The crosswalk at Fire Island.

Gay New Yorkers flock to Fire Island, an LGBTQ+ resort destination, during the summer. Many take residency in second homes or time shares there, and visitors make joyful memories they won’t forget until next time.

The thin Atlantic Ocean barrier on the coast of Long Island has sheltered generations of queer culture, split between the neighboring towns of The Pines and Cherry Grove. You’ll never get as many hellos as when crossing the jungly wooden crosswalks, but it hasn’t always been such an “It Girl” LGBTQ+ destination for speedos, day parties, and, well, all things fun.

Before you board the ferry to Fire Island, here’s the historical scoop on your arrival to America’s first gay and lesbian town.

The allure of Fire Island: geography and accessibility

Two men in bathing suits laying down at the beach.

New York City is lively year-round, but you won’t find many of the city’s queer locals during summer weekends. That’s because Fire Island is conveniently located approximately two hours away, taking a train on the Long Island Railroad to a ferry delivering you at the entrance.

The heat hits differently in the Concrete Jungle than on miles of beach or in a backyard pool. There’s nothing quite as exciting as finding your way through the centuries-old maritime forests heading to your first hookup of the season.

But aside from the tropical vibes and flaming greenery, the Island welcomes all who enter with one notion: May the gayest person win, even when it was illegal.

Building a queer community: Cherry Grove

The bodies of two women in neon pink bikinis.

Cherry Grove was claimed queer since its inception as a beach town in the nineteenth century, which made it revolutionary. You can date its prominence as far back as when Calvin Klein frequented in the early 2000s or Oscar Wilde in 1882

Archer and Elizabeth Perkinson first bought land there in 1868, and they allegedly opened the hotel where Wilde later stayed. As the area gentrified for tourism, the gays saw an opportunity to build homes in a town with a blank slate. 

A rainbow heard dug into the sand with blurry ocean backdrop.

To understand the significance of the Island, you must remember it existed as a gathering space when homosexuality was considered a mental disorder, criminalized, and pre-Stonewall riots kickstarted the idea of equal rights. 

No ferries after midnight meant police couldn’t harass queer fun, not to mention gay bars in New York used to be owned by the mob.

The Arts Project of Cherry Grove was incorporated in 1948 to use the prowess of the Island to ensure it remains liberated and working in favor of queerness. They also preserve and honor the location’s history. 

Expanding horizons: the emergence of The Pines

Two men in the pool shooting each other with water guns.

During The Pines’ peak season, you’ll find thousands of residents and visitors socializing as if they’re characters in Little Cabin on the Prairie; the tropical queer vibes encourage the camaraderie found among travelers abroad, except you’re near home surrounded by familiar torsos. 

No stretch of land has a sleazier reputation than the walk through the sandy jungle connecting Cherry Grove and The Pines, known officially as the Carrington Tract (dubbed the “Meat Rack”). You can also get between locations via water taxis.

Before 1952, The Pines used to be known as Lone Hill until the harbor was dredged from a mosquito ditch to create its scenic marina. Nudists used to frequent the area, and once it was commercialized, the gays booked their train tickets by the numbers. 

Every summer, you never know what gay celebrity you’ll find strolling on the Island. 

2X Certified Gay Daddy Andy Cohen brings his A-lister gal pals

Actor Mattle Wilkas invites all the gays to the Island to celebrate in protest

How to Get Away with Murder’s Conrad Ricamora knows how to vacation in gayness

The power of tradition: iconic events and gatherings

As a travel staple in gay history, Fire Island has brought gay men together from all walks of life and has served as the backdrop for iconic moments.

A dapper man drinking tea across from a man in a suit.
  • The Invasion of the Pines: Every fourth of July (since 1976), Cherry Grove’s residents and visitors dress up in drag and head over to their neighbor, “taking over” the Pines with their drag queen personas
  • Tea dances: Reacting to police raids in the 1960s, New York’s gay community organized events at Cherry Grove and The Pines on Sunday afternoons to help gay singles meet with the alias of high tea.
  • Pines Party: A weekend beach party, the Pines Party is currently the most sought-after event of the year, drawing queer visitors nationwide. 

Overcoming adversity: the HIV/AIDS crisis and beyond

Three elderly white men hugging.

As you can imagine, the queer resort town was impacted heavily by the AIDS epidemic and faced harsh stigma during the darkest time in queer history. The sense of community and joy was ravaged by a virus that seemed determined to kill queerness. 

But residents and community leaders used their hideaway to shelter and aid the sick and raised funds to create awareness and battle stigma. Fire Island has garnered millions of donations for LGBTQ+ causes. 

The Island never stopped catering to queerness.

Embracing the legacy of Fire Island

A black man holding the Pride Flag on the beach.

There’s no secret why Fire Island has simmered in gayness for over a century; it’s one of the few towns started by queer settlers.

It’s not to say everything about it is perfect or can’t be improved; 2022’s gay film of the year, Fire Island, touched on the toxic traits of gay culture, but ultimately, the gays will always be there for each other. Clichés, poppers, and all.

Despite gayborhoods falling to gentrification and rent increases, The Pines and Cherry Grove seem to exist for the gay agenda. But that doesn’t mean a weekend won’t cost you a pretty penny. 

Still, understanding the legacy of Fire Island will solidify your right to have a good time. 

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