I’ve only ever lived on Islands…

So it has dawned on me that by some twist of fate, I’ve only ever lived on islands. The first half or more of my life was lived in Ireland, north and then south, with a spell in the early 1970s as a young child in Britain, due to a family tragedy; more precisely, western Scotland, and for just long enough to develop the Scottish accent so that when I returned to school in Belfast I was a fun target for all sorts of schoolyard bullies. I also spent summers on the Aran Islands, Achill Island, and working in pubs as a teen on the Isle of Man. To my dishonour, as an Antrim man, I’ve only been on Rathlin for one day.

Around two decades ago I moved to Manhattan for a job, and with a lover, and stayed there for six years. Then I relocated to Brooklyn where I still live, one of the largest cities in America – if it was still technically considered a city in its own right – and is located on the western tip of Long Island. And now, as I type this, I am spending a mini-vacation (or a “long weekend” to people reading in Norn Iron) on Fire Island, New York.

Depending on your atlas or web browser of choice, and how many hurricanes or Nor’Easters have struck us in recent months, Fire Island is a narrow barrier island about 30 miles long and a quarter to a half of a mile wide, or less, situated off the south shore of Long Island. It’s reached by ferry across the Great South Bay. There are no cars except for the volunteer Fire Brigade vehicles and a few construction and maintenance trucks. There are no bicycles. There are no roads. There are just little residential communities of wooden-construction summer houses, reached only by wooden walkways (boardwalks), that generally are only open from April to October. Few houses here are winterized, meaning they would flood or burn down during the harsh winter conditions if they weren’t closed during the bleaker months from November to April.

Incidentally, there are a number of theories about how Fire Island got its name. The one I favour comes from the Dutch language for “four islands”, which makes total sense because barrier islands have a tendency to disjoin and rejoin depending on the ocean currents. However, lightning and other causes have torched more than a few properties in the 20-odd years that I have been visiting this exposed tinderbox of a sandbar 3,000+ miles off the west coast of Ireland.

The “town” I’m writing this from is called The Pines, and it’s a 30-minute walk along the beach from the neighbouring “town” of Cherry Grove. If you happen to be gay, you’ll probably stop reading now because these two communities are beyond legendary in gay folklore and you’ll know all this already. For decades these places were a remote escape for gays and lesbians. Right up until the 1970s – feel free to fact-check me on dates – it was illegal in New York for two men to dance together in a disco, or for “known homosexuals” to get served alcohol in a bar. Hence the Stonewall Bar riots in 1969, and so on…

For a very long time, “creative”, “dramatic”, “artistic” and “aesthetic” people had made this section of Fire Island a destination and a refuge from discrimination and repression. Wilde, Isherwood and Auden, amongst others, are reported to have visited. Attitudes and laws gradually lightened-up over the years and The Grove and The Pines became accepted, and promoted, as gay venues. The bizarre rituals of Low and High Tea (daytime dance events) in the 1950s would be full of men and a few of their female “cousins” who would rush onto the dancefloor if the cops arrived. Now it is a daily shoulder-to shoulder post-beach gay extravaganza.

There’s an epic – and not for the feint hearted – pre-Aids novel written by Larry Kramer which states (I’m paraphrasing) “from the month of May until October the entire gay community of New York City decamped to Fire Island.”. Cherry Grove was always regarded as a more accepting, easy-going, non-judgmental community, whereas The Pines on the other hand was where closeted bankers and lawyers and future ex-husbands came and could “pass” as straight without raising eyebrows back home, but in between the two communities, there is a half-mile or so of untamed sand dunes known as the Meat Rack. And it was there that the two populations would meet, often at night, before smartphones and dating apps existed…

The Pines and The Grove coexist inextricably but diverged in two ways over the years, with star architects rebuilding and redesigning fancy houses for the A-list residents of The Pines and installing swimming pools, while The Grove retained it’s quaint little wooden bungalows (many of which were floated over on barges from Long Island). There is also a perception that women favour The Grove and men The Pines. Maybe if this gets published I’ll write more about the historic context to that.

There are two 50 or 60-year-old nightclubs out here, one is called the Ice Palace in The Grove and the other The Pavillion in The Pines. If you’re interested in disco, dance music, DJ history, and/or gay liberation, look ‘em up. Reportedly, they are part of a handful of clubs that invented disco and dance music. And they’re still going strong (proof of double vaccination or negative Covid test required upon entry, of course).

I’m an avid lover of soul and disco music and its history. But I’m of Belfast’s Crow’s Nest and Delaney’s 1980s generation, so I understand the “keep your head down” mentality of The Pines back then in N.Y in the 1970s. I remember customers who were scared to park their cars on Pilot Street outside the Crow’s Nest bar for fear of being identified, or their cars being vandalized.

So the story I love most about this windswept surf battered Fire Island is The Invasion…

A couple of “obviously out queens” came over from The Grove to The Pines in 1976 and ordered a drink at a bar. They were duly refused service with a wink-and-a-nod “please don’t ruin this scene for everybody else by attracting the cops” reprimand. Instead of skulking off and doing what they were expected to do, they returned to The Grove and assembled a bunch of flamboyant drag queens, commandeered a fleet of water taxis and “invaded” The Pines. And it was so monumental and significant that every day since, on July 4th (US Independence Day), a flotilla of boats packed full of drag queens still “invades” The Pines, where there is a red carpet laid out on the quay and thousands of attendees on the harbour sing the U.S. national anthem under the rainbow flag and the Stars & Stripes as the parade of drag queens, some well into in their 70s or 80s by now, spill into the harbour and “invade” the bars and discos for the day.

Speaking of flegs (sic). Almost every home on Fire Island has a flagpole, sometimes two. Contentious if you come from Belfast. Except not at all. The first fly the rainbow flag, and if there’s a second pole it flies a Union Flag, or an Irish or French or Italian tricolour, or the flag of Peru or Chile or Uruguay or South Africa or New Zealand or you name it… For a tiny little community, it represents the world in all its colours and I think that’s why I love it most.

So, why is this relevant to Slugger? Well, I saw a wee photo in the Belfast Tele online today from Union Street, Belfast, which was bedecked in rainbow flags and packed with Pride revellers and I honestly got very, very emotional just to see that one image. Things have certainly come a long way from me getting frisked by Scottish squaddies at the army-RUC security checkpoint on a dark Friday night High Street in 1988 before I ducked into Pilot Street and hoped not to get spotted or beaten up before I made it through the door of the Crow’s Nest…

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