I imagine that in the past, Fire Island provided a real sense of security for gay men (and women – they're there, just mostly confined to Cherry Grove, which neighbors the male-centric Pines section of the island). I can see the former necessity of a place where they could go and be their gay selves without worrying about persecution.
But it's 2012. We can go be gay in so many places, on so many beaches, and our visibility in straight society has the added potential of helping our cause of acceptance – more so, at least, than elected segregation that doesn't strike me as particularly cruisy, even. We no longer have to tuck ourselves away. We can just exist and if anyone has a problem with it, it's probably going to end up being a real problem for them. I dare someone to say something to me about me sitting my gay ass on a beach with another boy and listening to Mariah Carey and reading some trashy women's book (like Wifey). It hasn't happened yet and I've been doing it for years.
That said, the freedom to be as limp-wristed as you are or just want to be that day in the sun is a beautiful thing. I don't know if I made the most of that option during my Fire Island experience, but I appreciated it all the same.
"I like going to a place with a beach where I can be a faggot and it's fine," is how my seasoned Fire Island-going friend, J, summed up the appeal of the escape to me. It was a few weeks ago, and just before I went out to the island for the first time. I got there through a friend's invite: B was staying in a Pines share for the week after July 4, and he'd asked me to come out for a day. I'd never gone before because my parents live in a South Jersey beach town, so paying real money for that experience always seemed silly to me – all is a car and a tank of gas and I have a beach house. Furthermore, my former, nine-and-a-half-year relationship was with someone who hated Fire Island on principle. But now I'm single - and so are a lot of the boys on Fire Island. So, why not?
I knew what J meant exactly soon after arriving. In the ocean, B, his temporary housemates and I discussed gay face and gay voice and how harrowing it can be as a gay man to hear recordings of yourself speaking. Back on the beach, a few of them played euchre. When one won the game, he sang Minnie Ripperton's "Lovin' You." Later at the house by the pool, I had a long discussion about Madonna's No. 1 singles (I still can't believe that "Cherish" peaked at No. 2). Also in that pool, we played a game of Keep in Air with a small beach ball that was about the size of a softball. In our attempt to ensure that the ball stay within the boundaries of the pool without touching the water, we employed various moves: the Can't-Be-Bothered (a disinterested upward flick of the hand) and the Diamond Jubilee (a motion like the Queen of England's wave). We listened to Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson playlists while we got ready for one of the "tea" parties that are tradition each evening. I took a shower outside in a stall with no door while Janet's first post-Superbowl flop, "Just a Little While," played.
People seem to regard Fire Island as a utopia, and it's not hard to discern why. It is, after all, paradise. I heard at least half a dozen people refer to it as "summer camp for gays," which says something about the responsibility-free mindset one can adopt there. Doors go unlocked, property sits unattended, the darkest of dark paths are no threat. I did not know the island well enough to trust it, though. This laissez-faire attitude about, oh, everything bugged me out so much, particularly when walking through the Meat Rack – a section of beachy forest between the Pines and Cherry Grove known for its up-for-grabs public sex. I've seen way too many horror movies to know better than to walk that terrain, and I spent much of both weekends terrified that some burly bear reject was going to step out in front of me with a machete and stick it through my skull. No one did and no one would (I think) – the crime rate on in the Pines is, after all, a fraction of New York's and the country's. Anyone who thinks we gays are uncivilized needs to visit this fluid, all-gay society and revise.
Just letting go and understanding that things work differently in Fire Island is not an easy task. Or at least, it wasn't for me. Out of the confines of the house I stayed in the first weekend, amongst the seven or so guys who were staying there, I felt unsure of how to navigate the scene or what the point of doing so would be - until I got drunk enough not to care. We went to some tea – high tea, low tea, whatever tea, I never really got to the bottom of what distinguished them aside from timing – and then to the area club, Sip N Twirl. There, the resident DJ, Lina, inspires worship (anytime she spins, you can see multiple people wearing T-shirts bearing her likeness) and with good reason: her mix of deep but identifiable disco and house cuts (Teena Marie's "I Need Your Lovin'," First Choice's "Double Cross," Voices of Life's "The Word Is Love (Say the Word)") is elating like nothing I've ever gotten back home in NYC.
Sometime during the blur of that party, I was invited to stay the night. Beds in B's house had opened up. I vaguely remember someone coming up to me to talk about my work. I think we made out, but I am not sure. I received a text from B saying he'd gone back to the house (right around the corner from the club, really) to start making dinner and I should let him know if I needed help getting back. "Yes," I replied. He showed up and escorted me. I remember sloppily attempting to help make dinner. I was told later that B took me out on the deck to get my drunk ass out of people's hair and I spoke very ardently about being a person of action who wants to get things done. And then I passed out on the couch.
I woke up at 4 a.m. and stayed up. Before I left, I went for a walk by myself that spanned the island. I saw a deer clopping along the boardwalk at one point. These things happen in a land of fairy tales. I caught the first ferry home that Monday morning, listened to Elliott Smith sing about substance and addiction on my iPod and cried. I wasn't hung over, but I should have been.
My second Fire Island Pines experience, this time for an entire weekend immediately after my first visit, was very different — the other side of the coin. It just so happened that a bed (really, half of a giant one, but I didn't know that until I arrived) opened up in my friend R's share and I hopped on it – but only figuratively.
On the Friday afternoon that I arrived, while talking by the pool with the half dozen or so guys that I'd be living with that weekend, someone mentioned that we'd be attending the night's underwear party in Cherry Grove. "Uhhhhhhhh," I think was my response, but I was assured that it was chill and that it would be fine.
I've never been to an underwear party. I don't go to underwear parties. I'm too old for underwear parties.
When we arrived there later, we had to wait on line on this metal ramp that was exactly the kind of thing that would be at the entrance of a low-rent carnival ride. I felt just as uneasy as I would have were our destination a rickety set Salt and Pepper Shakers, too. After five minutes of standing there, we paid, someone who worked there handed me a trash bag to put my clothes in and I looked around at the stacks of abs and briefs. I knew, immediately, that I wouldn't be comfortable there. I threw my bag in the trashcan, told my housemates to stay (not that they needed permission) and that I could take care of myself. I left confused about how exactly to get back to the Pines. My friend had mentioned a water taxi, but I didn't see it and decided to try my luck with the Meat Rack. Someone named Timmy approached the entrance at the same time as me and guided me through. I saw none of the public sex that supposedly goes on there, and no one in a hockey mask dismembered me.
I went back to the house but decided that I was leaving myself open to get creepy crawled, Manson Family style, and so I walked to Sip N Twirl where some severely drunk guy's eyes bulged as he repeatedly tried to touch me. "Is it OK if I do this?" he said, putting his hand on my thigh. "No, just be cool," I told him. He got up and I approached the first black guy I'd seen that night to talk to him about the troubling lack of diversity on the island. The fire on Fire Island is white, white, white. He told me I had the right idea for combating it and seemed somewhat amused. I ran into him a few times that weekend and he greeted me by saying, "Diversity!" My friends soon rescued me from sloppy concern and we went back to the house for a night swim in the pool.
Determined to make our Saturday special, I simmered some weed in butter and put it on toast for my housemates and I. We ate it, did some more swimming in the pool and then R and I embarked to attend a few parties, leaving the rest of the guys behind. There was some confusion as to the location of the first, a benefit for the Abzyme Research Foundation, and we ended up following an older gentleman up to the gate of what turned out to be a nude barbecue for more older gentlemen. A saw a grill, a nutsack and a lot of baggy ass in the seven seconds it took for the door to swing shut – a portal to an even more specific alien world inside the one I was in. I couldn't hang with the underwear crowd, and so those guys seemed really, really advanced. I wonder what precautions they take to keep burger grease off their balls.
We found our way. At the benefit party, we were given a punch upon entry. We ascended to the roof, which provided a 360 view of the island, and as much water as our eyes could hold. Gorgeous. Paradise. "I think this is spiked. This punch is spiked," I said to R, my anxiety rising with every word. "No it's not. We're just really high," he said carefully. Indeed. We were coming up so hard and so quickly that we decided to stop babbling at the nice people nearby who seemed to have all of their brains intact. We excused ourselves to attend a Bastille Day party.
Outside, under the speckled shade, I realized that I was high-school high. Literally, I had not been that lifted in 15 years, and during the specific time I'm thinking back to, I thought my legs had stopped working. I was convinced I'd die from a THC overdose and I couldn't imagine how embarrassing that would be for my family. On Fire Island, I thought about how logical it would be for me to fall on my face right then, right there. I'd do everything I could to keep from doing so, but I decided that I'd understand if it happened. I felt out of control, vulnerable and terrified.
And then I felt sad. I didn't mean to get as high as I did, but I certainly was looking for an extreme state of temporary existence when I decided to maximize my high by consuming weed instead of just being a regular person and smoking it. I had gone to this island to be as gay as possible, yet the marijuana I consumed altered me, made me exist outside of myself. The high would turn out to be something not unlike an acid trip in terms of length and intensity. That day, before I was a gay man, I was an inebriated man. I was too high to be gay. It struck me as so fucked up that I was that fucked up, that getting so wasted was needless. I don't need drugs to be gay. Being gay is a drug. It's a high in itself.
We made it to the party. I remember it as a four-minute, strobing LMFAO video starring all gay people around a pool. It may have been different.
The weed was making me paranoid and also terrible at meeting people. I stopped saying, "Nice to meet you," because I soon couldn't be sure if I had already met any of the dozens of people I was being introduced to, or if we'd already encountered each other earlier that day or the day before or sometime in the city.
Later, on the way to tea, I was introduced to someone who motioned to the Trax Records shirt that I was wearing (an oblique expression of gay pride, given house music's history, I thought). He shook his fingers like he was nonchalantly flicking mosquitoes at my chest and exhaled a limp "Hi," like my rancidness deflated him. I just smiled, thinking that he was a three at best and there would be no conceivable situation that I would ever fuck him. If the world were ending, I'd rather dig a hole in mud than stick my dick in him. Like many of his cohorts, he was wearing a black-and-white striped tank top with red piping and a beret. Bastille Day brings out the clones, judges and assholes, apparently.
At tea, I stood near the DJ with a housemate. Irene Cara's "Flashdance... What a Feeling" came on. "Come on, Rich," the housemate told me. "Be a faggot! Dance like you did when you were five. Let go and be gay."
But I couldn't. I mean, I was standing there being gay, but the brand of abandon he suggested is just not my thing. I'll bob my head in appreciation, but I'd rather have a discussion about Giorgio Moroder's soundtrack work than give myself over to it. (Besides, I'm more of a "Take My Breath Away" kinda guy.) I'd rather say, "Bye," to bid farewell than, "Bye, girl," like everyone else around me seemed to be saying. I'd rather discuss... just about anything besides gossip, really, and 90 percent of the interactions that I was part of or overheard that weekend specifically regarded what someone else was doing or whom he was fucking or where he was going or how prominent he was or various other group politics. I felt like there was a code of values that I wasn't prepared to subscribe to, although if I did I bet I would have had a much more straightforwardly good time. That there should emerge a status quo within a subset of a population is not surprising – it's human nature. It happens everywhere, all the time. (On Fire Island, it involved hard bodies, white people, speedos and tank tops.) This is, however, contradictory and dispiriting within gayness, which I thought was based on the idea that deviating from the norm is not just acceptable but essential. Edmund White once wrote that drag queens are the queers of homosexuality, but that phenomenon doesn't stop with them.
The entire experience was overwhelming: from tea to tea to Sip N Twirl to home to a dark party in the Meat Rack to back home in the hot tub. Unfriendly eyes and two-sentence exchanges abounded. I was led everywhere blindly, by a wonderful caretaker much more secure in the importance of our activities. If Grindr has hurt the scene, I think its former state would have made my head actually explode. And from what I understand, the fire that destroyed the Pavilion last fall has also made for a different kind of summer altogether. My vision of the island is skewed and then skewed some more.
Despite my self-imposed rule that I would not preoccupy myself with hooking up, I dealt with the crowd by reducing it down to a single dude that I could focus on at Sip N Twirl. He was gorgeous and tight-bodied and bearded and looked like a friend I had in high school that closetedness would never allow me to admit to myself that I wanted to fuck. He was wearing a baseball cap. No one called me out on that. He was my dude for the night.
After a cloud of socializing and enough small talk to numb my brain and make me just give up on the idea of stimulation, I found myself in bed with the guy. I was still too high to be gay and besides, I was not going to hook up in a bed that I was sharing with another guy whom I wasn't fucking. (The king-size R and I slept in was big enough to ensure there was no funny business, not so much as footsie.) It was all so weird and complicated but he seemed to understand. We made out and it was sweet.
Meanwhile, by the pool, this petite Latin firecracker who'd entered the house screaming that he'd been raped (this turned out to be an exaggeration that began and ended with an Egyptian drag queen or trans woman grinding on him) had kicked another guy, giving him a huge gash under his eye. It's all fun and games until queens bleed.
That concluded the party. R and another housemate, A, and I sat together, assessing the weekend. "This place is so weird and judgmental and I don't even really get it or get what I'm supposed to get," I said. They agreed that the best times they've had have usually been at the house, away from the throng, whose collective energy feels more rabidly social than sexual.
At least that's how it felt from where I stood, tipping over the end of my high and still uncertain of which place was scarier: Fire Island or inside my own head.
Pride & Shame is a new semi-regular series exploring sex and sexuality from the perspective of a newly single, 33-year-old, gay-sex enthusiast.
Photos via david_shankbone/flickr and AP.