Fire Island’s Gay History

by Michael K. Lavers

Fire Island News

Wednesday July 15, 2009

Canadian chanteuse France Joli was only 15 when she performed her then-hit single "Come to Me" before more than 5,000 gay men (and a handful of women) at the famous Beach party in the Fire Island Pines in July 1979. She had never been to Fire Island, and she almost fainted before she took the stage because she was so nervous.

"When I felt the applause and such a great welcome, it made me feel at ease," Joli told the News in a recent interview. "I did my thing and the rest is history."

Joli's performance instantly became part of Fire Island's storied gay history. And with the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots this summer, the beach continues to play an important role in the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] rights.

Patrons of the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street rioted after the New York Police Department raided the popular bar on June 28, 1969. The riot took place on the night gay icon Judy Garland passed away, but Cherry Grove and later the Pines proved a refuge for gays and lesbians who sought an escape from the overt discrimination and harassment they endured back on the mainland. Playwright Oscar Wilde was among the first to discover Fire Island. He spent several days at the old Perkinson Hotel in the Grove during his American tour in 1882.

Stephen Cole, who managed actress Tallulah Bankhead, joined Broadway actors and producers and members of New York so-called caf? society who had "discovered" the Grove in the early decades of the 20th century.

"Resorts like Provincetown, Massachusetts, Key West, Florida, and the Grove were (and to a large degree still are) the only public places gays could socialize and assemble without constant fear of hostile straight society," Esther Newton noted in the prologue of her 1993 book "Sixty Years in America's First Gay and Lesbian Town."

Long-time Grove archivist Harold Seeley agreed. He has lived in the hamlet since the mid-1970s, but insisted the Grove's gay-inspired libertine ways began long before Stonewall.

"When you came out here, you entered the bubble and were protected," Seeley said.

He described Stonewall as a "nationwide flag raising" that brought what he and others described as a new sense of purpose to gay and lesbian Fire Islanders.

"It made us more aware of the rights we wanted," Pines historian Tony LaRocco said.

Straight Fire Islanders were (and remain) an integral part of efforts to secure these rights. Pines Liquor Store owner Jack Lichtenstein, for example, bailed dozens of gay men out of jail in the 1960s after Suffolk County police officers had arrested them during raids in both the Pines and the Grove. They and other residents of the East End hamlets continued to stand with their gay and lesbian neighbors, but the arrival of what became known as AIDS in 1981 sparked an even more urgent cause-to stop this unknown virus before it claimed anymore lives.

Current and former Pines residents Jim Pepper, Larry Kramer and Paul Popham founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis [GMHC]. Their efforts only intensified as the epidemic claimed more and more gay Fire Islanders. GMHC's annual Morning Party, which ceased in 1998, was a fundraiser held each year for more than a decade.

"We came together to fight for our lives, literally," LaRocco noted.

The famous circuit party and the Invasion, which features hundreds of (often intoxicated drag queens) who conquer (and often terrify) the Pines each July 4 to commemorate Panzi's protest against John Whyte for refusing to serve her a cocktail while in drag in 1975, are among the innumerable fundraisers and other events for which Fire Island has become world famous.

In addition to combating HIV/AIDS, residents of the Pines and the Grove raise millions of dollars each year for other organizations and causes. These include Broadway Cares/Dancers Responding to AIDS, Service and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, the Concerned Women of the Grove and Miracle House, an organization that provides housing to people with HIV/AIDS and their families who come to New York for medical care.

Marriage for same-sex couples, ending anti-LGBT hate crimes and even the implementation of comprehensive sex-ed curriculum in public schools are among the additional causes for which gay and lesbian Fire Islanders have advocated in recent years. Pines resident Andy Tobias, who is the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee [DNC], remains one of the country's most prominent LGBT figures. Openly gay U.S. Sen. Barney Frank [D-Mass.], former DNC Chair Howard Dean and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer [D-N.Y.] are among the myriad of mostly Democratic politicians who have fundraised on Fire Island in recent years.

Those who study LGBT history maintain Fire Island and other gay Meccas will continue to play an important-if not integral-role in advancing rights for LGBT people.

"So much goes on at a place, such as the [LGBT Community] Center [in lower Manhattan] or the Pines," Jonathan Ned Katz of the Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies," told the News during an interview at his share on Driftwood Walk in the Pines. "The Pines is going to be needed for years... There's much to be done."

Joli agreed. She is scheduled to perform in both the Grove and the Pines later this summer. Joli bestowed one last piece of advice.

"I would invite every straight person I know to come to see how people live there [on Fire Island] and how people stick together... how wonderful this community is," she said. "It's something so real and emotional."

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