigilant has helped shape a culture of gay male interaction that— even when we are partnered — often centers on brief encounters, putting greater emphasis on sexual connection than on knowing and being known as multidimensional physical and emotional beings.

At the opposite end of the spectrum: The era of exuberant sexual liberation that followed Stonewall. In part as a reaction to our identity having been badly stigmatized and gay sex having been literally forbidden, both pre-Stonewall and to some degree in the era of AIDS and safer-sex campaigns, gay male culture has leaned toward placing strong emphasis on sex and hooking up. As a result, we often get the message that to be a successful gay man, we should be sexually desirable, open to sex, and have frequent conquests.

Other related factors that can contribute to our so easily leaning away from monogamy and toward multiple partners include:

The stigma around being gay denies many of us opportunities to date and romance early in life. Instead, the experiences of growing up gay, having to hide, and having difficulty discerning who might be a willing partner often lead us to have our first experiences in anonymity and shame, learning how to be sexual apart from and before we learn how to be close.  As a result, we’re likely to have a hard time connecting sex and emotional intimacy.  Moreover, our early experiences can set our arousal templates to be most aroused by secrecy, risk, anonymity, and being a sexual outlaw.
Internalized homo-negativity from growing up in a culture that has stigmatized homosexuality and gay relationships may lead us to absorb the idea that our relationships, and gay men generally, are “less than.” Consequently, we may think that we, our significant others, our relationships, and our sex partners are unworthy of honor and respect; and we may easily behave in ways that reflect these beliefs, pursuing pleasure without considering the possible costs to what we say we hold dear. And we may not even realize we hold these beliefs.

As gay men, we are likely to have grown up feeling defective and hiding our true selves from our closest family and friends, fearing rejection. When children and young people don’t get a sense that they are loved for whom they really are, and instead grow up seeing themselves as damaged, it’s difficult to develop a positive sense of self-worth. Many of us are still seeking to heal this wound through our ongoing pursuit of sex and the companion feeling of being desired by another man, unaware of what is driving this pursuit.

Alcohol and other substance abuse are entrenched in gay culture, in great part as a means of soothing the isolation, distress, anxiety, and depression that many of us experience from living in an often-hostile world. Clients routinely tell me they are in a chemically altered state when they make decisions to engage in extracurricular sexual interactions that threaten or damage their primary relationships.

One more key factor, true for all relationships: While closeness can feel good, being close also means being vulnerable, which is scary. Open relationships can be a way for us to keep some distance from each other in an attempt to keep ourselves safer.

I became a psychologist at a time when gay relationships weren’t getting much societal support, with the goal of helping gay couples thrive despite a deck stacked heavily against us. Over the years, I’ve learned that some of the most important work I can do with gay male clients is to help them be more thoughtful about their choices, so that they can better develop stronger, more nurturing, more loving relationships.

We gay men often keep our eyes closed to the ways that we may be damaging our relationships through some of our most commonplace, accepted, and ingrained behaviors. Obviously, it can be painful to acknowledge that we may be harming ourselves through seemingly fun, innocuous choices, or to acknowledge the possible downsides of our ubiquitous open relationships.

Nevertheless, there is great value for each of us in figuring out, as individuals, what it means to live in a way that we respect; in holding our behavior up to our own standards, and only our own standards; and in clarifying how we want to live life even when there is pressure, from the outside world and from other gay men, to live differently.

Pressure from other gay men? That’s right.

On first thought one might think that we gay men would have no trouble standing up to others’ expectations. Certainly it’s true that openly acknowledging we are gay despite societal judgment and pressure to “be” heterosexual demonstrates a strong ability to be true to ourselves, and to manage our anxiety in the face of tough challenges.

But beyond the expectations of society-at-large are the expectations of gay culture about what it means to be a successful gay man. Here is where many of us can get wobbly.

Not finding complete acceptance in the larger world, we have the hope that by coming out, we will finally feel a sense of really belonging somewhere. If this means behaving in the ways that peers do, taking on what we perceive to be the values of our community in order to fit in, many of us are willing to ignore our own feelings, and possibly our souls, so as to not feel excluded yet again.

Jim and Rob, the couple who had sex with all their friends on their cruise, are sitting in my office, with my dog Aviv snoozing at their feet. After some consideration, they had decided to stop having sex with other men for a while, to see if this would help them to feel closer and re-start their sex life with each other. The rancor had decreased and they reported enjoying having sex together again.

Their news: Jim has decided to enroll in a graduate program on the other side of the country, and they are discussing how this will affect their sex life.

“Of course we’re going to have to make some allowances for this,” Jim says.
I look at him quizzically.

“I mean, we might not see each other for a month or two at a time. So we need to have an agreement that we’ll have sex with other guys.”

Rob nods in agreement.

I ask them how they each anticipate the impact of both again having sex with others. They respond with shrugs.

“You know, our friends Bill and Dave—Bill has been working in Argentina for the last two years and they only see each other every three or four months. They’re definitely hooking up with other guys,” Jim notes.

“I mean, what else would we do?” adds Rob. “Not have sex for eight weeks?”

If I didn’t regularly have similar conversations with other coupled gay clients, I would be stunned that neither man is stopping to consider his own feelings about what it would mean to resume an open relationship. Both are focusing solely on their perceived need to have sex regularly, and on the notion that this is simply how gay couples should operate.

So much of gay history, culture, and relational development are shaping this moment.

When working with a couple like Jim and Rob, I do my best not to accept much as “simply a given.” Here are the questions that I wonder about with them: What have your hopes been for couplehood, and how is reality lining up with those hopes? How have you made your choices? How is your relationship working for you? What is most important to you?

As with Jim and Rob, I often find that clients haven’t considered these questions much. “It’s what our friends do” is the most frequent answer for how they have made the choice to have an open relationship. Many times it seems to me as if there’s a fog around these men’s thinking about their relationships.

I don’t want to contribute to the fog by colluding with them to believe that the particular heartbreaks that can come with carelessly conducted open relationships are unavoidable; that our relationships are not in fact fragile; or that we gay men must establish our relationships along certain lines simply because that is how it is “usually done.”

And when I challenge these clients to go deeper than stating that they are just doing what everyone else does? “Yes, it’s a struggle” is the answer I usually get. “It is painful when my husband doesn’t come home till the next morning.” And then: “But isn’t this how gay men have relationships? It’s what everyone around me is doing.”

These are the poignant and troubling words I hear again and again, echoing what I was told by my friends back in 1987.

Given the numerous interrelated factors that shape our choices in the realm of sex, it is difficult to envision gay men making significant changes in how we operate, especially as committed relationships are—at present—becoming less popular among younger people of all sexual orientations.
But when we look at the arc of gay existence over the past 50 years, from the shadows to the margins of tolerance to marriage equality, it is clear that surprising and dramatic shifts are possible.

So I am hopeful that we gay men can get off autopilot and become more aware of the factors contributing to how we construct and manage our relationships. And I am hopeful that this awareness can go a long way toward our making ever more thoughtful choices, respectful of ourselves and our partners, that help us to build stronger, closer, and more rewarding relationships.

(All names and identifying information changed in this article.)

Many gay men often struggle to form solid, mutually respectful attachments that include both emotional and physical connection. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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‘Queering Rehoboth Beach’ features love, loss, murder, and more

An interview with gay writer and historian James T. Sears

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'Queering Rehoboth Beach' book cover. (Image courtesy of Temple University Press)

James T. Sears book talk
Saturday, June 29, 5 p.m.
Politics & Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave., N.W.

When it comes to LGBTQ summer destinations in the Eastern time zone, almost everyone knows about Provincetown, Mass., Fire Island, N.Y., and Key West, Fla. There are also slightly lesser known, but no less wonderful places, such as Ogunquit, Maine, Saugatuck, Mich., and New Hope, Pa. Sandwiched in between is Rehoboth Beach, Del., a location that is popular with queer folks from D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The dramatic and inspiring story of how Rehoboth Beach came to be what it is today can be found in gay historian James T. Sears’s revealing new book “Queering Rehoboth Beach: Beyond the Boardwalk” (Temple University Press, 2024). As educational as it is dishy, “Queering Rehoboth Beach” provides readers with everything they need to know (and possibly didn’t realize they needed to know) about this fabulous locality. Sears was kind enough to make time to answer a few questions about the book.

WASHINGTON BLADE: James, it’s been a few years since I’ve interviewed you. The last time was in 1997 about your book “From Lonely Hunters to Lonely Hearts: An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life.” At the time, you were living in Columbia, S.C. Where are you currently based, and how long have you been there?

JAMES T. SEARS: It has been great reconnecting with you. After that book, we moved to Charleston, S.C. There I wrote several more books. One was about the Mattachine group, focusing on one largely misunderstood leader, Hal Call. Another book shared reminisces of a 90-year-old gentleman, the late John Zeigler, interweaving his diaries, letters, and poetry to chronicle growing up gay in the South at the turn of the last century. From there I moved to Central America where I chronicled everyday queer life and learned Spanish. We returned several years ago and then washed up on Rehoboth Beach.

BLADE: In the introduction to your new book “Queering Rehoboth Beach: Beyond the Boardwalk” (Temple University Press, 2024), you write about how a “restaurant incident” in Rehoboth, which you describe in detail in the prologue, became a kind of inspiration for the book project. Please say something about how as a historian, the personal can also be political and motivational.

SEARS: I want to capture reader’s interest by personalizing this book more than I have others. The restaurant anecdote is the book’s backstory. It explains, in part, my motivation for writing it, and more crucially, introduces one meaning of “queering Rehoboth.” That is, in order to judge this “incident”—and the book itself—we need to engage in multiple readings of history, or at least be comfortable with this approach. I underscore that what is accepted as “history”—about an individual, a community, or a society—is simply a reflection of that era’s accepted view. Queering history challenges that consensus.

BLADE: Who do you see as the target audience for “Queering Rehoboth Beach?”

SEARS: Well, certainly if you have been to Rehoboth or reside there, this book provides a history of the town—and its queering—giving details that I doubt even locals know! Also, for those interested in the evolution of other East Coast queer resorts (Ptown, Fire Island, Key West) this book adds to that set of histories. My book will also be of interest to students of social change and community organizing. Most importantly, though, it is just a good summer read.

BLADE: “Queering Rehoboth Beach” features numerous interviews. What was involved in the selection process of interview subjects?

SEARS: I interviewed dozens of people. They are listed in the book as the “Cast of Narrators.” Before these interviews, I engaged in a systematic review of local and state newspapers, going back to Rehoboth’s founding as a Methodist Church Camp in 1873. I also read anecdotal stories penned by lesbians and gay men. These appeared in local or regional queer publications, such as Letters from CAMP Rehoboth and the Washington Blade. Within a year, I had compiled a list of key individuals to interview. However, I also interviewed lesbians, gay men, transgender individuals, and heterosexuals who lived or worked in Rehoboth sometime during the book’s main timeframe (1970s-2000s). I sought diversity in background and perspective. To facilitate their memories, I provided a set of questions before we met. I often had photos, letters, or other memorabilia to prime their memories during our conversation. 

BLADE: Under the heading of the more things change, the more they stay the same, the act of making homosexuality an issue in politics continues to this day. What do you think it will take for that to change?

SEARS: You pose a key question. Those who effectuated change in Rehoboth — queers and progressive straights — sought common ground. Their goal was to integrate into the town. As such, rather than primarily focus on sexual and gender differences, they stressed values held in common. Rather than proselytize or agitate, they opened up businesses, restored houses, joined houses of worship, and engaged in the town’s civic life. 

To foster and sustain change, however, those in power and those who supported them also had to have a willingness to listen, to bracket their presuppositions, and to engage in genuine dialogue. Violent incidents, especially one on the boardwalk, and the multi-year imbroglio of The Strand nightclub, gradually caused people to seek common ground.

That did not, however, come without its costs. For some — long separated from straight society — and for others — unchallenged in their heteronormativity — it was too great of a cost to bear. Further, minorities within the queer “community,” such as people of color, those with limited income, and transgender individuals, never entered or were never invited into this enlarging public square.

The troubles chronicled in my book occurred during the era of the “Moral Majority” and “Gay Cancer.” Nevertheless, it didn’t approach the degree of polarization, acrimony, fake news, and demagoguery of today. So, whether this approach would even be viable as a strategy for social change is debatable.

BLADE: In recent years, there has been a proliferation of books about LGBTQ bars, a subject that is prominent in “Queering Rehoboth Beach.” Was this something of which you were aware while writing the book, and how do you see your book’s place on the shelf alongside these other books?

SEARS: Queering heterosexual space has been a survival strategy for generations of queer folks. These spaces — under-used softball fields, desolate beaches, darkened parks, and out-of-the-way bars — are detailed in many LGBTQ+ books, from the classic, “Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold,” to the recently published “A Place of Our Own” and “The Bars Are Ours.” Of course, these spaces did not encompass the kaleidoscope of queer life, but they provide us a historical gateway into various segments of a queer community and culture.

This was certainly true for my book. Unsurprisingly, until The Strand controversy, which began in 1988, all of Rehoboth’s queer bars were beyond the town limits. There were, however, homosexual watering holes in the liminal sexual space. For instance, you had the Pink Pony on the boardwalk during the 1950s and the Back Porch Café during the 1970s. So, in this sense, I think “Queering Rehoboth Beach” fits well in this ever-enlarging canon of queer history.

BLADE: As one of the most pro-LGBTQ presidents in U.S. history, how much, if it all, did the Biden Delaware connection have to do with your desire to write “Queering Rehoboth Beach?”

SEARS: It is just a coincidence. Interestingly, as I was researching this book, I came across a 1973 news story about Sen. Joe Biden speaking at a civic association meeting. One of the 30 or so residents attending was James Robert Vane. The paper reported the senator being “startled” when Vane questioned him about the ban on homosexuals serving in the U.S. civil service and military. Uttering the familiar trope about being “security risks,” he then added, “I admit I haven’t given it much thought.” In Bidenesque manner, he paused and then exclaimed, “I’ll be darned!”

Biden was a frequent diner at the Back Porch Café, often using the restaurant’s kitchen phone for political calls. Like the progressives I spoke about earlier, he had lived in a heteronormative bubble—a Catholic one at that! Yet, like many in Rehoboth, he eventually changed his view, strongly advocating for queer rights as Vice President during the Obama administration.

BLADE: How do you think Rehoboth residents will respond to your depiction of their town?

SEARS: Well, if recent events are predictive of future ones, then I think it will be generally positive. My first book signing at the locally owned bookstore resulted in it selling out. The manager did tell me that a gentleman stepped to the counter asking, “Why is this queer book here?”— pointing to the front table of “Beach Reads.” That singular objection notwithstanding, his plan is to keep multiple boxes in stock throughout the summer.

BLADE: Over the years, many non-fiction and fiction books have been written about places such as Provincetown, Fire Island, and Key West. Is it your hope that more books will be written about Rehoboth Beach?

SEARS: My hope is that writers and researchers continue to queer our stories. Focusing on persons, events, and communities, particularly micro-histories, provides a richer narrative of queer lives. It also allows us to queer the first generation of macro-histories which too often glossed over everyday activists. So, as the saying goes, let a thousand flowers bloom.

BLADE: Do you think that “Queering Rehoboth Beach” would make for a good documentary film subject?

SEARS: Absolutely, although probably not on the Hallmark Channel [laughs]! It would make an incredible film — a documentary or a drama — even a mini-series. Because it focuses on people: their lives and dreams, their long-running feuds and abbreviated love affairs, their darker secrets, and lighter moments within a larger context of the country’s social transformation. “Queering Rehoboth Beach” details the town’s first gay murder, the transformation of a once homophobic mayor, burned-out bars, and vigilante assaults on queers, the octogenarian lesbian couple, living for decades in Rehoboth never speaking the “L word,” who die within months of one another. It, too, is a story of how the sinewy arms of Jim Crow affected white Rehoboth — gay and straight. In short, “Queering Rehoboth Beach” is about a small beach town, transformed generation over generation like shifting sands yet retaining undercurrents of what are the best and worst in American life and culture.

BLADE: Have you started thinking about or working on your next book?

SEARS: The manuscript for this book was submitted to the publisher more than a year ago. During that time, I’ve been working on my first book of fiction. It is a queer novel set in early nineteenth century Wales against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars and industrialization. I want to transport the reader into an era before the construction of homosexuality and at the inception of the women’s movement. How does one make meaning of sexual feelings toward the same gender or about being in the wrong gender? In the process of this murder mystery, I integrate Celtic culture and mythology and interrogate how today’s choices and those we made in the past (and in past lives) affect our future and those of others.

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D.C. Latinx Pride seeks to help heal the community

Much history lost to generations of colonialism

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(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Latinx History Project will host its 18th annual Latinx Pride with a series of 11 events this year.

Latinx History Project, or LHP, was founded in 2000 to collect, preserve and share Latinx LGBTQ+ History. Six years later, they began hosting DC Latinx Pride.  

Board member Dee Tum-Monge said organizers saw a need for the event that centered Latinx community members. 

“LHP knows our queer history as Latinx folks has most often been lost to generations of colonialism and imperialism,” they said. “Which is why we focus on documenting and highlighting the impact our community has in D.C. and beyond.”

According to UCLA School of Law, there are more than two million Latinx LGBTQ adults that live in the U.S.

“Events specifically for the Latinx community are important not only to make our experience visible but also to create spaces where we can grow closer with other groups and each other,” said Tum-Monge.

This year they kicked off DC Latinx Pride with a crowning ceremony for their royal court on May 31. 

Their three-part series, “La Sanación”, is underway with part two planned for June 16. 

“Sanación in Spanish means ‘healing’ which is a big part of what we want to bring to Pride,” said Tum-Monge. “Our communities go through a lot of trauma and hate, but we know there’s more to us. Our goal is to foster connection with ourselves, nature, community, and spirituality.”

In conjunction with the series there is a slate of other events; tickets can be purchased at latinxhistoryproject.org/pride.

In addition, Latinx Pride will march in the Capital Pride Parade on Saturday and participate in the festival on Sunday. To stay involved with Latinx History Project after Pride and hear more about future events visit latinxhistoryproject.org.

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D.C.’s queer nightlife scene thriving, bucking national trends

Deep Cvnt, Crush, other bars and events keep city venues bustling

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Deep Cvnt is a ‘mini ball deluxe-inspired party.’ (Washington Blade photo by Joe Reberkenny)

John Etienne is familiar with the drifting sounds from vodka-fueled conversations and the tapping of feet against the floorboards of Trade, a gay bar in D.C.’s Logan Circle. On any other Thursday night, Etienne — a party host, judge, and queer nightlife socialite — would be up on the dance floor, sipping a gin and ginger ale, dancing to the new Beyonce song with friends.

But this is not just any Thursday.

Tonight he is sitting directly beneath the dance floor in a salon chair, adjusting his sparkly green dress and white go-go boots, flipping between checking his phone and looking at the clock, waiting for the other judges to arrive. It is just after 9 p.m. and Deep Cvnt is about to begin. 

Deep Cvnt is a “mini ball deluxe-inspired party.” Etienne hosts the event once a month at Trade where queer people from across the city come to walk down a runway in categories, show off their best outfits to an established theme, and ‘vogue the house down’ making the “dive bar with a dance floor” feel like the set of a 2024 Paris is Burning. The party’s name is based on a slur, reclaimed into a symbol of feminine and queer empowerment.  

During the day, the 25-year-old works as a Digital Fundraising Director for the House Majority PAC. To him, gay bars that host events are instrumental in fostering a feeling of welcome and belonging for those who identify as LGBTQ.

“[For me] It’s the sense of community,” Etienne said. “ I think that being able to go to a spot where there are people who are like me, in some shape or form being that they’re queer or from a marginalized community, and can find refuge in these spots is something that’s incredibly important. And then, too, I think that these [queer] spaces are just a lot more fun.” 

Historically gay bars have acted as places for the LGBTQ community to gather, celebrate, and mobilize for political causes when the general attitude was more hostile to the community. D.C.’s unique queer nightlife scene sets it apart from other major gay hubs, like New York or San Francisco, due to the city’s number of welcoming spaces, its business appeal, and the strong presence of the federal government in its culture, allowing for the country’s capital city to be a statistical anomaly. 

Nationwide, gay bars have been on the decline since the 1980s. Damron’s Travel Guide, a database that has been recording the locations and ratings of queer/gay bars since the 1960s, found that in the year 1980 there were approximately 1,432 gay bars across the United States. A recent study published in the National Library of Medicine found that the number of gay bars in the U.S. has nearly been cut in half, with only 803 queer-identified bars in existence despite increasing numbers of public support for the LGBTQ community.

This trend is occurring at the same time as a record number of anti-LGBTQ legislation is popping up in state legislatures across the U.S. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced so far in 2024. These laws restrict the ability of transgender Americans to get gender-affirming care, force teachers to out their students to parents, and ban First Amendment-protected actions like performing in drag, among other issues. 

Meanwhile the number of bars that cater to the LGBTQ community in the nation’s capital has increased from six in 1980 to at least 22 in 2024. 

The LGBTQ population is still large in D.C., with some estimates putting the number at just over 66,000. Historically the “gayborhood,” or primary LGBTQ neighborhood was on 17th Street and in the Dupont Circle area. That has changed as numbers have increased over the years, making the whole city feel like the gayborhood.

“Being one of the gayest cities in the world — with one of the gayest per capita populations — that is kind of baked into the fabric of the nightlife economy,” said Salah Czapary, director of the D.C. Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture, when asked about how the LGBTQ community has changed the landscape of the city. “If you look at these certain neighborhoods [17th Street and Dupont], their character has really been defined by the ‘gayborhood’ in the area. That has kind of changed and now you can’t really point to one area as being the sole gayborhood.”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, causing the government to pause all non-essential businesses, including bars. After the pandemic, the growth in the number of gay bars accelerated.  “I think that’s kind of just generally after COVID, people are willing to take a risk on something new,” Czapary explained when discussing the impact of the pandemic on the gay bar community. 

Ed Bailey, a well-known DJ and co-owner of gay bars Trade and Number Nine, located around the corner from each other in Logan Circle, agrees about the economic opportunities COVID was able to provide but says that gay bar success boils down to the economics of real estate. 

“I have a very boring and not very sexy answer to why I think these things happen,” Bailey said when explaining the history of the prominent locations of gay bars in D.C. “At the end of the day, it’s all about real estate. Over time the gay community’s bars, restaurants, and nightclubs that catered specifically to, or were owned by, gay people were in underdeveloped neighborhoods… It wasn’t available to us to be in the high-priced areas. All the clubs and the bars were kind of on the ‘other side of town,’ whatever that meant.”

Bailey said the COVID-19 pandemic helped create a path for the current sprouting of gay bars all over D.C., especially in what are the mainstream, popular areas. “I think luckily the pandemic, at least in D.C., did open up an opportunity for a number of entrepreneurs to say ‘Hey! I have an option here.’ Some of these businesses are looking for people to buy them out or to move in, and so a bunch of people took advantage of that.”

The LGBTQ community has always had a presence in the city. It has been recorded that as early as the 1950s, Washington had become a space recognized for its ability to bring LGBTQ people together. 

“I feel like every time I take two steps, I run into another gay person,” Etienne said about living in Logan Circle and the queerness of the city. “I love it. I also think about the nature of what goes on in D.C. Historically, the government has always had a significant number of gay people working for it. Looking back to the Lavender Scare and even before then it’s always been a spot where gay men have either come professionally or personally.”

Mark Meinke, a 76-year-old self-described gay historian founded The Rainbow History Project, an organization that works to “collect, preserve and promote the history and culture of the diverse LGBTQ communities in metropolitan Washington, D.C.” His research supports exactly what Etienne described. 

“Between the [19]20s through the [19]60s, most of the gay spaces were owned by straight people,” Meinke said. A consequence of this, he explains, is that there was less of an outward recognition of these spaces as being LGBTQ friendly, keeping the community a secret. “Tolerance comes and tolerance goes,” he said as he explained why the number of accepting spaces increased and decreased during that time. 

This fluctuation of accepting bar owners began to change in the 1960s, as places that offered a safe space for LGBTQ people to meet, dance, drink, celebrate, and politically organize became more frequent and owned by more LGBTQ people. Meinke was able to track the increase of acceptance for the LGBTQ community by collecting advertisements from past issues of the Washington Blade (originally called the Gay Blade) from the ‘60s on as more gay-owned or more publicly gay-friendly establishments began to distribute the newspaper. Meinke also tracked additional gay literature in these gay bars, like that of Franklin Kameny’s Mattachine Society literature and their “Gay Is Good” buttons. The literature Kameny distributed was some of the first documented forms of LGBTQ activism in the U.S. and encouraged LGBTQ people to mobilize. 

Meinke noticed that during this time, one gay bar called JoAnna’s on Eighth Street in Southeast D.C. became a popular designation for gay people after the owner installed a dance floor. 

“In 1968, in Capitol Hill with JoAnna’s, a new social option had emerged for women, one with a dance floor,” Meinke said. In his presentation for the 2002 Washington Historical Conference titled “The Social Geography of Washington, D.C.’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Community,” Meinke said that the gay community wanted more gay dance floors.

This inspired others in the gayborhood to create more dance spaces. “Johnnie’s (across the street [from JoAnna’s]) saw the future and installed a postage stamp-sized dance floor, and began getting lots of customers…Same-sex dancing in the clubs was perhaps one of the greatest innovations on the social scene in the 1960s,” Meinke wrote.

Not only did the expanding gay bar scene impact who was visiting the city, but the presence of the federal government and the number of universities located in the area also helped attract the gay community, Meinke explained. 

As more LGBTQ people moved to D.C. to pursue careers related to the federal government, a backlash was brewing and created a time we now call the McCarthy era. This era, which extended from the early 1950s into the 60s, brought in political repression of left-leaning individuals in D.C.

This repression and eventual prosecution of people based on the fear of communism was led by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and became a major part of the Republican Party’s platform. This fear also heightened political tensions, eventually leading to Republicans accusing homosexuals of espionage. This period was known as the “Lavender Scare.”  

Robert Connelly, an adjunct senior professorial lecturer for American University’s Critical Race Gender and Culture Studies Department, explained that this scare was real for many LGBTQ people working in the government. “In [McCarthy’s] mind, homosexuals’ perceived duplicity and emotional instability made them susceptible to foreign espionage and blackmail, you know, which meant that the gays were giving away our secrets,” Connelly said. 

This fear prompted the 34th president to take more legal action against the LGBTQ people working in government. “When Eisenhower took office in 1953, one of his first executive orders that he signed was Executive Order 10450,” Connelly explained. “This codified the exclusion of perverts from government employment and thousands of lives were ruined because of this in the early 1950s.” This homophobia eventually led to the firing of thousands of LGBTQ people within the federal government during the ‘50s and ‘60s. 

This systematic injustice triggered many LGBTQ people to adapt techniques other marginalized communities were using, mostly inspired by the increasingly successful Civil Rights movement, to politically mobilize and reclaim their power. The homophile movement, one of the earliest precursors to the modern gay rights movement, had major players located in Washington to help push for gay rights. The activism ignited by LGBTQ people during this time endured for decades, addressing a multitude of issues, including anti-war protests and the fight for expanded civil rights.

Some, like Chadd Dowding, 35, a regular patron of gay bars across Washington said that Washington’s gay bar scene has been successful due to the high number of LGBTQ residents and their desire to feel connected to their community. 

“I think D.C. has the largest gay population per capita of any city in the country, so that draws a larger audience of queer folks here,” he said. According to the Williams Institute, D.C. still holds the highest percentage in the U.S.  “I think there’s also a need for spaces for community, mostly because a lot of people in D.C. are transplants from other parts of the country.” 

Others, Like Bombshell Monroe, a drag queen from the House of Mulan (a chosen family, that works to support and mentor queens in Balls and beyond) said that contrarian attitudes are baked into the nature of the city. 

As Bombshell slipped on her flower-adorned flared jeans and orange tank top, getting ready to make her first appearance on the dance floor of Trade for Deep Cvnt, matching the spring bling theme of the night, she explained why she felt D.C.’s gay nightlife has been able to grow.

“I feel like D.C. has always been a place of independence and where people, even if we’re not accepted, will fight to be accepted,” Bombshell said while pulling on a fuzzy white and orange bucket hat. “I’m D.C. born and raised and can attest personally. I think that it’s so crazy because it’s political, but it’s not political. I feel like once we get the pushback from other states, we’re the ones that take it and say, ‘Well, bitch! We got something for y’all. You don’t want the gay bars here, we’re gonna put another one here!’” 

And put another one they did. Within the past three years, at least six new gay bars have opened up with very different styles and goals. Some bars cater to particular groups within the LGBTQ community, like that of Thurst Lounge on 14th Street N.W., which is a predominantly Black gay space. As You Are Bar, at 500 8th St., S.E., seeks to make an accessible and comfortable space for all in the LGBTQ community, focusing on often overlooked female and non-binary members of the community. Others focus on creating unique nightlife experiences, like that of the craft cocktails in Logan Circle’s Little Gay Pub with its Instagram (and Grindr) famous selfie mirror, or like that of the freshly opened Crush bar, focusing on creating a dance bar for LGBTQ people. 

Regardless of the specific reason people visit gay bars, It is clear that they offer platforms to authentically express queer identity in a world that does not always deem this acceptable. 

“If we get to a point where we have to start sacrificing more physical spaces for online ones, these spaces could be easily invaded by people who may not have the best intentions,” Etienne said, preparing to head up the scuffed stairs to Beyonce’s Jolene.  “There is something very valuable about having a physical space with a physical location because, at the end of the day, that’s what we have fought for.”

As the lights dimmed the Trade dance floor began to hush. A path opened up in front of the stage as the crowd of floral wearing ballroom fans stepped back, accommodating Etienne’s entrance. With the glittery green dress, knee-high go-go boots, and oversized sunglasses it is clear he is in charge of the night. 

“Since this is Deep Cvnt I need everyone to raise their hand up,” Etienne said with a smile. “And now put it below your waist. Check how deep your motherfucking cunt is.” The crowd roared with laughter and cheers. “Alright let’s get into it!” Deep Cvnt has begun.

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