My friend and Fire Island writer and star, Joel Kim Booster, once said, “There is something really transformative about being away from straight people for a week.” He’s not wrong. As a queer who grew up in southern Texas, I’m familiar with the need for queer spaces unfettered by straight expectations. When your existence is an automatic act of rebellion, where do you find the space to just…exist? Where do queer people go to heal, build community, and explore themselves and each other without the ever-present complication of heteronormativity?
Floating off the coast of Sayville, New York, there is a community with the potential to be such a place: the historically queer hamlets of the Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove. True to their respective names, they are like something out of a fairytale. Paved roads are abandoned, traded for a labyrinth of interconnected boardwalks that give the community an innate intimacy, as chosen families travel in clusters that offer a glimpse at what queer domesticity could look like in world all our own. Sounds nice, right?
That said, when I was first invited to Fire Island, I was reluctant to go. For all its potential as a queer safe haven, in many circles of our community the island, especially The Pines, has a different reputation; as a place where whiteness, wealth, and tired, impossible-to-meet standards of beauty are centered and idealized at the expense of everything else. As Zach Stafford, an award-winning gay journalist who recently made his New York Times debut writing on this very subject put it: “People think the real world doesn’t make it to the Island…but everything that is happening out there…it’s happening here, in a very concentrated way.”
Last summer, I was lucky enough to participate in the filming of Joel Kim Booster and Andrew Ahn’s romantic comedy Fire Island. A queer retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the film asks many timely questions about the place: Who is it really for? What can it offer to the queer community?
I want to believe the answer to those questions is “any queer person who wants to be there” and “quite a lot.” So I sat down with other queers to ask them: why go? What follows is a fraction of what the place has to offer, but hopefully enough to whet your appetite—think of it as both an introduction and an invitation. As Bowen Yang, queer comedy darling and star of Fire Island, said when I spoke with him: “Fire Island is a place that honors the past, contains the present, and is a gateway to the future.” So why shouldn’t that future be one we can all enjoy?
Gifts to us from queer architects like Horace Gifford and Christopher Rawlins, the midcentury modern houses on the island aren’t just beautiful, they’re monuments to the cultural evolution of queerness.
As stunning and steeped in history as they are, the idea that the natural beauty of the island must be enjoyed from inside a midcentury mansion is exactly the mind-set we should try to abandon. Yang recalls his first trip in the summer of 2015, when he stayed at Cherry Grove’s most iconic hotel: The Ice Palace. “It didn’t resemble the idealized version of Fire Island,” he says. “People were telling us, ‘You’re doing it wrong, sweetie.’”
Whoever said that was stupid. You can’t “do it wrong” and there are many exciting ways to enjoy a night on the island.
Share the Space:
“There was a house we stayed in during our 2017 trip,” recalls Booster. “There were only three or four bedrooms that year, but at one point 16 of us slept there. One night I slept in the hammock on the roof because there weren’t enough beds. It doesn’t sound super glam, but it was heaven.”
Many of the homes on the Island were originally commissioned by groups of queer people, designed to accommodate a community. When you’re putting together your guest list, don’t shy away from packing friends and family in—that’s the whole point. Added bonus: it’s cheaper!
Room at the Inn:
To stay at the Ice Palace is to participate in queer history. Initially constructed in the 1950s as the Cherry Grove Hotel, the place has had many names and many faces, each of them now serving as a snapshot of queer sensibilities through time. It has hosted such iconic entertainers as Grace Jones, Alan Cumming, Chita Rivera, and Margaret Cho.
The Ice Palace isn’t the only hotel on the Island, either. The Hotel: Fire Island Pines sits right on the harbor, and just further up the road is The Madison, a classic Fire Island manor rearranged into private suites. While these options might not have the elbow room of a house, they put you much closer to the island’s many beloved restaurants and watering holes.
Just for the Day:
The most straightforward solution to finding accommodations: don’t! With ferries coming and going every few hours, day trips are a proud tradition on Fire Island. “My first time out was actually meant to be a day trip,” jokes Nick Adams, Fire Island cast member and Broadway icon. While it might seem like a breakneck turnaround, sometimes a day is all you need. As Booster’s Fire Island character says: “Something important to understand about Fire Island is that time sort of works differently here…A full day in the Pines can equal anywhere between a week to three months out in the real world.”
Booster suggests bringing a book. While this may seem obvious, unlike other destinations where your copy of My Brilliant Friend might never leave your bag, the combination of unreliable cell service and surprisingly quiet weekdays makes Fire Island a real opportunity to disconnect. “It’s a place that, in a way, forces you to relax,” says Oscar Nñ, queer DJ and one-third of the Brooklyn-based art collective Papi Juice.
You should take a tip from Nñ, who always brings a film camera. Maintaining a visual record is an essential part of preserving queer history. Years from now, your hastily taken beach Polaroid could be a queer kid’s awakening when they see it in a coffee table book.
The Island presents a rare opportunity to re-evaluate one’s fashion sensibilities. Tomás Matos, the undisputed fashion plate of Fire Island (someone who had to occasionally change costumes last-minute because some of their looks were so good they shifted the focus of the scene), certainly found a new version of themself. “Being out on the Island, when we were filming, was my first step into my divine feminine,” they say. “And I think I’ve brought that version of high-femme Tomás back to New York City.”
Gender play among The Pines’ majority-cis residents is not uncommon. Wig parties are frequent, and there’s often a pair of heels being passed around so people can show off their best wobbly strut. But if deconstructing gender is a cornerstone of the community, why do we not see more trans and gender non-conforming people vacationing there?
Matos clocked the dissonance when we showed up at a would-be Barbie Party that was, well, mostly Kens. “It was hard for me when we were there. It was the first time I was confronted with, ‘Why am I here?’ But you know what? I looked C*NT.” (And they did.)
So, queer readers, pack whatever clothes make you feel good. Pack something exciting you would NEVER wear on the mainland. Be like Tomás, and don’t dress for anyone but yourself.
“I go to spend time with the people that I love the most. We get to cook for each other and drink together and make puzzles together and swim together and go for long walks on the beach. I get to care for them in a way I can’t in the city,” Nñ says.
Building a chosen family and realizing the fulfillment that comes with it is what the island is all about. So what does the perfect Fire Island crew look like?
“Eight is probably perfect?,” according to Yang. “It’s either gotta be one person, your ride or die, or, like, seven to nine,” says Matos. “I think the more the merrier,” Booster adds. “The fuller the house feels, the happier I am.”
While there were differences of opinion on size, guest temperament seemed easier to agree on and the recipe was as followed:
At least two people to cook. “Preparing meals together is my favorite thing to do there,” says Nñ, doubling down on the importance of the Family Dinner. “And otherwise….what else are you gonna eat?”
A few people to organize quiet nights in and family time—these are the friends who pick the movies and bring the board games. The homebodies. “You can’t just be going out every night,” warns Adams. “You need nights for recovery.”
A couple of leaders to get everyone up and out the door in time for Tea. “Someone’s got to rally the troops,” Yang says.
And, perhaps most importantly, you’ll need to invite a little chaos. “We had a hot tub for the first time one year, but it was indoors and we completely fucked up at one point and put a bunch of dish detergent in it to make bubbles and ended up filling up the entire room. It was one of the dumbest and funniest memories I have from any trip,” Booster recalls.
Premiering this summer, Hampton Jitney has started a new service called Bay Bus, a bus directly from central Manhattan to the Sayville Ferry Service. At 34 dollars a head, this is the most direct, affordable route to the island.
Queering the LIRR:
If you choose to take the train route, you’ll need to get from the station to the Ferry Service. I suggest taking the service of white shuttle vans that run back and forth during the summer season. Not only is it just five dollars a head (be sure to have cash) but also, as Yang puts it: “The Shuttle is the first portal…the moment of acclimation!”
Regardless of how you get to the dock, the Sayville Ferry will be the last step in your journey, and the cardinal rule here is: you must shape your journey around the Sayville Ferry Service schedule. Ferries are the only way onto the island and trust me, as someone who has suffered the indignity of showing up three minutes late for a ferry to then wait 75 minutes for the next one: you want to leave yourself plenty of time.
Line up early for boarding and you can nab a spot on the top deck. The views of the bay on the ride over are stunning! Be sure to grab a sweater, though—the cross winds can be chilly. If you’re meeting people there (or receiving guests), meet at the dock! Nothing cuts the anxiety of disembarking at the Island better than falling immediately into the arms of your friends. And don’t forget to wave gracefully as you pull into the harbor.
Activities on the Island:
The Sunken Forest:
Located on the far side of Cherry Grove, this “globally rare” ecological environment predates even the earliest of the Island’s settlers, having begun almost 300 years ago. Similar to other forested wonders, the landscape of the Sunken Forest feels almost alien when you’re inside it. However, there is something singular about the circumstances of its development, rising slowly and steadily in an environment not designed for its success, that seems to parallel the resiliency of the queer community itself.
Let’s Go to the Beach-each:
Unlike other queer beaches, such as Jacob Riis in Queens or Ginger Rogers in Los Angeles, this is not a “designated area,” it’s miles of uninterrupted shoreline just for you. “I remember laying naked with my friend for hours,” Nñ recalls. “Just the two of us, no one else around.”
This uninhibited access to the shoreline makes it more adaptable than your average queer beach. Just last year, the beach was the site of a Black Lives Matter march over Juneteenth weekend. Organized by BaBEC (the Black and Brown Equity Coalition), the march was attended by over 300 visitors.
The Pines Pantry:
A Pines staple, the Pantry is infamous for its overpriced snacks, solid cold brew, and delicious deli sandwiches. The fact that this grocery monopoly is staffed with stoic adolescents is icing on the cake. If you’ve never bought a 17-dollar box of cheez-its and some lube from an unimpressed teenager, I can’t recommend it enough.
Yang says his favorite Island activity is “waking up and walking to Floyd’s from The Pines for a breakfast sandwich.” There are also muffins as big as your head. Be sure to get there early though, they sell out fast!
Top of the Bay Bistro:
Located kitty-corner to the Ice Palace in the heart of Cherry Grove, it’s my favorite restaurant on the Island. Why? I once asked for the “dirtiest martini they could make” and was given a glass struggling under the weight of 6 blue cheese-stuffed olives.
Life’s a Drag:
“One of my favorite memories of this last trip was going to Busted Queen’s show at Cherries in Cherry Grove.” Yang remembers. “If you tip her 25 dollars, she’ll lip sync the Zatarain’s theme song…she must have made a thousand dollars that night because we just would not stop asking for it.”
Beloved Manhattan Queen Pixie Aventura’s Monday night show at the Pool Deck is also a must-see. Late in the evening, she does a lip sync roulette where she gathers suggestions from the audience and works them into one huge mega-mix. A true “triple threat” of a Queen, she dances through most of her numbers, and her heartfelt performance of “Creep” by Radiohead will move you to tears.
Whichever show you patronize: Tip. Your. Queens.
Imagine Them in Their Underwear:
A nightlife staple on the Island is the Underwear Party at the Ice Palace every Friday night. I know what you’re thinking: in a place with such complicated body politics, why would I party in my underwear? I thought the same thing. The concept felt like the kind of tired, sexual gauntlet that you can feel constantly beset by in gay party culture. However, just like the island, what I found at the party was not what I expected. After checking my clothes, and walking into the venue I took a look around and thought…Wait, is everyone sort of nervous and uncomfortable?
“Oh yeah, everyone is crawling out of their skin,” Yang says, chuckling. “It can be such a clarifying experience.” And it was. Something about everyone being in their underwear levels the playing field. It’s not about bodies in competition with one another but the shared vulnerability of the party and the performance of tradition. And it’s much easier to dance without clothes on.
Fire Island for the Future:
As Booster unflinchingly says in his film: “A lot of people think you have to be successful, white, and rich with seven percent body fat to vacation on Fire Island.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way forever. If the Island acts as a microcosm of the divisions plaguing queer culture at large, perhaps it can also be a place where we find the blueprints to address them. Some of this work is already being done on the island, and both of the organizations below accept donations and volunteers. If you’re looking for a way to get involved in the island’s history, here’s an easy start.
The Black and Brown Equity Coalition is the brainchild of Brooklyn activist Tomik Dash. Founded in Cherry Grove during the summer of 2020 as a way to make real space for trans, BIPOC and non-binary community members on the island, the organization has already created a a unified response to racial violence and inequity in the community with Juneteenth events, marches on the beach, and their Event Equity Standards series that seeks to set a new tone for the business on the Island, one of conscious inclusion.
For the last 7 years, BOFFO has used its Fire Island Artists Residency to bring out and center the artistic perspective of a variety of queer artists in the hopes of initiating meaningful conversations within the queer community. Last summer, they worked in conjunction with Papi Juice to bring their parties (recognized as revolutionary for their focus on creating a safe, liberating space for trans and queer people of color) out to the Island.
For my curious newbies, the long and short of it is: regardless of the Island’s shortcomings, it has something to offer you. Just like being queer, there is no “right” way to experience it, and there are people there who believe it should be for all of us. “You’re starting to see a demographic shift every summer,” Booster notes. “Younger queers, people of color, trans folk—we’re storming the island. We’re taking it back.”
“Why go?” Yang asks. “You go because you bring something back from the island. You come down from the mountain with one or two tablets about yourself. You go so that you can understand it’s possible.”
“I go because I deserve it,” says Matos, smiling. “I deserve it, and I’m the one who gets to decide that.”