Drag queens perform at the afternoon pool show at the Ice Palace in the Grove. (David Ozanich)
In November 2011, tragedy struck Fire Island, a legendary gay resort community on New York’s Long Island, when the famed Pavilion dance club and its neighbour, the Sip and Twirl disco burned to the ground.
No one was hurt in the disaster, which was blamed on an electrical failure, but the massive blaze made headlines in New York papers and gay publications nationwide, as the men and women of Fire Island wondered how they would face the 2012 season without their two most popular nightclubs. Would it irrevocably transform what had long been a secluded gay paradise into just another high-end vacation resort?
Fire Island is a barrier island off the south shore of Long Island, about 60 miles from New York City. There are several communities along the 30-mile stretch but the two most famous and historic gay resorts are the Fire Island Pines (known as the Pines) and Cherry Grove (known as the Grove), both of which are accessible only by ferry from the Long Island town of Sayville. Less than two square miles in area, the hamlets are known for pristine sand dune-framed beaches abutting the Atlantic, car-free boardwalk streets, scantily clad men and women perfecting their tans, drag queens navigating sand and surf in stilettos and a happily hedonistic yet quietly laidback social scene.
Despite its relatively small footprint and its seasonal nature (less than two dozen people make the Pines and the Grove their year-round home), Fire Island has historically been a centre of gay leisure in the US, rivalled perhaps only by Provincetown, a retreat on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. On average, about 800,000 people (gay and straight) visit Fire Island each season.
The Grove was first developed as a vacation destination in the 1880s and gained a reputation for being hospitable to gay and lesbian travellers in the 1950s. The Pines began attracting a gay clientele in the mid-1960s, when former model John B Whyte bought the community’s only hotel along with much of the neighbouring commercial property and started inviting his friends. The Botel (now the revamped Hotel Ciel) remains the only hotel in the Pines.
Over the intervening decades, the Grove and the Pines began catering almost exclusively to gay travellers seeking summer shares away from the grit of New York City and the prying eyes of their more conservative neighbours. Gay men tend to gravitate towards the Pines, with its sleek mid-century modernist architecture, while the Grove attracts women with its cosier and secluded beach cottages.