June/July/Aug 2017

Fire Island of the Mind

A queer utopia lost and found

David Velasco


IN THE FIRST EPISODE OF Fire Island, Logo TV’s latest burlesque of the evacuated gay male experience, Brandon and Cheyenne buddy up at the Sip-n-Twirl. They drink tequila sodas, margaritas, vodka sodas. They symphonize with the royalty-free music. It’s a perfect night, but there’s trouble. They’re late for their house’s first family dinner. When they walk in, midprandial, Justin, the hairy Alice who prepared the feast, glowers with resentment. Tensions deepen, like lines in lipidless skin. That same weekend, the day after the annual Pines Party (theme: “Xanadu”), the men host an intimate barbecue at their oceanfront digs. A crasher, poolside, removes his Parke & Ronen bikini briefs. Jorge, a hot-blooded Venezuelan, gets very, very angry. “No, no, no, this is not happening!” he screams, perhaps offended that such expensive swimwear should be so casually discarded. Brunch is ruined.

This is a far cry from the adventures of PaJaMa, the midcentury throuple made up of artists Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French, who botanized the Fire Island boardwalks, striking antic poses, pictures of which were passed among their bohemian friends and later captured in the endearing photobook Collaboration (1992). It’s a far cry really from anything in the island’s literature, unless you count “The Boys on the Beach,” Midge Decter’s thirteen-thousand-word screed against the bloom of gay lib in Fire Island Pines for the September 1980 issue of Commentary. “What indeed has happened to the homosexual community I used to know—they who only a few short years ago were characterized by nothing so much as a tender, sweet, vain, pouting, girlish attention to the youth and beauty of their bodies?” asks Decter, not knowing that Logo would one day vindicate her nostalgia.

It’s a somewhat shorter cry from my own memories of that same Xanadu weekend, during which I recall walking by the Logo stage set at night. It stood out from the neighboring piles because of the supernatural Arri LED beams flooding from its windows, like some monument to homosexual self-obliteration.

I remember other things about that evening, the usual things. The temporary city of lights installed overnight on the sand, the tingle around my teeth as I came up, men and women wearing silver wings and silver singlets and white tube socks, a body armored in glitter that scratched me as it grazed my skin; moving from tent to tent, looking for the next thing, always another thing. I remember finding and losing friends, and as dawn breaks we’re searching for a pair of handsome architects we’d met at a pool party earlier in the day, and when we find them in the crowd, we swoop them back to Tuna Walk—the sun leering across the bamboo—up to an ornate rental near Great South Bay where…

MY HOUSEMATE ONCE DESCRIBED Fire Island to a coworker who wanted to know what he was doing all those disappearing summer days.

I don’t know for sure, but I imagine it went down like this:

“When the sun is up we lie on the beach or do puzzles or make an all-day breakfast or read or work or have sex and friendship, and when the moon is up we perform pagan chants on the beach or do puzzles or read or have sex and friendship. Somewhere in there we mix in some drugs. Somewhere in there we mix in spirited debates about the mysterious yet concrete intersections of history and identity or look at the stars and entertain childish deliriums. We swallow and get swallowed. Mostly we spin endless permutations of our own convoluted jokes. Mostly we do what we want.”

And she said: “Oh my god, I wish straight people had something like that.”

To which he replied: “You do. It’s called the world.”

Fire Island is a very dull TV show. This is a palliative: What a relief when the drama is lateness, casual nudity. We have not always been so lucky.

It’s also incredible that Fire Island is dull, since the two neighboring hamlets that comprise the island’s homo communities—Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines—have for decades been sites of wild homophilic and homophobic projection. For instance:

Dismal Porto Esperança, so wrongly named, remains in my memory as the weirdest spot one could hope to find on the face of the earth, with the possible exception of Fire Island. . . . The place is like an inverted Venice, since it is the land which is fluid and the canals solid: in Cherry Grove . . . the inhabitants must obligatorily use a network of wooden footbridges forming a road system on stilts.

To complete this picture, I must add that Cherry Grove is chiefly inhabited by male couples, attracted no doubt by the general pattern of inversion. . . . In the tiny streets, on higher ground more stable than the dunes, the sterile couples can be seen returning to their chalets pushing prams (the only vehicles suitable for the narrow paths) containing little but the weekend bottles of milk that no baby will consume.

These days, the babies will.

Click to enlarge

Wolfgang Tillmans, Oriana & Kayla, Pines, 2016. Courtesy the artist.

IT’S UNCLEAR WHAT YEAR Claude Lévi-Strauss disembarked, but by the time these words appeared, in his 1955 memoir, Tristes Tropiques, the Pines was still a stunted patch of heterosexual couples worshipping at the altar of endogamy. The invert invasion came in the 1960s, as electricity arrived and architects like Horace Gifford began to transform the modest homes into exquisite (but tasteful!) playrooms for design queens. Esther Newton, author of the invaluable history Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town (1993), is by far the better ethnographer, but for sheer phobic whimsy, nothing beats Lévi-Strauss.

In the ’70s, there was an explosion of literary works set on Fire Island, written by the natives themselves, including Edmund White’s proto-Milo debut novel, Forgetting Elena (1973); Larry Kramer’s riotous Faggots (1978); and, most importantly, Andrew Holleran’s baroque fever dream Dancer from the Dance (1978). Then came AIDS—I stumble on that phrasing, which makes it sound like AIDS was an inexorable historical fact and not a calculated holocaust—whose earliest reported cases seemed to have been seeded in the Pines. “I could not have imagined then that my Polaroids would so suddenly become a record of a lost world—my box of pictures a mausoleum, too painful to visit,” writes the photographer Tom Bianchi in a recent collection of his work. And then for a long while many of us “sterile couples” didn’t think much about Fire Island at all.

Decades later, Bianchi reopened his boxes, and in 2013, thanks in part to the heroic efforts of Artbook DAP’s then vice president Alexander Galán, there appeared a pair of smart and beautiful coffee-table books, Tom Bianchi: Fire Island Pines, Polaroids 1975–1983 and Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction, both paeans to gay lib, both necessary accessories for any well-appointed Pines home and touchstones for the new natives landing on the shores. It’s hardly beside the point to note that they also appeared a year after the FDA’s approval of Truvada as a pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV.

These new natives are now making and circulating images of their own. Here is the artist K8 Hardy, tits out, dildo up, posing for her 2015 Girls Like Us cover story, in which she camps it up around the Sip-n-Twirl. I remember leaving photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’s first concert last year to pose at a kiss-in responding to the murders at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, for Ryan McNamara’s spread in Out of Order. I remember Nicole Eisenman and Tiffany Malakooti scrawling, après Hardy, “BONER KILLER” on a sculpture they photographed on the beach for the cover of Art in America. PaJaMa-rama. But so far the only new Fire Island writing is Edmund White’s masculinist fantasia Our Young Man (2016), set during the plague years. Where is the literature for our time?

LATE ONE AUGUST MORNING one of the fags and one of the dykes in our house discovered that a nearby rental had been commandeered by heterosexuals. We knew this because we’d seen some of them flamboyantly staging their opposite-sex couplings. The housemates spent the morning making signs to put up around the island that read: “LITERALLY ANY OTHER BEACH.” We were split on whether this was appropriate. Some of us separatists are squeamish about our separatism. When others insist you’re not wanted, you sometimes develop an allergy to telling others they’re not wanted. But that leaves it to more brazen friends to shore up the borders of our hard-won, expensive little utopia.

It’s hard to blame the straights for wanting a piece of the action. Kramer’s Faggots may be Swiftian parody, but his descriptions also ring true because, like the best parody, its subjects, and I think its author, believe it:

The sun tans more evenly here. Since it appears more often. The stars, of course, shine much more brightly. Both up above and on this beach below. Dancing is more fun and eating is more fun and sex is much, much more fun, and strolling under the moon at three o’clock in the morning or watching tangerine sunrise or popsicle sunset—everything, EVERYTHING!, is more fun. And filled with hope. Which is more fun. For everything, naturally, must always have Hope.

These days there are more children on the beach, just as naked as their chaperones. There are fewer condoms at the sex parties—there are also more sex parties (no one calls them “orgies”), more parties for everyone, really. The fucking is more fun, as is the art, and for people whose idea of fun has so often invited persecution or even death, more fun is sometimes more than just fun. The circle of people demanding recognition of their weird pleasures continues to widen. And if this island is one day going to sink into the Atlantic, I hope that it’s filled sea to shining sea with a bunch of freaky inverts willing to go down with it.

David Velasco is editor of artforum.com and of the forthcoming volume Sarah Michelson (Museum of Modern Art, 2017). He is currently working on a novel set on Fire Island.

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