“When I die, I imagine gays singing Over the Rainbow y the Fire Island flag flying at half-staff,” actress Judy Garland once said. Or at least that is the urban legend that has been circulating for decades in Greenwich Village, the New York neighborhood where the LGBTIQ+ movement was born. Fire is a tiny New York island in southern Long Island. It only has 22.5 square kilometers and less than 300 inhabitants. However, his fame is huge among the global homosexual community and his name is synonymous with sexual freedom, drugs and fun.
The United States National Register of Historic Places has declared Fire (whose translation is “fire”) as “the first gay town” in America. In the 1920s and 1930s, writers like Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden began to visit the island, turning this small piece of land into an oasis for Manhattan’s gay community: artists, Broadway actors and producers, models. But it would not be until 1948 when the Cherry Grove theater rose, the first in the United States made up entirely of gays. In the 1960s, former model John B. Whyte developed Pines, the more affluent area. Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Roy Halston, David Hockney, Peter Schlesinger, Larry Stanton or Christopher Makos used to spend their summers in this paradise surrounded by swimming pools and pine forests.
Fire was always one step ahead. In 1970, Michael Fesco opened Ice Palace, considered one of the first gay nightclubs in the country. Its founder called it that—Ice Palace—because “it was so hot in there that I thought it was a nice and cool name and that it would be appreciated by customers.” The island has always lived up to its name: a place on fire and charged with eroticism. Author Edmund White described the rituals of his visitors, from tea parties to sex at dawn. Larry Kramer mentioned the island in his work The Normal Heart and was inspired by her to write Faggotsa satirical novel that part of the gay community described as a “contempt” for the collective.
A second sexual revolution
“The first time I heard about Fire Island was in the 1950s. I saw a picture of an extremely handsome young man in one of those magazines beefcake of the time, in which muscular men posed”, the photographer Tom Bianchi, who documented the hectic life of the island in the seventies and eighties, reminds EL PAÍS. “The caption on the photo said it was taken in Fire. Later I saw that it had not been taken there, but in my mind the image of that beautiful figure was forever associated with the name of the island”, adds Bianchi in a telephone conversation, whose sensual photographs endure in the collective gay imagination. A few snapshots full of young people with perfect bodies dressed in tiny swimsuits and endless parties around the pools of Pines.
He also witnessed how the AIDS epidemic devastated the island in those same decades. “Fire was ground zero. The plague hit us hard. We all had friends and lovers who died”, recalls the photographer, who is now writing a book about that chapter of LGBTIQ+ history. “We had to grow up fast and support each other because our country failed us,” he adds.
Four decades after the rise of AIDS, a tiny oval pill is helping to prevent HIV infection and giving Fire a second sexual revolution. “PrEP has liberated a lot of men from fear so the party goes on like it did before AIDS,” says Bianchi, referring to the rise of pre-exposure prophylaxis. “I have returned to the Pines many times over the years and its nature remains the same: a sexy, free-spirited place. Each new generation does what we did: take off their clothes and stay in a bathing suit, at most, and find a place for sexual adventure, dancing, partying and enjoying natural beauty. And as always, try to find love. The most significant change is that the beach is now more diverse, with more people of color, and that is wonderful.”
pride without prejudice
In early June, the Disney+ content platform released Fire Island: Pride and Seduction, a modern romantic comedy set on the island that showcases a diverse and multicultural exploration of homosexuality. The American director Andrew Ahn and the South Korean humorist Joel Kim Booster perform in the film a free adaptation of the pride and prejudice by Jane Austen. “I saw the movie. It somehow widens our vision by showing the beach through the eyes of Asian men. That is something good. That said, I think it’s shallow and the characters are immature. I hope that one day someone will make a film that better tells the story of such an interesting place”, concludes the photographer.
Ahn and his director of photography, the Spaniard Felipe Vara de Rey, were inspired by the polaroids de Bianchi to create the aesthetic of Fire Island: Pride and Seduction. They also turned to the photographs of American artist Matthew Leifheit. “I saw the film after reading that the director had been visually inspired by my images. I think it’s fun!”, acknowledges the artist. Leifheit agrees with Bianchi that Fire is experiencing a second “golden age.” “With the advent of medications like PrEP I think we are seeing the return of many hard-won sexual freedoms associated with a time before AIDS. Fire is a highly sexualized space, with a renewed sense of hedonism that suggests what it must have been like in the seventies″, he says via email.
The artist also attributes this resurgence of the island to the efforts of people such as the businessman at night Daniel Nardicio, who organizes large parties in underwear, or the Iraqi director and designer Faris Al-Shathir, who has founded a residency program of artists called BOFFO to make Fire’s gay communities welcoming to all.
Leifheit was a child when he first heard the name of the island. He was hearing a story on the radio by author David Sedaris in which someone used “Are you going to Fire?” as code to say “Are you gay?” “I first visited it in 2014 to take some photos for a magazine. She believed that I was not the kind of gay who would fit in there, that it would be all muscular men in jockstraps. And it wasn’t like that.”
According to the photographer, there are many people on the island who do not fit the canons. “Clearly there is room for older men. In reality, young people do not usually own the houses, so the intergenerational mix is part of the economy of the place, ”he says. Leifheit has spent seven years immersed in Fire to create To Die Aliveand portfolio documenting life there: from the sultry mansions of Cherry Grove and Pines to the beaches, to the Meat Rack Forest, a famous cruising: “It is the testimony of a site that needs to be very staged to exist”.
What is the point of a place like Fire for gay New Yorkers of the 21st century, who seem to have conquered all the rights? For Leifheit, a lot: “Although in many cities in the United States it is possible to live openly as a person queerfrom time to time it is still essential to feel part of the majority”.