Commissioned by Lambda Literary, this article appeared in August 2016. Special thanks to Parrish Turner as editor.
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It was a journey between islands, after all: from Manhattan, to Long Island, to Fire Island, and the last island of the three was nothing but a sandbar, as a slim as a parenthesis, enclosing the Atlantic, the very last fringe of soil on which a man might put up his house, and leave behind him all - absolutely all - of that huge continent to the west...put an even more disdainful distance between themselves and America: free, free at last.
- Andrew Holleran; Dancer from the Dance, 1978
Although I have spent thirty years of my life writing about the heroism of gay men, I have also come to understand their particular brand of cowardice. There is a destructive impulse inside many white gay men, where they become cruel or child-like or spineless out of rage about not having the privileges that straight men of our race take for granted. They have grief about not being able to subjugate everyone else at will. Sometimes this gets expressed in a grandiose yet infantile capitulation to the powers that be - even at the expense of their own community.
- Sarah Schulman; Gentrification of the Mind, 2012
FIRE ISLAND, July 2016
We sit tight as a man loads his set of free weights from the Sayville stop on the Long Island Railroad to the unmarked white van playing Rihanna that’ll drive us to the ferry which’ll eventually deliver us to Fire Island but for the moment, we’re waiting for the man with the weights to hurry it up which is taking a lot longer than it should -- but what do I know about free weights?
While waiting for that ferry, I watch a man pull two wailing cat carriers from the back seat of a taxi cab. Someone speaks loudly to a client over the phone, his t-shirt caught mid-removal around his neck; the call caught him off guard. That set of free weights shuffle to and fro but seem to stay in everyone’s way. The wait for the ferry is just long enough for me to become irrationally, inexplicably furious. I hide behind my sunglasses and pass judgment on the other men as they arrive, adopting a look I thought I had long since outgrown, one I haven’t had since I went on vacation with my actual family: the brooding teenager with their nose pressed to a book.
I got my heart broken in the spring and instead of rebounding physically, filling my bed with man after man, I rebounded mentally, convincing myself no man would ever be good enough. I was quick to undercut my new impossibly high standards, comparing them to a fever I’d eventually burn off, but the feeling stuck around. If there's one thing men are good at, it's proving your suspicions about them true.
We trudge back from a bar where we watched two porn stars have sex on stage. The stage, covered in a red plastic tarp, is projected onto a large screen behind the porn stars allowing everyone in the crowded bar a chance to see them, which is often blocked by other men in the crowd craning their necks to get a better look. A man with a microphone urges people in the crowd to volunteer, plying them with free shots as incentive to suck a dick in front of us. It feels deeply unsatisfying to me, the men passive, put upon, the reality of sex being their jobs uncomfortably clear to me. I’m reminded of staring blankly at a television set just because it happens to be on, the hours of daytime soaps I’ve unintentionally watched in waiting rooms.
The only way home is through the Meat Rack, which is a winding path of sand flanked by dense foliage that connects Cherry Grove to the Pines. I am told this is where men go to have sex. I find that hard to believe considering how difficult it is for us to maneuver through it but later on I will see men scrambling out of the brush in broad daylight. We’re all drunk and laughing, stumbling over ourselves. Someone says Leave it to a gay man to have sex in a plot device and we laugh even more.
The house we stay in for the week looks like the set from a stage play, it’s front made entirely of floor-to-ceiling windows which frame a geometric mural as its backdrop. When seen from the boulevard the house is seated on, we look like actors, silhouetted in the light. There are rows and rows of track lighting on the ceiling which we can never quite control, the room perpetually moody. A few stray beams of intense light spotlight the room: a decorative bowl on a table, a bottle of Fiji water, a housemate texting in the kitchen. Whenever one of us enter a beam without noticing, someone will shout Take a photo, take a photo and of course we all do. Men often stop to gawk at us from the boardwalk, curious to see if there's a party, maybe someone cute, free liquor to drink. We shoo them away. Once I catch someone taking photos. The house is very handsome from a distance.
At its most full, there are 9 of us: four comedians, two cartoonists, a writer, an art critic, a dancer. Even after such a short time together we all notice the diversity in our house: not only with our careers, but racially, our wide range of body types, in our choices of clothing. We’re often the loudest at parties, laughing over something inane, in flowing silk robes and metallic strapped sandals. Someone paints each of our big toes in glittery nail polish as a uniting symbol for our house, which lasts for weeks after each of us have left the island.
A TOTAL MONET
There’s one grocery store in the Pines, employed entirely by surly teens that I become incredibly fond of. My teen years were spent attending large Christian youth gatherings in Holiday Inns throughout the East Coast so I look to these grocery store teens in fascination: to not only know gay men but to be frustrated by them en masse, overwhelmed at your underpaid summer job dealing with them. I can hardly imagine.
A housemate mentions how on their ferry ride over the day before, they had overheard someone use the punchline This is why they hate us to a joke they didn’t catch.
Storm clouds loom on the horizon which still doesn’t deter people from wearing as little as possible. Men sling quick flirtatious remarks while passing one another on the zig zag of boardwalks. After a day, the men have already begun to blur together, a tessellating pattern of perfectly manicured facial hair and bare white bulging chests. I find myself remembering people more by their bathing suits than their faces. The high cost of a week on Fire Island dictates that only a small subset of the gay community can afford to vacation here, meaning a predominantly white, older, upper middle class clientele: clinging to youth in a place built on a decades old male fantasy. I can’t pass too harsh a judgment though, the lore of Fire Island is what brought me here. There are plenty of other beaches.
Later on in the weekend, someone will ask me if it’s my birthday as we wait in line for drinks at a pool party. I’m confused but he explains that he had seen me two nights before wearing a crop top that says ‘Birthday Boy,’ a shirt I own and love, each letter of Birthday Boy a vinyl sticker someone had individually placed there with care which I chopped in half and now go dancing in. As I’m telling him this I realize how much I stand out on the island. In Brooklyn, I’m just another guy with a mustache but here, I’m the Birthday Boy, in cheetah-print shorts and nails the color of Kermit the Frog.
Over dinner, someone mentions a rumor that the food delivery service many people use on the island has stopped delivering orders placed by women, supposedly as a deterrent to the increased numbers of lesbians who’ve begun to vacation in the Pines. It’s just a rumor but only goes to further this feeling I have of how homo-genous the island is. Then again, we are a house of entirely men. The only woman I see walk in during our week is a friend of someone staying with us. He was napping when she stopped by and after we told her this, she immediately walked out without saying a word.
A KISS ON THE CHEEK
After taking my clothes off and leaving them in a trash bag near the door, I look around and realize I don’t recognize anyone I walked in with. Without clothing to distinguish body from body, the underwear party at the Ice Palace is overwhelming, only tempered by the fact I am on drugs, which are not helping how fixated on my own butt I’ve become, it now hanging out for all to see, trussed up in a jockstrap. There is no way to write about being on drugs without sounding insufferable so I will spare you. I do spend most of that night waiting to be on drugs as I imagine them to be, as I had been warned they would be, my years as a Christian youth ready to scold me.
Instead I have fun.
The club is divvied up into smaller rooms by way of walls made from stretched elastic. There’s a space in the center to get a back massage. A loud, smelly, back massage in a club full of sweaty smelly men. Beyond that is a room where I think a fight has broken out but soon realize it’s just gay men fucking or pushing through the crowd to try and fuck or get fucked.
I flirt with someone who looks like a young Tom Hanks but he is more gone than feels comfortable flirting with. Make out with a guy whose face I never get a good look at in the dark but can tell you he had a beard. Find myself transfixed by a pair of light up tennis shoes worn by a man bent over a bar by another man. I see friends, lose them, find them again. A man gropes me and I mutter a flustered Oh I’m good before moving away. I walk the circuit of the club, repeatedly ending up in the room where everyone is fucking as the elastic wall stretches to accommodate their growing numbers. Again I have that feeling of watching television, of feeling glutted and immobile. I want to make out again, suddenly bold after having made out with a stranger without uttering a single word.
The stakes are low in a place as anonymous as this. My life isn’t too far away, only a ferry ride and two train transfers, but here it has never felt further. I am meat in a way that feels freeing, in a way that gay men have felt freed by for a long time. I bump into someone who takes this as a sign I’m interested and we start to make out. The next afternoon, on the beach, we will all talk about how eye contact has come to mean consent and we will all get a big laugh out of that. I’m focused on this man’s recently shaven now coarsely sprouted chest hair just as he goes down on me in the room full of other men fucking. When it’s over, he kisses me on the cheek, thanks me, and I leave in a hurry.
Walking home alone along the beach I can’t help but laugh. Sober, my body letting out a sigh of relief, my nerves unclenching. My Christian youth wags its finger.
Everyone is gathered around the fireplace when I get back. My voice sounds guilty, full of a secret, which I do my best to hide. I go skinny dipping. We make s’mores.
NOT A BRAIN CELL BETWEEN THEM
We have a pool at our place but are on the hunt for a hot tub. Most days are overcast. We jump into the pool when the sun comes out, read our books when it leaves.
We bump into friends we know on the beach who are staying at the place of an older jewish couple and they have a hot tub. Their place is gorgeous, a real home, with flowers in vases and decorative art on the walls which, unlike ours, is reminding me more and more of a mid-2000s reality television show.
In the jacuzzi I meet Morty, one of the men who own the property. He’s sitting on the edge, tiny tortoise shell glasses and slicked back grey hair paired with skin tanned to leather. He juts his belly out like a baby who's learning to walk. We like Morty, he’s funny, until the next day when he will make a racist, transphobic comment about Juliana Huxtable -- but that hasn’t happened yet. Seated together in the tub, we listen as he makes disparaging comments about the men huddled in groups in his backyard. What could they possibly be talking about, he says, there isn’t a brain cell between them. We all laugh, the weirdos in the hot water: there’s a fashion designer, a drag queen, another comedian. I’m the know-it-all teenager all over again, making fun of the jocks whose grades aren’t as good as mine. All that time spent in the closet and my life hasn’t changed very much.
Whenever overwhelmed, surrounded by identical gorgeous men, dissociating from my own male body and its limitations, I can feel my brain raising its defenses against self doubt: Well, I read books or Strangers on the internet have respect for me. Snotty, yes, but it’s the backbone I need to stay upright, self-assured.
Staying in a house full of so many diversely funny people, their dynamic makes sense to me; how humor can be cathartic, a powerful protection in an unjust world.
I recognize this feeling of frustration largely comes from disappointment. You leave the closet to embark on a new life entirely of your own choosing, only to find men who have still chosen the life expected of them. I’m bored with muscles, by attempts at subverting masculinity only to reinforce it, how marriage is still seen as giving life its meaning even within the gay community and how Nick Jonas continues to grace gay magazine covers. Seeing gay couples post photos mid-kiss with the caption ‘This Is What Love Looks Like’ or ‘Love Wins’ in support of the 49 shooting victims at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando rang frustratingly hollow to me, a symptom of assimilation without substance. I continue to passively scroll through cyberspace, groaning only to myself.
As I move down the beach on my way to the Sunken Forest, I notice the large gaps between beach goers. There’s a gap between the men of the Pines and those of Cherry Grove, the Grove being the original stomping grounds for gay men before vice squads from the city pushed them out. There’s also a gap between Cherry Grove and Sailor’s Haven, where the Sunken Forest is, a predominantly straight vacation destination. I haven’t spoken to or seen a straight person in the four days I’ve been on the island. There was a chance to speak to a woman who may have been straight at one of the hot tub parties but she fell asleep on the couch before I could introduce myself.
No matter how frustrated I become with gay men, I can rationalize away my frustrations, grouse and complain with like-minded homosexuals and be comforted in that. But straight people will always wield a certain power over me, make me uncomfortable, self-conscious. While walking alone through the Sunken Forest, I pass by a family of four, each one in an entire red, white and blue ensemble. A teenage girl screams as her boyfriend carries her over his shoulder through the trail, both of them just wearing a bathing suit. A man sits next to me on a bench to tell me he thinks they should put a restaurant in this park and when I say that it’s protected by the National Park Service he says they would make a lot of money from tired old men like himself. I push my face further and further into my book but the polite conversation doesn’t stop. A mother and daughter use me as the tiebreaker on a bet they’re having as to which direction the parking lots are. The mother doesn’t believe me when I say all paths go to the same place. In the clearing where I’m sitting there are four trees, each one covered in names carved into their bark which, in this moment, feels unbearably heterosexual to me.
I am repeatedly disappointed by the lack of historical markers on Fire Island, no signs of the men who came before us. There are a row of signs near where you disembark from the ferry that describe the types of foliage found on Fire Island, recent efforts in restoring the dunes. There is a single page in the most recent issue of The Fire Island News, a free periodical with a photo of a man drawing a bald eagle in chalk on the sidewalk adorning its cover, that briefly catalogs the history of gay life on Fire Island. It’s very short though, largely a listing of costume party themes of yore.
As I approach my thirties, I’m acutely aware of the dearth of older role models to turn to on how to navigate life as a gay man beyond our glorified youth. AIDS clear-cut much of the gay community and now, standing in what feels like a second-growth forest, there’s little to take shelter by. At night we walk the wooden pathways past the beautiful homes hidden away on their tree-lined properties, curious as to who could possibly live in there. I don’t take a single photo of my friends, just other homes: their adorably decorated front lawns, their quirky addresses scrawled on mailboxes and front doors. Is this where Paul Cadmus lived? What about Christopher Isherwood? Frank O’Hara?
While walking alone late one night, I bump into someone throwing a fit after his friends ditch him on the way to an orgy. He’s on something, slurring, frantically calling out to anyone who passes by if they know where to go. I help him find his way then follow him through the door of an orgy that hasn’t started yet. I’m here, why not. The house is gorgeous, or at least appears to be without a single light on: the second floor made entirely of glass, a kitchen untouched since the 70s, a living room that opens onto a sizable pool. I pass by a man getting fucked on an L-shaped leather sofa on which other men sit by idly, as if watching television. The stereo system lets out a loud electronic screech, briefly filling the party with horrible, teeth-chattering static.
I’m sure there are rules for sex parties which I’m convinced I don’t know and I look to find a friendly face. I see someone else wearing glasses, as if this is reason enough for a stranger to talk to me. I’m clearly lost and he is not having it. I continue to make small talk, realizing as he begins to take his clothes off just how ridiculous I look wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt at a sex party. A line of naked men in neoprene dog masks walk up to us and stand incredibly close, not saying a single word. What do I do? What do they want? The music howls, the dogs stare blankly, and I get spooked, claiming I have to pee as I make my way to the door.
Maybe there’s something to standing in actual homes that is triggering these feelings of being an out-of-place teenager: memories of meeting parents, taking shoes off in foyers, snooping on how other families live their lives. On July 4th, we waste an hour walking to, and trying to get invited into, the hot tub of a coke dealer who lives on the island. I find myself desperately wanting to see the inside of her home which supposedly has a beautiful view of the bay. It never happens, the lot of us huddle outside her gate never allowed inside. We do meet a tiny chihuahua named Sexy out on a walk, their owner an older German man whose accent sounds cartoonishly evil.
Afterwards, we try another hot tub, back at the home of Morty and his partner but we walk in on them cooking a late dinner, folding piles of linens fresh from the dryer. We awkwardly stand in their doorway, frozen there after having invited ourselves over. We laugh over how desperate we feel. Do you have any drugs we can borrow?, we ask the night air on the walk home. Do you guys do sex? We’re cool, promise. Further down the boardwalk, we bump into the guys staying at the home of the coke dealer who are also on the hunt for a party: somewhere to go, drugs to do, boys to meet. We leave them behind but they’ll walk into our place unannounced an hour later, glassy eyed. One will loudly ask the room if anyone wants their dick sucked and I will take this as my cue to go to bed.
Someone in the house has to commute into the city for a day of work and brings the real world back with them. We hear of Krys Fox getting arrested for partial nudity at Riis Beach, his screams for help played over someone’s phone. Then there’s Alton Sterling, a black man murdered by police for selling CDs, video of Philando Castile dying from gunshot wounds as his girlfriend films their “routine traffic stop.” We don’t know that it's the start of a rough week: we’re a few days before the sniper in Dallas, before more protesters get arrested by what looks like a small army in Baton Rouge. An awful week following one long horrible month in an already monstrous year.
I take a long walk on the beach with a good friend. I know that I plan on turning this trip into an article for Lambda so I’m cheating in a way, steering our conversation towards working through my thoughts. We’re at the tail end of June, the month of Pride, a celebration I’ve always struggled with. Between my own insecurities with openness and its ever growing list of corporate sponsors cashing in, Pride has never felt comfortable to me. We talk about increased police activity at this year’s events following the tragedy at Pulse, causing both Black Lives Matter and the TGI Justice Project to step down from participating as the Grand Marshals of this year’s San Francisco Pride over concerns for their safety. The backlash against Black Lives Matter stopping Toronto’s Pride parade in an effort to be heard. BreakOUT! stepping down from Grand Marshalling New Orleans Pride. The NYPD’s oblivious decision to sponsor police cruisers with rainbow decals. There’s a nagging feeling in the back of my brain that says, as a cisgendered white male, Pride shouldn’t be for me any more. That distinction between what Pride has become and what it was originally meant to stand for has never felt louder. Continuing to operate as if my voice and voices exactly like mine aren’t being heard feels oblivious.
I recognize how privileged I am to be as flippant about being prideful. I go to a figure drawing night put on by a gay museum back in the city. The clientele is much older, the friend I go with and I are the youngest there by a wide gulf. Even the space, a windowless basement somewhere in SoHo, feels stuck in yesteryear, a time when the chance to see a beautiful naked man meant having a connection, knowing someone in the know. The model’s last pose is usually of them masturbating, something that felt jarring and embarrassing the first time I went. But for the older group in attendance, this is what being a gay man has meant in their lifetimes, something hidden and eventually something to be fought for. Fire Island, in much the same way, is a land frozen in time. Despite my complaints, it does make me realize just how lucky I am to be absolved of that particular baggage. I often catch myself standing on the edge of a party checking hook up apps rather than wade into the sea of gyrating men mere feet from me. It’s easy and I take that for granted.
On that walk along the beach, we talk about how the phrase ‘Gay Culture’ sounds like a joke, how forming an identity based around who you’re sexually attracted to is like devoting yourself to International Doughnut Day. How I wish Pride could be something closer to Publisher’s Clearing House, where someone shows up at the door of a closeted teen living in some oppressive middle American state with an oversized check and whisks them away. How this obligation to feel prideful makes me feel phony when stacked on top of the shame I already feel as an American. I’m tired. We’re all tired. And hiding out on a picturesque island isn’t helping anyone.
We meet up on our last day for a date. He’s the lighting designer for a controversial rapper, older, handsome. We met at one of the hot tub parties I’ve lost track of, the days of my vacation endless and soft around their edges. He started talking just as I put a cold taco into my mouth, next to a full table of food picked at by the attractive men there. I remember someone standing up in the center of a hot tub, his body covered by a bad sunburn, the party-goers surrounding him, trying to draw on his roasted skin with their fingertips.
I am full of stories and feel attractive, the youngster with the quirky job that needs explaining. I tell him about not knowing what my parents do for a living, their jobs working for the Federal Government. His parents were pilots and he’s obsessed with planes, which frequently fly overhead on their way to JFK. He can name the airlines and the models of the planes and makes guesses as to where they are flying in from. He’s a grump in the way that I’m a grump, often frustrated by men, someone who works too hard and doesn’t understand people who don’t. We lament the hot boring men that we’ve interacted with on our separate vacations. Just two people who’ve never enjoyed anonymous sex and feel guilty about that, especially in a place like this.
I maneuver the conversation towards my article, disguised in genuine questions about being judgmental. We’re both lucky to get to do what we love to do he says, Not everyone has the luxury of something to define their life by beyond having a hot body. He warns me about being a grump, how being judgmental can eat you up, make you a pain. Not everyone is as vapid as you assume them to be and you can’t know for sure based on appearances. This is true but masculinity is always seen as something neutral, non-invasive for how invasive it is and within the gay community, often stifling. What passes for attractive within gay male circles seems to shrink with each year, just as the LGBTQIA title fragments into smaller accommodating pieces. Anti-discriminatory language makes its way to ironic t-shirts, ‘No Fats, No Femmes, No Asians’ but do little to break down our narrow view of what an attractive partner can look like.
I mention a conversation I had with someone who marched in San Francisco's Pride, and how out of place he felt for being too queer, his hair dyed pale pink, surrounded by the abnormally straight acting gay men of SF. I had the exact same thought on a recent trip to Chicago, realizing a few years too late that I had a miserable time dating when I lived there not just because of how uncomfortable I had been in my own skin but because of how masculine the gay men of Chicago skew. What good is Pride if it’s not growing to include those who actually need to be heard, those who don’t have the luxury of getting day drunk on a long weekend in June? In our push to queer the spaces around us, shouldn’t we focus on protecting those who don’t get to pass as someone’s Dad?
The beach is deserted, the vast space between the Pines and Water Island, another largely straight housing development, is completely unoccupied. We have sex in the dunes as horse flies eat us alive. I smash one against my thigh and it leaves a thick bloody residue, which I wash off in the ocean.
Later, we eat stroopwafels on his back porch, wearing beach towels and reclining on lounge chairs. We watch more planes pass us overhead through a pair of old binoculars. Delta. United. British Airways.
We walk past the ‘Cock Dock’, a stretch of boardwalk that’s a popular cruising spot near his place. We count the number of used condoms discarded among the beach grass, laugh over a New Yorker magazine subscription insert sticking out of the sand. Something to discuss afterwards I guess.
I watch the sunset three times over my week on Fire Island and each time I think of my Mom, a real lover of sunsets. Every vacation we’d spend as a family, she’d drag us to watch the sunset together, snapping photo after photo as it sank into the sea. I remember being mortified by her making a scene, even something as innocuous as asking a stranger to take our family photo. Each time the sun sets, the men seated along the dock cheer and clap, something I know my mother would love. I can only imagine how mortified I would’ve been to see myself like this, enjoying the sunset, seated beside a man I have just spent the day with. I can’t decide which part of that would’ve been more unimaginable.
Back at the house, there are only three of us left. Someone offers to make dinner but fights with the convection stove top, an appliance that has frustrated us all week. I feel like the homes of Fire Island are a perfect metaphor for gay men. Beautiful from afar but once you get inside they’re just barely holding it together. We all laugh. Truth be told, the house is a mess: exposed drywall hidden behind an arbitrary floor-to-ceiling curtain. Medicine cabinets that won’t open stuck behind faucets that are too tall. No oven but an industrial stand mixer. The list continues.
We made it work for the week, as you do in spaces like these. You criticize, loudly and openly, to anyone who’ll listen in the hopes it’ll eventually get fixed, be better for whoever takes over after you leave.
A big ‘Thank You’ to Bowen Yang, Max Wittert, Joseph Bradley Hayden and Parrish Turner for help with this article.