|How did Fire Island become so gay?
Fire Islandalong with other resort areas such as Cape Cod's Provincetown, Miami's South Beach, the Russian River north of San Francisco, and Rehoboth Beach in Delawareoffers queer visitors a welcome retreat from mainstream life, and has come to occupy a prominent place in gay culture.
Fire Island is a 30-mile-long barrier beach off the southern coast of New York's Long Island. Among the island's 17 towns, or hamlets, twoCherry Grove and Fire Island Pinesare predominantly gay.
Cherry Grovereputedly once a pirate's havenwas established by Long Island businessman Archie Perkinson, who purchased land and opened a hotel in the late 1800s. One of his earliest famous gay guests was Oscar Wilde, in 1882, who said the Grove was one of most beautiful resorts he had ever visited. By the 1920s, the town had become a bohemian enclave, drawing denizens of Greenwich Village and the Broadway theater crowd during the summer months.
Outside the easy reach of law enforcement, the Grove developed a reputation for its free-flowing alcohol during the Prohibition era, and it became known as a playground for the rich and famous.
Cherry Grove became increasingly popular among gays and lesbians in the 1930s, as its remote locationaccessible only by boatoffered them a place to socialize freely beyond the disapproving gaze of mainstream society. Anthropology professor Esther Newton has dubbed the hamlet "America's first gay and lesbian town." Its many GLBT celebrity visitors included authors Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden (who once were carried into a party dressed as Dionysus and Ganymede seated upon a gilded litter); composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, Peter Pears; actress Greta Garbo; journalist Janet Flanner; and writers Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith, and Tennessee Williams. The early 1940s saw the founding of the Arts Project of Cherry Grove, which mounted theatrical productions featuring the talents of the town's summer residents; drag shows, too, became an enduringly popular form of entertainment.
Fire Island Pinesa larger hamlet separated from Cherry Grove by a cruisy patch of dunes and trees known as the Meat Rack or the Judy Garland Memorial Forestwas developed after World War II. While the Grove maintained its diverse, bohemian atmosphere, the Pines became a haven for affluent young "A-List" gay men. A rivalrysometimes good-natured, sometimes less sogrew up between the two towns, giving rise to the annual July 4th "Invasion of the Pines," in which drag queens from the Grove descend upon the Pines in a fleet of small boats.
Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines remained queer sanctuaries during the repressive McCarthy years. By the 1960s and '70s, Fire Island's gay reputation was cemented nationwide in part due to jokes by television talk-show host Johnny Carson. The resort garnered further attention in 1966, when gay avant-garde poet Frank O'Hara died after he was hit by a dune buggy on the beach. During the post-Stonewall gay liberation era, the Grove, and even more so the Pines, became famous for their wild parties, all-night disco dancing, abundant sex, and widespread drug use. The Village People wrote a song entitled "Fire Island," which memorialized local venues including the Ice Palace, the Blue Whale, and the Sandpiper, and warned listeners not to go into the bushes.
The ensuing AIDS epidemic devastated Fire Island's gay communities. "In the 1970s, the Pines was the epicenter of gay life, a crucible for new ways of thinking about everything from sexuality to flower arranging," wrote journalist Steve Weinstein. "In the 1980s, the community became an epicenter of a wholly different sort, as AIDS hit the Pines earlier and harder than anywhere else in the United States." Many longtime visitors died during the decade that followed, and social life began to revolve around fundraisers such as Gay Men's Health Crisis' annual Morning Party. Fire Island's glory days and the desolation that followed have been commemorated in gay men's literature ranging from Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance (1978) to Larry Kramer's Faggots (1978) to Felice Picano's A House on the Ocean, a House on the Bay (1997).
GLBT people continue to be attracted to Fire Island's combination of natural beauty, laid-back lifestyle, and lively nightlife, but Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines have changed with the gay community, reflecting its new maturity and family orientationor, as some might say, its assimilationism. While the Pines' residents remain predominantly gay men, the Grove's denizens now include queers of all ages, lesbian couples with children, and a growing number of people of coloralthough the island's escalating housing prices have put it out of reach for many. While the hamlets once provided a safe haven in a hostile world, GLBT people now have many more places they can be comfortably out as queer. Today, says journalist Jeffrey Escoffier, people flock to Fire Island "not, as earlier generations did, to experience a safe haven from homophobia," but rather "to enjoy a social environment that reflects the history of past struggles and that continues to offer the pleasure of living in towns where homosexuality is the norm."
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No.11 August 12, 2005