NPR recently published a story detailing the gay men who helped end police raids on “The Meat Rack” area of Cherry Grove, a cruising spot in Fire Island, New York in 1968.
On the advice of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the US, some men arrested for cruising in the area fought their charges and won, helping end the raids.
As Fire Island continued its popularity as a gay vacation spot, Long Island police began raiding The Meat Rack and arresting men having public sex there.
One summer in late August, 1968, “police arrested 27 men in Cherry Grove,” NPR reports. “A few pleaded guilty to consensual sodomy and payed a fine of $250. But 22 men fought the charges in court.”
Some of the lesbians and old Fire Island residents didn’t appreciate men cruising and having sex in Cherry Grove’s shadowy Meat Rack area. But others understood that it was one of the few places where gay men could anonymously express their sexuality without fear of violence, arrest or public exposure.
Police regularly persecuted gay people throughout the ’50s and ’60s by raiding gay bars and throwing people in jail for dancing, cross-dressing, “prostitution” and vague charges of “public indecency” and “lewdness.”
Karl Grossman, a journalist who worked at the Long Island Press newspaper in 1964, told NPR, “Every year there was this tradition of raiding the gay communities of Fire Island and arresting 25, 30, up to 40 fellas, and charging them with sodomy and other crimes.”
“They came in police boats and stormed the beach with their flashlights in the middle of the night. They took the shackled suspects back to the boats and transported them to the mainland.”
He said that police would call him and tell him the arrestees’ full names, addresses and places of work, with the hopes that he’d publish their full details. “Clearly, the cops were after the jobs of these men,” Grossman said.
Various groups helped frustrate the police raids: Volunteers from the Mattachine Society handed out flyers encouraging arrestees not to plead guilty. The Pokornys, a family which operated a ferry to the island, regularly paid arrestees’ bail. The nearby Belvedere Hotel even flickered one of its outdoor lights to warn Meat Rack cruisers of approaching police.
In fall 1968, a local defense lawyer named Benny Vuturo began representing the 27 arrested men in court. He demanded jury trials for each of them and encouraged each one to plead not guilty. He also criticized police for ignoring rapes, murders, robberies and other serious crimes by focusing on these men.
Surprised by the group’s solidarity, the police reportedly ended the raids the following year.