Photo courtesy of Fire Island Pines Historical Society
Fire Island has a long history of welcoming everyone who ventures to its shores–especially the LGBTQ community
There’s no better place than Fire Island to lose yourself. But it has also been a place where people find themselves. The popular summer retreat with pristine sandy beaches, weathered boardwalks, and indigenous flora along the Atlantic Ocean occupies a special place in American LGBTQ history. Two of the 17 hamlets, Cherry Grove and later the Fire Island Pines, were among the very first openly gay beach towns in the United States. Many decades before the iconic 1969 Stonewall Riots shook Manhattan's West Village and officially launched the gay liberation movement, Fire Island was a sanctuary for gay life.
Through the generations, common themes have remained consistent for this beloved refuge: freedom, acceptance, joy, and love. So, in celebration of Pride Month, we asked a few friends from the LGBTQ community to tell us what Fire lsland has meant to them along their journey. We're proud to share their stories.
A Right of Passage
"Fire Island is a rite of passage for many gay people. I first went to Fire Island in 2004, when I first moved to New York. I wasn't out when I was in college because I didn't have the support system before then and couldn't come to terms with who I was –and who I am. My first visit was a supersonic experience. Not just to see the lifestyle but to have the support of people similar to me. It helped me accept myself. In Fire Island, I caught up for lost time and had fun. It was exciting to meet people and to be on an island where you could be so free to be who you are. Thinking back, Fire Island was so important for me in establishing my identity." —Andrew Lee, Director of Technical Design, Fair Harbor
"My wife and I came in 2014 for the first time. We were at the beginning of our transition, and it sounds so trite, but we wanted to wear bikinis. And we didn't feel safe going to most other beaches. It was just a great feeling, and everyone was so lovely and supportive to us, even though they didn't know us. As a trans woman, I never feel a hundred percent safe in the world. But here, I feel pretty close to a hundred percent, which is a unique experience to have. So I feel fortunate to have found Fire Island." — Parker Sargent, Documentary filmmaker and one of the curators of "Safe/ Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove," a 2021 photography exhibition at the New York Historical Society
"Growing up in St. Louis, there weren't a lot of places for gay people to go. The idea of a gay mecca, a place just for queer people, was intriguing and intimidating at the same time when I first visited in 2013." — Dan Michel, Sr Editorial + PR Director at UNTUCKit
"I went for the first time in the late nineties when I was just coming out, and I was pretty awkward. I remember being sort of in awe and just getting off the boat and amazed that this place exists. It's a gay wonderland, and so it was very cool to discover this place where I could be myself without having my guard up." — Andrea Trimarco, Owner of Uplift Interiors
"We're like a bunch of kids at camp because a lot of us missed out on that high school experience. Many of us tried to convince everybody we were straight and hid our true selves then. So a lot of what we do out here is relive those lost years. One year I even threw a party called Platinum Prom. We practically had to turn people away because there was no room on the Cherry Grove Community House and Theater dance floor. People were so excited to relive a prom that they never got to have. All these parties and homecoming queens – it's like our way of getting what we didn't get when we were young." — Parker Sargent
Photo courtesy of Cherry Grove Archives Collection
A Proud History
"There's an annual event on the 4th of July called The Invasion that goes back to 1976. It sprang from a moment of exclusion, when a drag queen was denied service at a local restaurant in the Pines. The community rallied behind her and turned it into a protest that has developed into one of the biggest drag festivals. It started as activism, and today, it's a celebration. Drag queens board a boat at Cherry Grove, and they invade the Pines. It's a blast. Usually, there's an MC, and they do a couple of numbers. There's a lot of glitter and boas and hair coming toward you, and everybody's smiling." — Richard Shuback Brand Consultant/ Former Advertising Creative Director
"There would be no RuPaul's Drag Race without Cherry Grove Community House and Theater. We have national historic recognition as the oldest operating LGBTQ theater in the United States. It helped define camp culture and paved the way for the modern drag scene – starting in the 1930s. Drag was illegal until the seventies, but people here were willing to take those risks. Stuff was going on here long before it was going on elsewhere. Bob “Rose” Levine, an iconic drag legend who I'm doing a documentary called Roseland on, has been performing here since 1954. These are the people who carved the dirt path for us. But it's our generation that's in charge of paving it. Paving makes it permanent. Our nation isn't still all the way there." — Parker Sargent
Photo courtesy of Parker Sargent