Some call it Lazy Gay Beach and some call it Poodle Point. You get there, as it turns out, on Queen Street and emerge at the southern tip of the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk. And on a hot and hazy Saturday afternoon you find about 400 gay men and women basking on the sands.
"Birds of a feather flock together," laughed Tom Schildwachtter, a 38-year-old horticulture student at Howard Community College.
Schildwachtter came to the beach on a recent weekend with his friend Robert Hauck, 34. Gays come to Rehoboth, he said, mostly because other gays come to Rehoboth: "I want to be among my own kind."
This quiet seaside town in southern Delaware has long been a popular destination for sun worshipers, both families and singles, from Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia.
Gays have always come here, but their numbers are increasing, raising fears among some residents that things are getting out of hand and that Rehoboth will end up with a reputation like that of Fire Island, Provincetown or Key West.
In June, Mayor John A. Hughes told a meeting of town homeowners that the growing number of gays "is a problem that might need acceptance, but we can't ignore," according to people who attended the meeting and to local newspaper reports.
Hughes, who did not return a reporter's telephone calls, reportedly said at the meeting that the situation was making residents uneasy and scaring them into leaving.
Many people at the meeting found the comments "tasteless," according to one local business owner who said gays pose no threat to Rehoboth.
"He has taken something that's a nonissue and really hurt Rehoboth with it," the business owner said.
But another business owner disagreed. "There's a feeling of concern, there's no question about that," he said. "Some people feel that the potential is there to hurt the family image" of Rehoboth. Visiting families provide the bulk of the city's business, he added, and many people have told him they will not return because of the large number of gays. But he said he saw no obvious solution.
Like other business owners interviewed, he said residents and town officials are in a quandary. They are not opposed to gays coming to Rehoboth, he said, and appreciate the money they spend. But if residents publicly discuss the effects gays might have on the town's image and future, their comments are misconstrued as being prejudiced.
One woman from Montgomery County, who has visited Rehoboth for 25 years and owns property near Queen Street, said she is "not partial" to gays but sees no problem with their coming to Rehoboth. "I haven't noticed any untoward behavior," she said. The town still attracts a "high caliber" of visitor, she explained, adding that parking problems, poor road conditions and drinking at nearby Dewey Beach are more threatening to visitors and property values.
Gays aren't new to Rehoboth. For years basked on a stretch of sand south of town, dubbed Gay Beach. But in recent years their numbers have increased and -- weary of the trek south from town -- they moved to a location adjacent to the city limits at the south end of the beach and called it Lazy Gay Beach or Poodle Point.
"I think the time came, a few seasons ago, when a lot of the lesbians were being lazy and didn't feel like walking all the way," said a gay Washington travel agent who has been coming to Rehoboth for 10 years. Lazy Gay Beach was created "where they plopped down," he said.
In recent years, according to this man and many gay beachgoers, the number of gays visiting Rehoboth has grown enormously. "It's becoming much more popular," said Jim, 30, from Philadelphia, who had come to the beach with several male friends. "The mayor doesn't know the tide has turned already. The number of people at the gay beach has probably tripled in the last three years."
Chuck DeHart, the director of a hair salon in Baltimore who was at the gay beach on Friday, said he has been coming to Rehoboth for the last two years. One of the attractions, he said, is that "you have night life here." While there are gay bars in and near Rehoboth, he said, "there aren't any in Ocean City." But the main point, he said, is that gays come to Rehoboth because there are already gays coming to Rehoboth. "You feel more comfortable when there are gays around you," he added.
While the number of gays is increasing in Rehoboth, DeHart said, the town has a long way to go before it can rival the reputation of Fire Island or Provincetown. "Not in the near future," he said. "It would be a while. Six or seven years from now, maybe."
Many gays come to Rehoboth from Pennsylvania, complaining that the advent of gambling in Atlantic City changed the Jersey shore and wiped out a once-thriving gay strip. Washingtonians said Ocean City, the largest resort on the Eastern Shore, is too crowded and too many of its vacationers are prejudiced against gays. Delaware's Bethany Beach is considered too quiet.
While people occasionally yell slurs as they walk past, gays said harassment has not been serious in Rehoboth and seems to have declined during the last few years. Several straight people questioned on the boardwalk said they have no objections to the gays. "Whatever turns you on," said one young man.
At the same time, the town's reputation has spread. Two women lying hand in hand on the beach on a recent Saturday afternoon said they heard of Rehoboth from gay friends back home in Nebraska. "We ended up here because of the reputation that Rehoboth had about it," said Sugar, 26, a librarian. She said she heard Rehoboth was "outrageously gay." That was incorrect, she added, but it was still a fun place.
Gays on the beach said they are a relatively tame crowd. They said some gays cruise the boardwalk for late-night pickups and a few go into the sand dunes north of town for nude sunbathing and sex. But most, they said, come as couples or groups with little interest in pickups.
Rehoboth attracts "a better class of person," said Chuck, a 41-year-old systems analyst from Philadelphia. He called them "guppies" -- gay urban professionals. He said, he once stayed in a gay group house whose members included the head of a Washington medical center, a Smithsonian executive, the manager of a large hotel and his lover, owner of a large restaurant.
"These are the people that don't mind going out and spending a lot of money, and do it," he said. And with such people, he added, the city officials should count their blessings.
Of course there is some flamboyance: several spoke of a Philadelphia gentleman with a theatrical air known as the Balloon Lady. A couple of weeks ago, they said, he arrived with several male friends who donned bathing caps and performed water ballet to the delight of crowds at the water's edge.
As the evening settled in on a recent Saturday and the beaches cleared, lines of sunburned men and women formed outside the town's popular nightspots such as Kelly's and Fran O'Brien's, where dancing continued until 1 a.m. But the gays kept to themselves, elsewhere.
South of Rehoboth on the outskirts of Bethany Beach, a small group of gay men drank at the the Nomad Village motel bar and bemoaned the lack of a gay bar in Ocean City. At the same time, several young women who looked as if they'd be at home in a preppy Georgetown bar danced, kissed and held hands on a dance floor beside the swimming pool.
And on Rte. 1 near Rehoboth, the dance floor of the Renegade was packed as male couples gyrated to disco music beneath flashing neon ceiling fans. Schildwachtter, the horticulture student, said such sights are a comfort to gays, who sometimes feel lonely and isolated.
"I looked down at the dance floor last night," he said, "and I said to myself: 'Homosexuality is not dying in this country.' "