Fire Island is a 32-mile-long barrier island south of Long Island, New York. Two communities, Cherry Grove (also known as “the Grove”) and Fire Island Pines (also known as “the Pines”) on the eastern part of the island, are important in LGBTQ geography and history as enclaves with distinctively Gay folkways.
Fire Island is part of a thin chain of barrier islands that parallel the southern coast of Long Island. To the north is Great South Bay, an estuary created by inlets on either side of Fire Island. To the south is the Atlantic Ocean. There are 18 communities with highest seasonal populations during the summer, which runs roughly from the American weekend holidays of Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) through Labor Day (the first Monday in September). Otherwise, the island is virtually deserted, with only a few people remaining year-round through the rough winter when accessibility is limited and no commercial enterprises remain open. Two of the communities, Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, are LGBTQ enclaves that lie roughly 60 miles from New York City and are separated by one-quarter of a mile of National Seashore, a wooded area called the Meat Rack. The communities are built on sand dunes. There are no automobiles, and residents get around on foot on elevated boardwalks.
Cherry Grove has 250 homes, and the Pines has 750 of which 100 are co-ops. Both towns’ borders are limited by the Fire Island National Seashore, a national park that has jurisdiction over all of the uninhabited sections of the island. Like the rest of Fire Island, the two towns are only accessible via ferry running from one of the communities on the south shore of Long Island, in this case the middle-class community of Sayville. The ferry traverses Great South Bay, five miles in width from Long Island to Fire Island. The journey from Sayville to each community takes 20 minutes. The frequency of the ferry varies from as little as once a day during winter months, or not at all if there are ice shoals, to several times a day, Memorial Day through Labor Day. Water taxis, speedboats that hold about ten people, ply the Great South Bay between the various communities during the summer season and are a popular way to go between the Pines and the Grove. There are narrow, unpaved paths through the Meat Rack from one community to the other.
Although both communities attract seasonal renters from around the United States and from other countries, most of the homes are occupied by people from the New York City area. Neither Cherry Grove nor the Pines has ever had a standing police force or a building designated solely for worship.
The Pines and the Grove have long loomed large in the collective LGBTQ imagination. “Fire Island” has become synonymous with a certain type of Gay man: White, moneyed, cultured, hedonistic, and above all, physically attractive. Cherry Grove is more heterogeneous than the Pines, with more people of color and far more Lesbians. Both communities have a sizable population of Straight people, who generally live in harmony with their LGBTQ neighbors and accept the fact that their communities are universally known for their Gay populations.
History: Cherry Grove
Cherry Grove to the west is the oldest community, predating the Pines by several decades. It began in 1869 as the oldest continuously settled community on Fire Island. Set amid wild cherry trees and isolated from civil authorities, Perkinson’s Hotel in Cherry Grove was known as a place that made its own rules. In the 1920s, the Broadway theater community discovered Cherry Grove, as did writers for the then-nascent New Yorker magazine and members of the legendary Algonquin Roundtable, an elite New York City literary circle.
In 1938, the worst recorded hurricane to hit the Northeastern United States leveled nearly all of the homes in Cherry Grove. The community rebuilt, and in the 1940s, celebrated LGBTQ writers such as Patricia Highsmith, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden and Truman Capote became regular visitors. Natalia Danesi Murray, the lover of New Yorker writer Janet Flanner, is credited with being the one of the first — if not the first — Gay people to summer in the Grove (the two met there in 1940). By the late 1940s, the Grove had acquired a local reputation as a haven for “deviants,” as a local Long Island newspaper labeled them. But Gay visitors remained, bought homes, and many of the Straight residents left. Those who did stay accommodated themselves to what they described as their “sophisticated” neighbors.
In the late 1950s, Gay developer John Eberhardt built what remains the most imposing structure on all of Fire Island, the Belvedere Hotel. The wooden bayfront complex, built in imitation of a Venetian palazzo, has always been a men-only guesthouse. A quarter-mile away, the Lone Hill Station of the U.S. Lifesaving Service (and later the U.S. Coast Guard) was built to rescue seafaring boats. There were only a few shacks surrounding it, and one large home built by theater impresario Frank Carrington. The house still exists in a dilapidated condition just outside the Pines on the eastern edge of the Meat Rack.
As the population of Gay men increased, the wooded area between Cherry Grove and the Pines became a zone in which men had sex with men. Known as the Meat Rack, it features an ecosystem that includes wave-beaten sandy shore, beach grass, and low brush to the south, a forest of thin trees in the middle, and salt marsh to the north facing Great South Bay. The area is most famous as a 24-hour cruising (looking for sex) site, as men meet on the Meat Rack’s beach or on the many footpaths leading from one community to the other that criss-cross the small forest. Legend has it that a portion of the Meat Rack was at one time called the “Donut Rack,” and was frequented by women cruising women.
In 1950, a New York City home developer, Home Guardian Company, developed a new community, Fire Island Pines. It was marketed as a fishing and beach resort to returning servicemen. The community grew slowly, with a small commercial strip developing along a harbor dredged into Great South Bay to provide boat slips and a wide berth for Sayville Ferry.
From the beginning, the individual house lots in the Pines were much larger than in the Grove, which helped determine its fate as the more luxurious of the two communities. A former Broadway showgirl named Peggy Fears built the Yacht Club, a bar-restaurant on the harbor, and the Botel, a concrete hotel that still exists. Fears was Lesbian, and Gay people soon began to summer in the Pines, despite Home Guardian Company’s active discouragement. Like the Grove, the Pines became a favored resort for Manhattan’s smart set: people involved in fashion, theater, and art. Many homeowners, however, resented Gay residents. The issue came to a head when a sign at the harbor entrance announced that the Pines was a “family community” and warned about unacceptable behavior. Nevertheless, the Pines became a haven for Gay New Yorkers — many of whom did not want to be associated with the increasingly notorious Grove.
The custom of tea dances (dance parties held in the afternoon or early evening) in the Gay male community is traced to the Pines and Gay festival folklife of the 1960s. Police raids of the Meat Rack and arrests of Gay men on the boardwalks of the Pines were common throughout the 1960s as well. But by 1970, the raids ended, and, as Gay life flourished in New York, the Pines and the Grove became the destination of choice as a getaway from the city. The Pines became an international resort for celebrities and affluent Gay men. Sex was rampant, not only in the Meat Rack but in wooded areas inside the community and on the beach. Parties became elaborate affairs based around themes, with guests trolling costumes stores in Manhattan weeks before for outlandish or glamorous outfits. Both towns were also known for the use of recreational drugs, such as amphetamines, MDMA and cocaine.
Disco, AIDS, and the Morning Party
The Pines and the Grove became important sources for developments in the burgeoning disco music genre. Synchronization of lights with music supposedly originated in one of Fire Island’s Gay dance clubs, exported to Manhattan, and from there, around the world.
Tom Moulton has been credited with inventing the EP (extended-play) twelve-inch record while DJing at the Sandpiper, a disco in the Pines. The much larger Ice Palace in Cherry Grove attracted top DJ talent from New York City. In 1977, the popular disco group, the Village People, sang a song called “Fire Island,” with lyrics that mention different Gay clubs such as the Sandpiper, Ice Palace, and Monster. The decade culminated in Beach, a huge all-night dance party in 1979 that took place on the Atlantic Ocean beach. The party was a fund-raiser for the local volunteer fire department.
Pines residents were among the first documented cases of AIDS. The disease quickly cut a wide swathe across both communities. By 1983, several homes were empty, their owners or their renters stricken by the disease. In 1985, a group of five friends charged admission to a morning party, which was a casual gathering of people who wanted to dance after the local disco had closed. The Morning Party, as it came to be known, benefited Gay Men’s Health Crisis, New York City’s principal AIDS service organization. The party grew so large it moved to the beach and attracted several thousand revelers until a spate of well-publicized drug overdoses ended the party in 1998.
Homecoming Queens, Invasion of the Pines, and Miss Fire Island
On July 4, 1976, a drag queen from Cherry Grove was refused service at a bar in the Pines. She notified Thom “Panzi” Hansen, who had been recently crowned Cherry Grove Homecoming Queen. Hansen then dressed up in fashionable women’s clothing, traveled via water taxi to the offending bar with a few drag queens and two women dressed in butch leather, and arrived singing “God Bless America.” They were greeted with cheers and thus began what is one of two popular annual events on Fire Island, the Invasion of the Pines. Each July fourth or the weekend closest to that date, a Sayville Ferry boat filled with drag queens and kings leaves Cherry Grove and docks in the Pines to the cheers of hundreds of locals and visitors. The official leader of the Invasion is that year’s Cherry Grove Homecoming Queen, and “God Bless America” is played as they arrive. For several years, Harold Seeley, a longtime Grove resident, dressed as a bishop and blessed the drag queens before they left for the Pines Invasion.
In 1994, Joan “Scarlet Oh!” Van Ness won the title of Cherry Grove Homecoming Queen and was the first to be biologically female, which made some male residents of the Grove upset. Van Ness nevertheless had the support of the original homecoming queen, Thom Hansen, and Joan-as-drag-queen Scarlet Oh! led the Invasion that July. Scarlet Oh! was escorted by a woman in a white tuxedo and two women dressed in men’s naval officers’ uniforms.
Besides the Invasion, the second major event is the Miss Fire Island contest. It takes place on the weekend after Labor Day at the Ice Palace and features drag themes each year to guide participants in their choice of wardrobe.
Theater and Festival
Both communities have developed active arts projects, especially theater, and both have community centers that function as theaters for stage performance, meeting places for community concerns, and places of worship. Drag performances are hugely popular in the Grove and are held several times during the summer. The Fire Island Pines Arts Project sponsors a community production of a vintage Broadway musical every year.
Much of LGBTQ festival folklife on Fire Island involves dancing and drinking alcoholic beverages, such as the tea parties every weekend during the summer season. On Fridays and Saturdays, there are usually dances in the Pavilion and other clubs that may go until sunrise. The afternoon event is Low Tea, which features dancing inside the Yacht Club and lasts from 4 to 8 p.m. Then the party moves upstairs above the Pavilion, the Pines’ main discotheque, for High Tea, which lasts until 10 p.m.
Ascension, held on a Sunday in mid-August, is a huge beachfront dance party with part of the proceeds going to the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, a political action group. The party is seen as the successor to the GMHC Morning Party and attracts thousands of dancers to a makeshift dance floor overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. In 1999, the Pines’ property owners association planned a twentieth anniversary party to celebrate Beach, the landmark 1979 beach party. Known as Pines Party, it has since become an annual event, with the net proceeds divided between community projects and the Stonewall Foundation, which gives seed money to Gay organizations and was founded by a longtime Pines resident, investment banker Jim Pepper. Every year, Pines Party is built around a theme, and people dress accordingly. Like Beach, the party is held on the beach. It begins at dusk and ends with the dawn.
One unique annual event is a volleyball game between Grove residents and the police force that includes Cherry Grove in its jurisdiction. The game began as a way of relieving tensions between LGBTQ Fire Islanders and the police over accusations of discriminatory conduct. The game has become hugely popular, although some Grovers complain about rowdy police fans.
House parties are thrown throughout the summer weekends. Some of these are open to anyone, and others require an invitation. These house parties vary from cocktails for a few high-end donors to huge dance parties that convert a house into a dance club. An outdoor pool may be covered with an elevated platform for dancing, and well known Circuit DJs play music from an upper balcony overlooking the crowd. One of the most popular house parties is a Labor Day weekend event in which all guests, be they men, women, or children, must appear in drag before allowed entrance.
Two of the best-known annual dance events take place over July Fourth weekend in private homes. Independence is held at Reflections, an enormous white house overlooking Great South Bay. In addition, to Independence is Bay Dance, also held at a home on the bay. Benefiting the LGBT Center in Manhattan, it ends with fireworks shooting from a barge.
Both communities continually face the threat of erosion of their beachfront as well as hurricanes and violent winter storms known as nor’easters, named for the direction of the wind. Since Fire Island is essentially a large sand bar, the communities on it try to lessen the impact of the human population with boardwalks and rules preserving the dunes. Fire department vehicles are pared down to accommodate the boardwalks, and for the most part, the entire population (besides differently abled people and work crews on golf carts) travels by foot or by boat.
Ecological awareness is evident in the ways wild plants and animals are managed on the island. Many homeowners prefer xeriscaping (use of local plants for landscaping). The local deer population is kept in check through birth control rather than hunting. It is not unusual to encounter deer while walking through the communities, and the deer do not seem to mind the presence of humans.
In addition, locals collect beach glass (pieces of glass that have been rounded and made opaque by sea and sand) as jewelry, emphasizing the importance of recycling in such an ecologically sensitive area as a barrier island.
Despite a reputation for hedonism, both communities have regular religious services in their respective community houses on Sundays in season. Episcopal services, conducted by a local Long Island priest or a local layperson, are most popular, although there are also Roman Catholic services. In the 1970s, a small group of Jews began holding informal worship services on the Jewish High Holy Days in the Pines. This has grown to a congregation loosely affiliated with the Reconstructionist Movement. The services during Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana are held in Whyte Hall, a community center built on the old Coast Guard station. People from both communities attend.
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Weinstein, Steve. The Q Guide to Fire Island. New York: Alyson, 2007.
Nichols, Jack. Welcome to Fire Island: Visions of Cherry Grove and The Pines. New York: St. Martin’s, 1976.
Helms, Alan. Young Man from the Provinces: A Gay Life Before Stonewall. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1995.
Johnson, Madeleine C. Fire Island: 1650-1980s. Mountainside, N.J.: Shoreland, 1983.