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Ocean Currents

Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove: A Safe Harbor

Two of Long Island’s beaches have an important place in LGBT history and hearts

Fire-Island-Blog
© Billy Unotti

Growing up on Long Island, I was lucky to live only 20 minutes from many beaches, including Long Beach, Jones Beach and Point Lookout. My entire childhood was spent with close proximity to the water and greatly inspired my love for our ocean and desire to begin working at an organization focused on protecting it.

Here at Ocean Conservancy, we have been celebrating Pride all month long. We’ve also been looking at the history of discrimination and racism at beaches and coasts. Reading our CEO’s words on World Ocean Day had me thinking about my own experiences associated with special ocean places around the country. As a member of the LGBT community, where have I felt most welcome? What is the history behind these beaches? How can we learn from the history and apply it to our present-day challenges?

As I grew into an adult, I discovered another set of beaches on Long Island: the shores of Fire Island. It’s one of New York state’s most popular summer getaways, a thin barrier island on the Atlantic Ocean. This seaside village is linked by boardwalks, sandy beaches, natural dunes, water taxis and (mostly) no automobiles.

As Pride month concludes, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the rich history of two Fire Island beaches as a sanctuary and safe space for members of the LGBT community: Pines and Cherry Grove.

The incredible story of these two beaches dates to the 1600s, but it wasn’t until the 1938 New England Hurricane destroyed much of Cherry Grove and the Pines that it was reborn as a gay destination. The hurricane discouraged main landers from coming to visit, and a new generation started coming from New York City that landlords couldn’t afford to discriminate against—a growing gay population.

From the 1940s forward (more than 25 years before The Stonewall Riot, which is considered the commencement of the gay rights movement) the Pines and Cherry Grove became a safe retreat. These idyllic spaces helped LGBT individuals find each other and create a real community, with many experiencing acceptance and freedom for the first time in their lives. Its unique geography and isolation from the main land fostered a safe harbor in a time when dignity and respect were hard to find.

Fire Island 2
© Billy Unotti

These beaches have touched many parts of the LGBT experience. Not only is it considered one of the very first spaces to welcome a majority population of gay men and lesbians, performances here paved the way for the modern drag scene. It’s also known for its annual July 4 “Invasion.” During the summer of 1976, a restaurant in the Pines denied entry to a visitor in drag. When their friends heard about it, they too, dressed in drag, hopped on a ferry, and stormed the island, to a buoyant welcome. It is now one of Fire Island’s most beloved traditions.

No place is a utopia, and while the Pines and Cherry Grove come close, there is still room for improvement—not only for trans and queer individuals across all spectrums, but also in accessibility and diversity. A stay on the island can quickly become expensive and property ownership is overwhelmingly white. And while there are options and help available, the realities of navigating the boardwalks if you are a person with disabilities is challenging. But, if there is one place in the world where inequality will be acknowledged and addressed, it is here.

Personally, I have visited the Pines and Cherry Grove every summer since 2016, and although I have had the privilege of growing up in a time when living authentically as a gay person is much easier, there is no substitute for that magical feeling of belonging that one experiences when the ferry pulls up.

The island has other unique characteristics—it’s also home to New York states only federally-managed stretch of wilderness, which includes protected beaches, dunes, and maritime forests—but its ability to bring together and cultivate community for LGBT individuals is truly what makes Fire Island so special. I have only scraped the surface of the positive impact it has made, and continues to make, on so many lives.

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