The first time Joe ever took me to Fire Island Pines I was immediately convinced that something I had always hankered existed: a place where gay men and women of all ages could live together, experience life together and express themselves without shame.
I have heard from black friends who traveled to Africa for the first time that they experienced a sense of truly understanding how it might be to live an unfettered life.
There are exceptions.
I have just finished reading A Black Man Confronts Africa.
From 1991 to 1994, Keith Richburg was based in Nairobi as the Africa bureau chief for the Washington Post. He traveled throughout Africa, from Rwanda to Zaire, witnessing and reporting on wars, famines, mass murders, and the complexity and corruption of African politics.
Unlike many black Americans who romanticize Africa, Richburg looks back on his time there and concludes that he is simply an American, not an African-American. This is a powerful, hard-hitting book, filled with anguished soul-searching as Richburg makes his way toward that uncomfortable conclusion.
I am a gay (adopted) American. I do not belong. The laws of the land preclude me from being truly equal. The streets are periodically mine but not consistently. Really? I thought things had changed for the gays? Strangely, post Will and Grace things have not changed. I urge any one of you (gay or straight) who think things may have changed for gay people in contemporary USA (and I have said this many times over): Try holding your same sex friends hand in a street anywhere other than NYC or LA.
See what happens.
Returning to Fire Island this summer for the first time in a decade I am excited to see how things have evolved since I lived there and if the idyl I first experienced still exists.
The beautiful beach, the beautiful boys, the sunset and sunrise…no cars. Dinner prepared by groups of men who sit down together and share. Share being the operative word. What ever share you may have in the house you are renting…doing things collectively is the modus operandi.
Have I idealized my memory of this slim sand bank set at the edge of the Atlantic? Have, within a decade, my memories been burnished?
Firstly, finding a house to rent has been quite hard. I guess my demands are not normal by gay Fire Island Pines standards. When searching for a house I made it quite clear to the realtor that I am sober. I do not drink and I do not take drugs. I told him that I was not interested in the big gay beach parties (drug festivals). That I am going there to write.
Almost every house that I looked at was a ‘party’ house. Almost every person I spoke to told me that they wanted to have fun…read that as excessive drinking, drug taking and sexual unmanageability.
Having a sober person around might mean curtailing the ‘fun’.
I have heard that The Pines has become quite trashy. I have heard that they have ruined the ambiance.
The über gays have long since deserted The Pines for The Hamptons. Aping upper-class American straight people rather than investing in the peculiarities of The Pines.
What is it that draws me back there? What is it that I loved so much?
Well, Joe and I had a wonderful time together in our pretty little house. It was the nexus of gay culture and me. For the first time in my life I saw both old and young gay people going about their business (during the day) just like common people. Fetching their shopping on small, red carts. Dressing up, holding hands, not dressing up…alone.
For the first time in my life I felt as if I owned the space around me, that I could not be judged in this place.
Until I got there I believed those things to be true but I had been kidding myself.
Just getting there from Manhattan was an adventure. The car to Sayville. The ferry ride from Sayville to the island, the palpable excitement of the passengers. The great piles of supplies and dogs and suitcases.
Thank you Joe for taking me there.
The first man I saw when I scrambled down the gang-plank was an elderly man with a stick walking slowly along the board walk. It delighted me. “Is everyone gay here Joe?” I thought to myself that there was indeed a place where I could be free when I was his age. I knew even then in my late 20′s that being old and gay was going to be difficult. My premonition has come to pass. Being old and gay is going to be horrible from what we found out when researching The Scarlett Empress.
Unless, of course you have a spare $160, 000 to buy a surrogate child who might look after you.
I had thought about going back to Whitstable in my dotage but not even Whitstable holds much allure to me. Being the old gay man in town…I have seen the way we are treated.
When I arrived at The Pines I understood how life might play out. The options. I looked around and even though the bars were full of very drunk gays (I was one of them) the look on their faces was different. They looked relaxed, they looked happy.
We went to gay bingo, we involved ourselves with the gay fire department. We had opinions about dune reclamation. We walked barefoot to the beach and watched the beautiful naked men play ball and walk their dogs. We paid for limousines from JFK for our friends and delighted them with our house, our gay lives.
Our routine rarely altered. Watching the sunset, hanging out on the dock to see who would get off the ferry. Buying expensive food at The Pines Pantry…the store was just like any store but crammed with fancy queens buying $100 steaks.
When I got sober the AA meetings were quite small on Fire Island…now they are huge.
I really have no idea what it will be like to live out there once again for the summer.
I am excited at the prospect.
Of course there are other places where one might feel free, where YOU might feel free. Perhaps you have already found your very own utopia elsewhere.
The Fire Island Pines experience is short-lived. In September this utopia is disassembled. The grand houses are shuttered, the store closes, the ferry comes but once a day.
There are other places for us to go. Unless we vanish. Those of us who look kindly upon our strange ‘culture’ can find our tribe elsewhere.
Not until I got to San Francisco did I have that sense of belonging once again. Where the streets were mine. The neighborhoods belonged to us. Where fear and shame were banished.
Like Keith Richburg I am aware of the anthropological problems but still happy to have experienced the adventure. Let me for a moment love it all without criticism, let me love what we have carved out for ourselves both good and bad and celebrate our difference. Celebrate.