Invasion of the Pines is an annual event held on July 4 on Fire Island, a barrier island off the coast of Long Island, New York. Drag queens from the town of Cherry Grove board watercraft, then dock at the pier of the neighboring town, Fire Island Pines, in a ritual enactment of an incident that occurred on July 4, 1976. The Invasion is a signature event in Fire Island LGBTQ culture, with pageantry, music, and camp performance.
The Invasion began as a protest against intolerance within the Gay male community. “Teri” (his drag name) Warren left Cherry Grove and arrived in full drag in the more conservative ground of the neighboring Gay resort town, Fire Island Pines (also known as “the Pines”). The drag queen attempted to enter a restaurant, but was refused service because of what was deemed inappropriate attire by Botel owner and professional model John Whyte. Thom “Panzi” Hansen, the man who had been recently crowned Cherry Grove’s inaugural Homecoming Queen, was inspired by the grand July Fourth flotilla of sailing ships on the Hudson River that commemorated the American Bicentennial to do something about the incident. She (as Panzi) decided to go over to the Pines in full drag.
With an entourage of fellow drag queens in fashionable women’s wear (including Max Killingsworth, Gene Taylor, Jack Flood, Chuck Young, and Nick Sinisi) and two women bedecked in masculine leather outfits (Amelia Migliaccio and Lynn Hutton), Panzi and crew boarded water taxis for the Pines, prepared themselves for confrontation, and sang “God Bless America” when they docked at the Pines. Much to their surprise, they were enthusiastically received by patrons at the Blue Whale, a bar on the Pines dock, who invited them over for alcoholic beverages, thus beginning an Independence Day tradition: the Invasion of the Pines.
Tensions between the two predominantly Gay vacation communities pre-dated the incident with Teri Warren. The Cherry Grove community was generally older, more arts-focused, and included socially conscious Gays who led the Stonewall Revolution. The Pines population was younger, trendier, saw the ideal Gay man as masculine and muscular rather than effeminate and campy, and was less concerned with Gay rights. The residents of Cherry Grove thought of themselves as “the Mother Church” and their Pines neighbors as junior partners who owed at least part of their success to the activists and trailblazers of the Grove.
The rejection of a drag queen from Cherry Grove in a Fire Island Pines establishment was perceived as an insult to Cherry Grove. But when Panzi and her crew took action against the people of the Pines (one account describes a retaliatory placard carried onboard the water taxi that said, “Pines people are plastic”), they found that the Pines clientele appreciated the camp frame and audacity of the confrontation.
The Annual Invasion
At around noon, July 4, people gather at the Ice Palace nightclub in Cherry Grove to purchase their tickets, take photographs, and greet the audience of well-wishers. Drag queens and kings, “Drag Repair” personnel, and other participants board the ferry at about one o’clock. Upon arrival at Pines Harbor, the procession disembarks, usually paving the way for the guest of honor, the Homecoming Queen, who arrives with “God Bless America” blaring from speakers. The Queen may also perform a musical number or two. After a few hours of boatside entertainment, the crowd goes into local bars and restaurants.
Commonality and Exclusivity
Such expressions of commonality as the Invasion invariably conceal important power imbalances between groups. While borders are crossed for that one day, anthropologist Esther Newton points out that the factions remain intact, that is, the drag queens unite in their own special solidarity while the spectators remain spectators, even if they do share drinks and dance floors. The Grovers (citizens of Cherry Grove) visiting the Pines are temporary stars only.
In the mid-1990s, internal divisions among Grovers arose along gender lines when Joan Van Ness, a woman who appeared as drag queen Scarlet Oh!, was elected Homecoming Queen. Traditionally, the title had always been given to a man, and women had held more of a supporting role in the Invasion.
The socioeconomic composition of both Cherry Grove and the Pines is dominated by people with sufficient disposable income to either own vacation homes or rent them. While the Invasion of the Pines is an alternative to mainstream holidays that have traditionally been heteronormal in nature, such displays of Gay solidarity do not necessarily represent or include the full spectra of the LGBTQ community.
Nevertheless, the Invasion of the Pines offers the participants a chance to recognize the divisions between the Grove and the Pines in a positive competitive manner, while affirming commonality in expressions of exuberance and light-heartedness. The Invasion has been an important forum for addressing political themes, including same-sex marriage and the AIDS crisis. Additionally, the Invasion functions as a space where gender norms of the mainland do not have to be followed. There is increasingly more flexibility concerning which bodies can express which kinds of gender.
Gay Royalty: Empress Panzi
The original Homecoming Queen who started the Invasion, Thom “Panzi” Hansen, has status as a grande dame of the Invasion whenever it is re-enacted. Hansen is also a person of importance in the International Court System (ICS), a network of LGBTQ charitable organizations in the USA, Canada, and Mexico in which titles of royalty are bestowed to members, who in turn dress the part in spectacular drag. Within the Gay community, the notion of royalty has been regionalized and accessorized as a means for recognizing those who both perform spectacular presentation of self in drag and work for charitable cause by the ICS, thus reinterpreting bloodline family-based systems of nobility within the non-sanguine LGBTQ family-community.
Hansen continues to work for LGBTQ rights and charities. He was designated Empress Panzi, Heir Apparent to Empress Nicole the Great, who inherited the title from Empress José I, founder of the International Court System.
Gelbert, Bruce-Michael. “Margo & Festive Wedding Party Lead 33rd Invasion of the Pines.” Fire Island Q News (July 2008). www.fireislandqnews.com/2008/07/Invasion/437.html, accessed July 2010.
Jordan, Jim. “Once More, Our Ladies Will be Ready to Invade: The Invasion and Its Controversial History.” Fire Island Q News (2001-2005). www.fireislandqnews.com/sections/tales_invasion/tales_invasion01.html, accessed July 2010.
Newton, Esther. Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas. Durham, NC: Duke University, 2000.
Newton, Esther. Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town. Boston: Beacon, 1993.