The new CAMP Rehoboth executive director is no stranger to Rehoboth Beach, Del. Kim Leisey has been coming here since the 1990s to find community among other queer people at a time when they weren’t accepted in society.
Leisey’s chosen family resides here — a group of close female friends she calls her “tribunal.” The pandemic brought her life into sharper focus, as it did for so many others. Her wife, Kathy Solano, retired in March 2020 — into the throws of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were out taking a walk with our dog,” Leisey said. “And I just said to her, ‘When do you want to move to the beach? ‘And she’s like, ‘now.’”
And so the two moved to the beach, Leisey still in her job as senior associate vice president for student affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. When Leisey heard about the job opening for executive director at the storied CAMP Rehoboth organization that had helped so many like her, she jumped at the chance.
Now, two weeks into the job, she’s beginning to sketch out her priorities: Caring for LGBTQ+ seniors, engaging with youth, and partnering with corporate sponsors for community services and huge community events like the Sun Festival this Labor Day weekend.
Amid all the events and activities of the busy summer season, CAMP Rehoboth remains under an investigation by the Delaware Department of Justice. Former Executive Director David Mariner reported possible fake purchases and reimbursements before resigning and founding his own LGBTQ organization, Sussex Pride. The department is investigating $86,000 in payments to an employee, according to CAMP Rehoboth’s 2021 audited financial statements. Leisey declined to comment on the investigation but said it has not affected the organization’s finances.
“We’re financially healthy. The community respects and trusts us,” she said. “We have lots of businesses that are involved in sponsoring events and resources and services. So I think we’re in a really good place.”
Leisey said there is no competition or animosity between the two organizations, as did Mariner in a 2022 interview with the Blade.
“I enjoyed my time at CAMP Rehoboth,” he said. “I certainly hope there’s opportunities for us to collaborate.”
Leisey steps into her role as executive director of CAMP Rehoboth at a time when culture wars rage and many conservative politicians have set their sights on rolling back transgender rights. The wars have largely passed by solid-blue Delaware – the American Civil Liberties Union anti-trans bill tracker does not list any bills in Delaware.
Leisey, who is a cisgender woman, has been on a journey of her own about transgender issues. She founded the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Faculty Staff Association in 2009, which was later renamed the LGBTQ+ Faculty Association.
“You know, 30 years ago, there wasn’t much information,” she said. “And so reading, experiencing, talking with people going to workshops, conferences, has all been part of my personal journey as it relates to trans folks.”
Leisey leaves the University of Maryland Baltimore County as it continues to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic, with both the lowest number of full-time undergraduate students since at least 2013 and a booming full-time graduate student population, the highest by far since at least 2013. The university defied predictions of slow enrollment growth along with other universities in the University of Maryland University System.
She says experience in administration at UMBC, working with not only students, but parents, family, staff, and faculty and her Ph.D. in human development lends itself well to her new job.
“I worked shoulder to shoulder with lots of diversity around age, to provide a campus environment that was such that students could do well academically and get their degree,” she said. “What I’m taking away that I’m bringing to CAMP is, we’ve got to spend time with our youth, and we’ve got to spend time understanding what their needs and their desires are, especially as it relates to our programs and services.”
Murray Archibald and Steve Elkins founded CAMP Rehoboth after heterosexual residents pushed back against the increasing prominence of gay and lesbian people in Rehoboth and the two started the organization after the Rehoboth Homeowner Association loudly opposed the vibe the queer community had created, pointing to noise, traffic, and parking as problems, CAMP Rehoboth writes in its history. The city soon voted to ban bars not connected to restaurants, spelling the end for bars including disco bar the Strand.
So the two founded CAMP Rehoboth — an acronym for “Creating A More Positive” Rehoboth — and conducted trainings, met with local leaders, and others to support the burgeoning queer population.
Leisey says she wants to tap into the entire Rehoboth community now.
“The artists, the musicians, the intellects, the poets, the scientists, I mean, retiring into this community in Rehoboth has been really eye opening, and seeing the human capital and resources here, and that folks realized this in spite of the oppression and the stress of being queer, LGBTQ, in sometimes in some careers that were not very friendly,” she said. “And so the human spirit in this area is pretty amazing. And this is what I love about CAMP.”