‘It’s ebbed and flowed’: A new project preserves Delaware LGBTQ history

Interviews, letters, and photographs documenting the lives of LGBTQ people in Delaware will be available online in late summer.

Books displayed on a table with a Pride flag

Deal displayed LGBTQ history books while presenting their research Saturday. (Cal Ransom/WHYY)

A look into Delaware’s LGBTQ history will be available digitally late this summer, thanks to a grant from the Secretary of State.

The project’s research team compiled photographs, newspaper clippings, and letters from collections across the state that reveal the lives of LGBTQ people living in Delaware as far back as 1899 — despite sodomy being illegal in the state until 1973.

“The toleration of queer people and gender non-conformity has increased and decreased over time,” said Carolanne Deal, lead researcher on the project for the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. “There isn’t a linear progression to where we see that there was no tolerance in the early 1900s and now we have so much more acceptance. It’s really ebbed and flowed in fascinating ways.”

As part of her research, Deal found examples of members of the LGBTQ community expressing themselves both publicly and privately.

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One news article from 1899 referenced a man named Ned Anderson who wore female apparel publicly and was described in the newspaper as someone who was “known and liked all over the state.”

At Rockwood Estate, Deal found details of another man, Edward Bringhurst III/V, a wealthy amateur photographer, who donned a floral dress in a portrait taken at his home in 1903. The photos led Deal to reach out to Rockwood’s director Ryan Grover to further analyze Bringhurst’s private life.

“I wanted to speak to this director and say, ‘Do you agree that this historical figure was most likely queer?’” Deal said. “And it was the most exciting thing ever when he emailed back and was like, ‘Oh my God, yes, absolutely. I would absolutely characterize him as this.’”

Carolanne Deal speaking at a podium
Carolanne Deal shared the stories of LGBTQ individuals in a presentation at the John Dickinson Plantation. (Cal Ransom/WHYY)

Additionally, affectionate letters sent from 1907 to 1911 between two women who worked at Delaware’s only Black high school at the time, Howard High School, will be available on the website.

“I’m extremely excited to be able to showcase that middle-class queer women of color were able to have happy, passionate relationships in the early 20th century in Delaware,” Deal said.

In addition to telling stories of LGBTQ individuals, Deal hopes this project can preserve the history of LGBTQ community spaces that no longer exist.

One contributor, Kathy Carpenter said she found support at the Renegade, a Rehoboth gay bar that closed in 2003, during her transition. A dress and crown she wore during the Renegade’s Miss Gay Delaware pageant is on display as part of a separate physical exhibit in Lewes. The story behind those items will be available as part of the coming digital exhibition.

“In our community we have a lot of silent heroes,” Carpenter said. “I mean, thousands of them. When it comes to our little private networks, when one of us is hurting the rest of us are hurting — the rest of us come to their aid. So that exhibit’s not just about me, it’s about all those people that can’t be heard that have helped me and others throughout the years.”

The project also features today’s LGBTQ politicians, activists, and community organizers. In over 30 interviews, Deal spoke with organizations from all three counties in Delaware.

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State Rep. DeShanna Neal said that they were excited to see the collection feature diverse community organizers who serve different LGBTQ groups throughout the state. Neal is the first nonbinary member of the Delaware General Assembly and one of five LGBTQ state lawmakers.

“We’re hitting these different minority groups of intersectionality and it’s easy for people to ignore us, and so I love this collection, I’m so glad I get to contribute to it, so that we see all of us,” Neal said.

Rep. Neal posing for a photo outside
Rep. Neal will be featured on the website as the first non-binary member of Delaware’s General Assembly. (Cal Ransom/WHYY)

Julissa Coriano is co-founder of Orgullo Delaware, a clinician-led organization which supports LGBTQ Latinos and their families. Coriano said that the project represents a chance to celebrate LGBTQ individuals in the face of increasing anti-trans legislation across the country.

“If anyone is part of the LGBT community, they know that they’ve been under a threat for a really long time, which is so scary and which is so devastating in a lot of places. I would really love people to look at this exhibit and just see the power behind it, right? Not the, you know, let’s judge this person, let’s debate their existence, but just the power of this person and everything that they’ve gone through and the challenges and the barriers they’ve had to cross in order to be their genuine self.”

The website is currently under construction and will be available late this summer.

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