Collection close-up: Miss Sussex County Amateur 2000 donation
By Elizabeth Coulter, curator of collections for the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs
The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs currently has around 104,000 objects in the Historic Collection, among them is now a small collection of newly accessioned objects from Kathy Carpenter, Miss Sussex County Amateur 2000.
Delawarean Kathy Carpenter has been advocating for transgender rights, acceptance and community acceptance throughout her life. She was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and moved to Delaware with her family in 1979 to live with her grandmother in South Bethany.
As a teenager, Carpenter joined the family business of building prefabricated homes. After high school, she enlisted in the Navy but was offered a full scholarship to wrestle at Delaware State University around the same time. She received an honorable discharge from the Navy so she could go to college, and she graduated in 1986. After graduation, she worked for Disney Village Resort in Orlando, Florida, for years and then she returned to Delaware in 1996.
Though she knew she was female since preschool age, she began to socially transition when she moved back to Delaware. She shared that she would dress as a woman at home but would not go anywhere until she worked up the courage to dress as a woman and go out to the Renegade Bar, a nightclub established in 1980 in Rehoboth supportive to the LGBTQ+ community. As soon as she walked into the Renegade Bar, two drag queens, Dominique and Jordan, whisked her to the back and said “we’re gonna help you with some makeup,” and Carpenter recounted “that was it.”
Around the same time, based on her building experience in the family business, she was contracted to work on building updates at the Renegade Bar during the daytime. No one realized it was her until drag queen Miss Joanna Fantasia noticed and referred to her as “that little carpenter.” Thus, her name became Kathy Carpenter. She found friends, community and a support system at the Renegade Bar.
Beginning in 1988, the Renegade Bar held an annual regional America pageant for drag queens called Miss Gay Delaware, and it was owned and promoted by Lee Ann Richards. Carpenter enjoyed the pageant but was not allowed to participate as a trans woman. In 2000, during the last Miss Gay Delaware pageant held at the Renegade Bar, she was honored with the sweetheart award, Miss Sussex County Amateur, for her contributions to the community.
In addition to her long-standing support of the Renegade Bar as a patron and through her friendships there, she had also contributed to set design, props, music, clothing and more for the pageant. During the pageant, she wore the purple beaded dress that was given to her by her friend Jordan Ashley. The passing down and sharing of garments is a part of drag and trans community culture. The tiara she was given had also been passed down and worn by all the previous Miss Sussex County winners during the Miss Gay Delaware pageant. This Miss Sussex County certificate was granted from her drag mother, Miss Joanna Fantasia, and the pageant owner and promoter, Miss Lee Ann Richards. These objects are not only symbolic of Carpenter’s life, but also of the community in Sussex County.
Carpenter came out publicly in 2017, around the time she founded the group TransLiance to create support and raise awareness for the trans and gender-diverse community. Today, she not only works with TransLiance, but also is president of her own company, Brown Real Estate, and has helped establish Sussex Pride, a new LGBTQ+ nonprofit organization formed in 2022 that works to create inclusive programming, advocacy and resources for the LGBTQ+ communities in Sussex County.
The Division currently accepts donations to the collection. The curatorial team has actively sought out objects that represent important moments in recent history.
As the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs’ Curator of Collections, Elizabeth Coulter participates in developing and installing exhibitions, developing and presenting educational programs, providing access to the collections, collaborating with partnering organizations and expanding the profile and use of the collections. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and American studies from Rutgers University and a master’s degree in decorative arts history from George Mason University and the Smithsonian Associates.