Queer Historical Locations in Wilmington, Delaware

This summer, the Delaware History Museum is highlighting the queer history of Delaware in a new window display. This display covers how queer Delawearans have organized themselves and found community over the last 50 years. Guest writer Kristin Mikles of the Delaware Historical Society shed light on our once vibrant scene of queer nightlife and community centers.

Hen’s Teeth Ad in the News Journal, Oct 14, 1985.

During a time where queer people were not accepted in society, gay bars and dance clubs became a vital refuge for the community. They were places where queer people could be free to be themselves. While these bars were for letting loose, dancing, and drag, they were also places where queer people could meet friends, romantic partners, and make connections free of judgment.

The most popular bars were Renaissance, ROAM, and the 814, all of which were centered in downtown Wilmington. Though all of these bars have closed now, they remain legendary in the consciousness of queer Delawareans. Just this past April, there was a reunion at The Queen for these bars where people swapped stories of drag queens and late-night parties. 

I would see drag queens pouring out of these bars down in the City of Wilmington and be like, ‘I just want to go,’

Tommy Fisher-Klein

In the mid-1980s, the queer community in Wilmington began to expand beyond bars. Ivo Dominguez Jr. and Jim Welch started an alternative bookstore at the Market Street Mall. This store specialized in anything hard to get at a normal bookstore – feminist books, queer books, fantasy, etc.; upstairs, they held community events and support groups. In their glass windows, they proudly displayed gay and lesbian books, “banned” books, and women’s health books like Our Bodies, Our Selves

Not everyone in Wilmington was happy with a queer bookstore in the center of town. Hen’s Teeth faced constant harassment from code inspectors who were relentless in looking for possible violations that could shut them down. But Hen’s Teeth persisted because of active community support, especially from community leaders like Wilmington City Councilwoman Loretta Walsh, who went to bat for them to keep the bookstore open.

Dominguez and Welch also opened a queer community center on 214 N. Market Street titled the Griffin Community Center. This building functioned as a multipurpose space for HIV/AIDS advocacy, queer-inclusive ministry, and Alcoholics Anonymous groups. Dominguez and Welch themselves lived on the third floor and devoted themselves to improving the lives of queer Delawareans. The bookstore and the community center proved integral for those who did not go to bars, and their efforts brought the queer community out of the shadows and into the daylight.

Today, the Griffin Community Center, the bookstore, and all but one gay bar in Wilmington have closed. The AIDS Crisis caused many queer leaders to focus their time and money on keeping the community alive. In more recent years, wider acceptance of the queer community has meant that queer people can be welcome at non-queer establishments, and the rise of the internet allowed queer people to find dates through apps instead of bars. Queer books and resources can be found online too. 

Yet, there is still a want in the queer community of Wilmington to have our own spaces. Our Night Out, for example, is a queer social group in Wilmington that goes out to local bars and restaurants. Its events often bring in hundreds of people and their Facebook group has well over a thousand participants. In interviews with the Delaware Historical Society, many queer Delawareans have talked about wanting to see a resurgence of queer spaces in Wilmington. The queer community of Wilmington remains active in the lives and work of out-Delawareans everywhere. 

Simply the existence of physical structures, like the community center and the services they provide, prove to the political world that we exist.

Ivo Dominguez Jr.

If you would like to learn more about queer history in Wilmington, visit the Delaware History Museum where their “Existence Is Resistance” display will run throughout the summer. Be sure to follow the Delaware Historical Society on Facebook and Instagram.

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Guest writer Kristin Mikles is a queer history researcher with the Delaware Historical Society.

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