You may not expect the #BlackLivesMatter movement to come to an enclave as historically majority-white as the adjacent LGBTQ-dominant communities of Fire Island’s Pines and Cherry Grove, long the summertime oases of New York City gays with at least enough disposable income to buy a monthly quarter-share in a house. But the first weekend of June, as protests erupted nationwide in the wake of the police murders of Minneapolis’ George Floyd and Louisville, Kentucky’s Breonna Taylor, that’s exactly what happened.
In the Pines—long considered the more Manhattan-y, affluent, and exclusive of the two communities—hundreds of mostly gay men, spaced apart and wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, marched silently along the beach on a sunny, windy afternoon with banners reading “BLM,” “White Silence = Black Death,” and “What Have You Done With Your White Privilege Today?” At a certain point, everyone stopped and, facing the ocean, “took a knee” for eight minutes and 46 seconds—the amount of time that Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin pressed his knees against George Floyd’s neck before Floyd died.
All who participated in the march agreed to donate at least $20 to a fund that, after being matched by certain individuals, raised about $32,000 to be divided equally between Black Lives Matter, the Minneapolis-based Black LGBTQ Black Visions Collective nonprofit, and the Center for Policing Equity.
The march was organized by friends Angelo DeSanto, 32, a fashion editor who identifies as white, and Victor G. Jeffreys II, 38, a photo editor and former hedge funder who identifies as a person of color. The duo got some input on how to stage the march from Pines homeowner Eric Sawyer, a white cofounder of ACT UP and the New York City HIV/AIDS nonprofit Housing Works.
“Even people on the beach who didn’t know about the march in advance knelt with us and helped us collect $1,000 directly from oceanfront homes,” says DeSanto.
But Jeffreys says that the money they raised “is a pimple on the butt relative to the wealth out here. And I want to be absolutely clear that as a person of color, it is not my responsibility to fix this mess. White people got us here, and white people have to figure this out. There’s much more work to be done.”
Meanwhile, that same weekend, someone posted on the private Facebook group Cherry Grove Untucked photos of “BLM” spray-painted on the community house of the Grove, the Pines’ more affordable, charmingly ramshackle neighbor on the other side of the legendary cruising dunes and forest area known as the “Meat Rack.” Whereas, historically, the Pines has drawn mostly upper-middle-class gay white men, the Grove has always drawn more working- and middle-class queers from New York City’s outer boroughs and suburbs, including lesbians and (to a lesser extent) people of color.
“I’m heartbroken,” read the post. “Why is vandalism necessary?”
That sparked a thread eliciting hundreds of comments, dividing Cherry Grovers between those who seemed more upset by graffiti than police brutality toward Black people—and those whose sentiments flipped in the other direction.
“Maybe [the spray-painters] were so tired of systemic racism that this was a way of getting that frustration out without doing anything worse,” wrote one of the commenters, among many who suggested leaving the graffiti there as a statement. Echoing him, someone wrote, “Now is a good time to start a conversation about why someone would want to do that. ... As a Brown person who’s gone to Fire Island for many years, [I think] it’s a conversation that’s long overdue.”
But on the other side of the argument, someone wrote, “We first need to identify who is the person that’s defacing people’s property, and they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law...”
Eventually, the thread got so heated that the page’s administrators, Cherry Grovers Gina Garan and Monika Kost, shut it down. Garan did not reply to a Facebook request for comment.
Not Hostile, Just “Invisible”
The two events have quickly become flashpoints for how this latest summer of #BlackLivesMatter is playing out in queer niche communities whose very expensiveness has, to some extent, maintained a white majority. Quarter shares can start around $2,000 per person in the Grove and $6,000 in the Pines, while in 2017, the average property sale in the Grove was $545,000 and in the Pines was $1 million.
In the Pines, according to several sources, there are fewer than 10 Black homeowners out of about 600. Gays of color, especially Black ones, who take shares or come as weekend guests there have long noted how few non-white residents there are—and the fact that the island’s Blackout weekend, which started in 2003 to cater to Black visitors, sputtered out after about a decade, apparently due to too many people coming to the island but not buying the admissions bracelet, whereas certain other Fire Island parties, such as the Pines Party (which started as the Morning Party in 1983), have been going for decades.
“Even rich Black people don’t feel welcome here,” says Jeffreys. Adds DeSanto: “What has the Pines done to welcome men of color? This started [in the 1960s and ’70s] as a place for rich white gays to come and be gay when they couldn’t be out in their jobs.”
But that is not to say there is no Black or people of color presence in the communities. The Belvedere, the legendarily rococo, clothes-optional hotel in Cherry Grove, is owned by a Black man, Julian Dorcelien. And, for many years, arguably the most popular DJ in either community was Lina Bradford, a Black transgender woman whose Sunday night disco parties at the Pines’ Sip-n-Twirl club were a beloved institution.
Tomik Dash, 36, a Black hairdresser who this year started a Fire Island magazine called Fag Rag, says that, partly because of Lina, Fire Island was a dreamland to him before he moved to New York from London in 2014. “I’d see her on Instagram and think, ‘Where is this place, and how do I get there?’” Once he came, he says, he realized that “this place is so beautiful. It feels like you’re not in New York City anymore. I also love how 200% gay it is. I want a house out here one day, and if I have to start laying the groundwork now for people of color to be more accepted here, then let me start.”
He also adds that he’s never encountered outright “hostility” on the island, but more a sense of being “invisible” from not fitting into a certain white muscle-boy ideal—plus the occasional microaggression, such as white friends joking that they didn’t know that Black people needed sunblock.
The Pines “is still a bastion of gay white male privilege but is certainly more diverse than when I first started coming out here 45 years ago,” says Doug Harris, a financial services consultant and one of the community’s few Black homeowners. “Back then, I didn’t even consider renting out here, because it wasn’t very welcoming for anyone Black,” he says, because, even more so than the occasional racist remark, the place was just so white.
What Role to Play?
The beach march and fundraiser and the graffiti incident have animated both communities with a question that’s gotten far less play in previous summers among the sunseekers and pleasure-goers: Exactly what kind of responsibility do elite LGBTQ communities have to the fight for racial justice? How do places like the Pines and Cherry Grove—where people come to briefly escape, not grapple with, the issues of world—not only perform but enact meaningful solidarity?
On Fag Rag’s blog, in an article called, “A Guide to Being Anti-Racist in Fire Island,” Dash gave a long list of options: Fly the [Black and Brown inclusive] “Progress Pride Flag” and hang BLM signs from your house or business; support groups such as BOFFO that have brought artists of color, including Black gay playwright Jeremy O. Harris, to the island for residencies; encourage bars and clubs to hire more Black performers, bartenders, and DJs; invite Black friends for the weekend or bring more diversity into your share group; listen more closely to friends of color and donate to groups like BLM; and “discuss ways to diversify homeownership.”
“If we as a community come together to make these actionable changes,” wrote Dash, “we can make our way a little bit closer towards [Fire Island reaching] perfection.”
Talking to TheBody, Dash says that his list offers both “micro” suggestions—such as calling out one’s friends who say racist things or use microaggressions—and “macro” ones, better taken on by community organizations.
Since the BLM beach march, both the Pines and Cherry Grove have formed diversity committees intent on finding ways to make Fire Island more racially just, inclusive, and equal starting in summer 2020.
According to Doug Harris, everyone on the Pines committee except DeSanto and one other member are Black. The group met for the first time in mid-June and, he admits, is a long way from identifying any concrete actions. “I like the idea of [bringing back something like a] Blackout weekend or making the entertainment out here less white,” says Harris, “but increasing the diversity of homeowners and renters is a more complicated matter, because that involves economics—and we’re not going to solve the problem of Black unemployment and access to credit in the Pines.”
But, says Harris, “Even though systemic racism presents problems for Black folks buying houses generally, I don’t see it keeping people from purchasing houses out here. So I don’t understand what more the realtors can do. I bought a house out here when I finally decided that that’s what I wanted—not because someone gave me great terms [because I was Black].”
Harris also doesn’t like the idea of white homeowners or renters going out of their way to invite out Black people, as though Fire Island were a kind of “Fresh Air Fund” with Speedos and cocktails. “That’s almost offensive,” he says. “If you’re out here, you invite your friends—in which case, the problem may be [that your friends lack diversity].”
But Dash says he doesn’t think it’s a bad idea for homeowners or renters to invite out Black friends who otherwise could not afford to come, especially on weekdays when paid-for shares often go vacant. “That’s part of the groundwork that needs to be done as far as getting more people of color out here,” he says.
Short of property redistribution, says nearly everyone, island denizens can give generously to BLM and other groups that support Black people politically and culturally. But even that has caused kerfuffles. On Instagram, P.J. McAteer, who owns most of the businesses in the Pines arrayed along the pier where the ferry comes in, posted a stirring message of solidarity with BLM, writing, “We have to donate to causes that spread the word and educate.”
But when, in the comments, someone said they hoped that McAteer himself was donating, he replied, “sorry right now all funds are going to the save the Pines I need to make sure my businesses survive this pandemic.” To which someone else replied: “of course I sympathize with business owners during the pandemic. ... That being said, posting an emphatic post like the above but then saying that you can’t donate to a fund or a cause is incongruous.”
On a phone call with TheBody, McAteer clarified that he had donated to BLM personally but that he could not divert a portion of profits from the businesses toward activism until they were fully up and running again. (Under New York State’s phased re-opening plan, Long Island bars and restaurants are currently only allowed to serve those sitting at spaced-out tables—a mere fraction of the customers that jam-pack the Pines’ “low tea” and “high tea” daily cocktail bashes in the summer.)
“I’m 100% behind BLM,” McAteer says. “But I’m also trying to survive COVID, and if we don’t get our doors open, we can’t do benefits.” He also says that his businesses were already prominently flying, or awaiting deliveries of, variations on the rainbow Pride flag with coloring to denote both transgender people and Black and Brown people.
He echoes others, however, in saying that there is absolutely a place for BLM and racial justice activism on Fire Island—where, after all, some of the first fundraisers for AIDS took place in the early 1980s, under the scolding glare of activist and island regular Larry Kramer, who died a few weeks ago at 84.
“Everyone needs to recognize that the world is very connected, and people who are privileged and affluent need to recognize that that comes with responsibility,” says Sawyer. “I’m not saying that everyone out here should give up 10% of their wealth or give up their houses 10% of the time, but they need to ask themselves, ‘Am I doing enough to make the world a better place for everyone?’”
He continues: “The level of support out here [for racial justice] is not where it was for HIV/AIDS at the height of that crisis. I’m not going to name names, but there are people out here who aren’t doing enough and should step up. How many $500 dinners do people need to go to before they forego some of those and write a big check to an organization dealing with racial equality?”
As for Dash, he says that the global surge of activism in the wake of George Floyd’s death “has definitely emboldened me, because it’s about Black people being more vocal about their discomforts. I wouldn’t even have written that article [on how to be an anti-racist on Fire Island] a few weeks ago.”