It’s the once-secret gay haven that’s now a world-famous holiday destination. Wanda Goldwag visits New York State’s hottest spot.
Most of us have had fantasies about living in an entirely gay world, where we set the rules and we’re in charge of how things work. Thankfully, there are places in the world which almost live up to this dream.
One of these is the fabled Fire Island Pines, which I’m lucky enough to have been visiting for some years now. Fire Island Pines, or The Pines as it is often referred to, is a community based on a sand bar in New York State. 80% of its 700 homes are owned by lesbians or gay men. In the summer the homeowners plus their guests and the people who share the houses (renting them on alternate weeks) swell to some 3,000 people – 90% of whom are lesbian or gay.
The queer history of Fire Island Pines started in the 1950s. It was a sanctuary at a time when homosexuality was still illegal and taboo. The Pines and its sister community Cherry Grove provided a safe environment for people to meet and socialise away from prying eyes.
It’s easy for us to forget just how difficult it was in those times to find a safe space in which to come out in, meet gay friends and start love affairs. The Pines was ideal because it was outside the city of New York but near enough to get to in a couple of hours. The fact that you needed to take a ferry meant that people didn’t just accidently find it. You needed to be in on the secret – so, if you met someone there you knew you were safe.
Former residents include fashion designer Calvin Klein and music mogul David Geffen. Jerry Herman – who wrote Hello Dolly, Mame and La Cage Aux Folles – always had a home in the Pines and Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s there. For many rich gay men the Pines was the only place they could really be themselves and there were legendary parties and orgies. Some so famous, indeed, that the houses are still known by their former owners’ names.
FIPPOA (the Fire Island Pines Property Owners' Association) was founded in 1953 and set the agenda for development and management of the community, running everything from the Harbour and Marina, the beach erosion protection, safety and lighting, and operation of the post office.
As the world became more liberal in the 60s, The Pines became a place of freedom and experimentation where men, and increasingly women, who happened to be homosexual could craft a society based on their interests and desires – at best bohemian, often decadent and sometimes drug-fuelled.
What changed the place forever was AIDS. As well as the tragedy of individual deaths, the epidemic also saw many of the beautiful houses inherited by straight family members who then rented the properties to a new generation of younger gay people. This new generation of gays went from being renters to buying homes and renovating them and it was this that led to the incredibly high gay ownership in the Pines.
The Pines is a gay paradise because it combines sexual freedom with beautiful beaches, long boardwalks, almost no cars and an abundance of nature. You will see everything from herds of deer wandering around freely (and occasionally causing chaos by eating from the garbage) to Piping Plovers, an endangered shore bird that nests on the Island.
The best time of year to visit Fire Island is between Memorial Day (End of May) and Labor Day (beginning of September).
Things to Do
Fire Island is considered one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. It has activities for everyone, including camping, hiking, fishing, boating, surfing and numerous sports. It is an island rich with culture, with many art exhibitions and theatre shows on offer. The secluded nature of the island makes it perfect for a romantic getaway. The miles of walkways, cherry groves and beautiful beach scenery make it the perfect place to relax with a loved one. There is also a lively nightlife with plenty of restaurants, clubs and bars where you can join in with the diverse group of people that visit and inhabit the island. The Sunken Forest is one of the few maritime forests on the eastern seaboard and is certainly a must-see when you visit the island. Located next to Sailors Haven marina, its trees have been twisted and misshapen by the salt spray and freshwater marshland. Be sure to look up at the picturesque tree canopy as you trek through the forest. It is a sight like no other. The lighthouse is also well worth a visit. It offers stunning views of Long island, the Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. On a clear day, you can also see the NYC skyline.
How to get there
Use the Long island Railway from Penn Station and change at Jamaica or Babylon to Sayville, At Sayville station the trains are met by shared buses which for about $5 will take you to the ferry port where a round trip ticket to Fire Island Pines cost $14 and takes some 20 minutes
From central New York the journey takes some two hours and on the weekend that can be much longer. A car park is available for a small fee at the ferry port.
For more information visit www.thepinesfireisland.com
[Bayside home and beach photos by David Shankbone]