“When I die, I imagine gays singing over the rainbow and the Fire Island flag flies at half-mast,” actress Judy Garland once said. At least, that’s the urban legend that’s circulated for decades in Greenwich Village, the New York neighborhood where the LGBTIQ+ movement was born. Fire is a tiny New York island off southern Long Island. It has only 22.5 square kilometers and less than 300 inhabitants. However, his fame is huge in the global gay community and his name is synonymous with sexual freedom, drugs and fun.
The United States National Register of Historic Places has named Fire (whose translation is “fire”) the “first gay town” in America. In the 1920s and 1930s, writers like Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden began visiting the island, transforming this little piece of land into an oasis for Manhattan’s gay community: artists, Broadway actors and producers, models. But it wasn’t until 1948 that the Cherry Grove Theater came into being, the first in the United States to be all-gay. In the 1960s, former model John B. Whyte developed Pines, the more affluent neighborhood. Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Roy Halston, David Hockney, Peter Schlesinger, Larry Stanton and Christopher Makos used to spend their summers in this paradise surrounded by pools and pine forests.
Fire was always one step ahead. In 1970, Michael Fesco opened the Ice Palace, which is considered one of the country’s first gay nightclubs. Its founder called it that – Ice Palace – because “it was so hot there that I thought it would be a cool and nice name and would be appreciated by the customers.” The island has always lived up to its name: a place where that burns and is full of eroticism. Author Edmund White described the rituals of his visitors, from tea parties to pre-dawn sex. Larry Kramer mentioned the island in his work The normal heart and was inspired to write by her fagsa satirical novel that part of the gay community described as “contempt” for the collective.
A second sexual revolution
“The first time I heard about Fire Island was in the 1950s when I saw a picture of an extremely handsome young man in one of those magazines beef pie of the time when muscular men posed,” reminds the photographer Tom Bianchi, who documented the hectic life of the island in the 1970s and 1980s, of EL PAÍS. “The caption on the photo states it was taken in the fire. I later saw that it had not been taken there, but in my mind the image of this beautiful figure was forever linked to the name of the island,” adds Bianchi in a telephone conversation, whose sensual photographs linger in the collective gay imagination. A few snaps full of young people with perfect bodies in tiny swimsuits and endless parties around the Pines pools.
He also witnessed the AIDS epidemic devastating the island in those same decades. “Fire was ground zero. The plague hit us hard. We all had friends and lovers who died,” recalls the photographer, who is now writing a book about this chapter in LGBTIQ+ history. “We had to grow fast and support each other because our country failed us,” he adds.
Four decades after the advent of AIDS, a tiny oval-shaped pill helps prevent HIV infection and sparks a second sexual revolution for Fire. “PrEP has taken away the fear of many men so that the party can go on like before AIDS,” says Bianchi, referring to the rise of pre-exposure prophylaxis. “I’ve returned to The Pines many times over the years and its nature has remained the same: a sexy, free-spirited place. Each new generation is doing what we have been doing: undressing and staying in at most a bathing suit and finding a place for sexual adventures, dancing, partying and enjoying the natural beauty. And try to find love as always. The biggest change is that the beach is more diverse now, with more people of color, and that’s wonderful.”
Pride without prejudice
The Disney+ content platform was released in early June Fire Island: Pride and Seduction, a modern day romantic comedy set on the island that features a diverse and multicultural approach to homosexuality. American director Andrew Ahn and South Korean humorist Joel Kim Booster perform a free adaptation of the film in the film pride and prejudice by Jane Austen. “I saw the film. It kind of broadens our perspective by showing the beach through the eyes of Asian men. That’s a good thing. That said, I think it’s shallow and the characters are immature. I hope that one day someone make a film that better tells the story of such an interesting place,” concludes the photographer.
Ahn and his cinematographer, Spaniard Felipe Vara de Rey, took inspiration from this polaroid de Bianchi to create the aesthetics of Fire Island: Pride and Seduction. They also turned to the photographs of American artist Matthew Leifheit. “I saw the film after reading that the director took visual inspiration from my images. I think it’s funny!” the artist confesses. Leifheit agrees with Bianchi that Fire is experiencing a second “golden age”. “With the advent of drugs like PrEP, I think we are seeing the return of many of the hard-won sexual freedoms associated with a pre-AIDS era. Fire is a heavily sexualized space with a renewed sense of hedonism that suggests what it must have been like in the 1970s,” he says via email.
The artist also attributes this resurgence of the island to the efforts of people like businessman Daniel Nardicio, who organizes big parties in underwear at night, or Iraqi director and designer Faris Al-Shathir, who founded an artist residency program called “Residence Program”. BOFFO to make Fire’s gay communities welcome to all.
Leifheit was a child when he first heard the name of the island. I heard a story on the radio by author David Sedaris where someone used “do you want to fire?” as code to say “Are you gay?” “I first visited it in 2014 to take some photos for a magazine. I figured I wasn’t the type of gay guy who would fit in that it was all muscular men in jock straps. And it wasn’t like that.”
According to the photographer, there are many people on the island who do not fit into the cannons. “There is clearly room for older men. In reality, young people don’t usually own the houses, so the mix of generations is part of the economy of the place,” he says. Leifheit dived into fire for seven years to create die alivea portfolio Documenting life there: from the sweltering mansions of Cherry Grove and Pines to the beaches and Meat Rack Forest, a famous one cruise: “It is the testimony of a site that needs to be very staged to exist”.
What good does a place like Fire do for 21st century gay New Yorkers who seem to have conquered all rights? A lot for Leifheit: “Although in many cities in the USA it is possible to live openly as a person strangefrom time to time it is still important to feel part of the majority.”