Blurring Barriers on Fire Island

Waves reaching the beach of fire island

This essay on the queer ecologies of Fire Island is the third piece in the Unpure Imagination series, which seeks to engage with and challenge themes of toxicity, purity, pollution, and restoration in an always compromised world. Series editors: Ben Iuliano, Kuhelika Ghosh, and Richelle Wilson.

Fire Island is a barrier island running thirty-one miles along the southern edge of New York’s Long Island, although this mighty length belies its quarter-mile girth. Part of an ever-shifting archipelago known as the Outer Barrier, Fire Island is home to a plethora of small vacation hamlets, both public and private, most famously the historically gay resorts of Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines (referred to as the Grove and Pines, respectively). Like other queer coastal assembly spots such as Key West, Florida and Provincetown, Massachusetts, the island provides shelter from prying eyes of “polite society” with the help of the Great South Bay to the north and the Atlantic to the south. 

A person sitting on the ledge of a balcony, in front of a palm tree
One Hundred Club Party in Cherry Grove, 1949. Image courtesy of the Cherry Grove Archives Collection.

Cherry Grove, the oldest continually inhabited colonial settlement on the island, was founded in 1869 on land bought from pirate Jeremiah Smith. While the town did not begin to build its queer reputation until the mid-1930s, the Grove’s gay lineage is impeccable. Oscar Wilde is said to have stayed at a Grove hotel in 1882 and wrote that it was one of the most beautiful resorts he had ever visited. After a 1938 hurricane sent most straight resort-goers running for the mainland’s hills, gay and lesbian theater professionals began to flock to the wilderness of Cherry Grove. These “theater people”—who we might call today DINKS (Double Income, No Kids)—were in search of a place to leisure with all the freedom and comfort their middle-class standing could afford them. Today, there are rentals aplenty across the Grove and Pines that can be accessed via ferries running every half hour across the Great South Bay from Sayville. The gay-friendly Airbnb alternative misterb&b labels most of the island, including the wilderness areas, as a “gay district,” excluding the private “family” towns of Saltaire and Point o’ Woods. In the off-season, misterb&b shows hosts offering rentals for as low as $300 a night. Prices like these are perhaps explained by the Pines’ notoriously high property values, despite the threats of oncoming climatic events.

Histories, artworks, and fictive imaginings about the Grove and Pines abound. These often mention the barrier island’s function as a “natural safe harbor” from mainland prejudice but leave descriptions of ecology and geology scant. Histories of Fire Island more generally mention the gay resort towns in varying levels of detail, often alongside other prominent vacation towns that pride themselves on being private getaways for “family people.” But the ecological has always been queer and the queer already ecological on Fire Island, especially in catastrophic times. The 1938 storm predates our current naming conventions, but I like to call her Dorothy. By crashing down upon the nascent Cherry Grove she was, in fact, a friend to the gay men and women who would come to call it home. In the wake of destruction, queer community demanded to thrive.  

In contrast, the 2012 Hurricane Sandy revealed the truth of Fire Island and islanders’ precarity. What does it mean that queer life has so long gathered joyously in these reaches so under threat? Why, even as gay life gains more institutional tolerance, does Fire Island continue to provide refuge in the form of resort for a select few? As histories are swept away by governmental indifference to pandemics and changing climates, how can we map these two precarious worlds of barrier islands and queer ecologies? Such a map will necessarily be messy, the perspective imperfect and the methodologies impure. This essay imagines its way through one such cartography of contested cultural and geologic flux. 

Place and Pandemics 

Queer theorist and author of Cherry Grove, Fire Island Dr. Esther Newton insists upon using real names. She writes that it is already a struggle to recover the “hidden networks and institutions” of twentieth-century gay history and “every proper noun [she] omit[s] diminishes” the archive for future researchers. Queer ethnographies are littered with pseudonyms and innuendos in an attempt to protect marginalized informants. Newton, an anthropologist writing amid the staggering loss of the AIDS epidemic, demands proper names wherever possible to keep a quickly vanishing history vibrant.

Fire Island is a place where bodies have long experienced the joy of each other and magical marginal ecologies.

Today Fire Island burns bright with cultural pride and vitality (especially for white, upper-middle-class gay men), but it also smolders with queer histories that outsiders may never fully know—so much death and loss linger among the smiling faces of older vacationers who witnessed the generational devastation of HIV/AIDS. Newton, writing just as light was beginning to gleam at the end of the epidemic tunnel, managed to catch some of these stories before they succumbed to the sea of governmental indifference and bigotry. As we make our way through our own unequally distributed pandemic and face a sea threatening to swallow us whole, this insistence on detailed specificity is more salient than ever.

I’d like to extend this demand for proper nouns and names to the realm of cartography—documenting queer places, spaces, and movements is just as important a tool for liberation as naming names. At a time when travel has become newly dangerous for all, I can’t help but indulge in memories from my few scattered days on Fire Island—between the Grove and the Pines, at the National Seashore, and in the sunken forest, drunk and sober, partying and party to one of the fastest vanishing ecotones on earth.

Dune Aftercare  

Geologically, barrier islands are a glacial architecture. During the last major glaciation, the Laurentide Ice Sheet reached the edge of what we now call North America and began to empty its pockets into the sea. Newly molten water carried finer sediments that settled into the uncannily flat geography of Long Island’s South Shore. As the icy charismatic megastrata retreated, currents chased after it, pulling sediments in their wake, pilling sand upon sand until the dregs of Laurentide broke into the temperate mid-Atlantic air as the islands of the Outer Barrier. These dune-encrusted spits ran raggedly along the south shore, breaking up and reforming but always providing, as their name would suggest, a barrier from the harsh realities of sea life for those living in their lee. Bays, lagoons, inlets, and watersheds flourished, fostering wetland wildlife, shellfish, and eventually humans. 

Red fox on the beach of Fire Island
Red fox on Fire Island. Photo by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York, 2013.

While the geology is fairly straightforward, the geography of the outer barrier islands remains anything but. As with all archipelagos, the currents that made these spits of land can just as easily unmake them, especially with the help of anthropogenically supercharged storms and rising seas. The approximately 500 permanent residents of Fire Island as well as property owners who winter elsewhere have engaged in various mitigation measures in recent years to maintain the integrity of their sandy estates. Tens of millions of dollars have been invested over the past two decades in dredging sand from the Atlantic shelf inland to “renourish” beaches and protect property and vital dune habitat. Reclamation projects like these have been shown to be not only ineffective but detrimental to the long-term health of the coastline. As water gains anthropogenic strength and the sands upon which we have built our leisure lives begin to succumb, we have to ask who and what we are saving coastal communities from and for.

This pitched language of “wet vs. dry” and “sea vs. land” does not hold much water in an ecotone like Fire Island. Here hardwood trees, a favorite symbol of landlubbers, have adapted to live at sea. Shrunken beneath the island’s unique double dunes and pruned by salt spray, the holly, sassafras, shadbush, oak, and black cherry tangle in a density that demands attention. The sunken forests of Fire Island are part of an elite yet endangered crowd—the National Park Service has deemed them “globally rare.”

Mapping where communities have gathered and continue to gather for recreation recreates worlds.

Walking along orderly boardwalks cut into the snarl of branches, I am always called deeper by some childlike impulse to see what lurks in the shadowy spots, to establish a hiding place, to disappear into the arboreal community, to live like the forest—nourished by sea spray carrying vital nutrients from the briny depths just out of sight behind the mountains of sand. This impulse is best suppressed when walking along Judy Garland Memorial Pathway at twilight. The portion of forest sunken between Cherry Grove and the Pines is known colloquially as “the meat rack.” With rental rates in the two towns coming in at over $500 per weekend night, many island visitors who missed the last ferry back to Sayville would pitch a vernacular tent in these woods. The beach being too exposed for some, couples would sink into the woods to enjoy some salty embraces of their own. Peering into the muddle of branches here might reveal some more fleshy limbs than one might be interested in seeing.

Surveying Shifting Sands 

Transgression and rupture, permeability and penetration, breaches and orifices are key to understanding Fire Island. The most gaping hole of all is in Fire Island itself, punctured by the unrelenting force of Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012. This date, etched across the eastern seaboard, left Fire Island rent in four. Three new inlets were bored through narrow points along its 31-mile length; two have subsequently been filled, but the third and largest runs through the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness at the eastern end of the Great South Bay. While most of the island is classified as Fire Island National Seashore and managed by the National Park Service, the seven miles stretching between Smith Point and Watch Hill is a dedicated wilderness area where the endangered piping plover makes its home. Here a narrowing of the island that was sanded over for years, although helpfully labeled by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) as Old Inlet, burst open in the face of Sandy and has allowed the Great South Bay and Atlantic to mingle in each other’s impurities once more. 

a bird on the beach
Piping plover on the beach. Photo by David Schenfeld, 2008.

This ever-shifting breach is difficult to record cartographically, although Professor Charles Flagg at Stonybrook University has made it part of his larger Great South Bay Project. Though his initial goal was to “gain a thorough understanding of the biogeochemistry of the Bay” after Hurricane Sandy introduced higher levels of sodium chloride to the Bay’s biology, Flagg and his team shifted focus to the flows and effects of this saline intrusion. This salty increase, in conjunction with warmer winters, has left many local residents wondering if the Great South Bay will ever refreeze as it once annually did. Without this freeze, Fire Island resorts and resorters can remain leisurely in the newly liquid winter. 

Flagg’s images show that the Otis Pike breach is anything but idle. The team began photographing the Old/New Inlet on November 3, 2012, a mere five days after the initial breach, and return regularly with cameras and biplanes. They capture what the human eye can see out of windows as well as automated scans from beneath the belly of the metal bird. Collaborator Mark Lang is credited with stitching together these artificial eye’s sights into dramatic depictions of the gap’s sedimentary vitality.

I find these collages aesthetically intriguing and methodologically instructive. The scientific-technical taste buds of salinity tests make the invisible yet palpable change in the Great South Bay evident. In collaboration, these digital eyes allow us on the mainland to perceive a breach deep in the reaches that is altering our ecology and biochemistry. This project condenses time and space in bewitching ways. It enables viewers to visualize the otherwise invisible extent of damage through careful sustained attention and the cutting together of images no one human eye could see at once. We have to get distance from Fire Island to really perceive it, both in time and space. Perhaps a similar mode of spatiotemporal collage—blending bodies of flesh and bodies of water, cutting up communities and ecologies, juxtaposing their discontents—could be a useful tool in queer explorations of this fractured island. 

Impure Potential

Newton writes that “few other minorities have so depended on being hidden for survival as the gays”; this makes hiding places, spaces of secretive survival, essential to any geography interested in queer histories of resistance. Fire Island is a place where bodies have long experienced the joy of each other and magical marginal ecologies. Mapping where communities have gathered and continue to gather for recreation recreates worlds. “Resorting” as both a vacation practice of placemaking as well as a re-sorting of our geographic facts is vital to understanding Fire Island and similarly precarious queer ecologies. By resorting in and to the reaches, we can develop an impure yet vital practice of remembering vulnerable worlds. Fire Island is far from the last resort for queer life and love, but these stories from a past pandemic refuge keep us grounded in the knowledge that we can and will be in joyful community again, even and especially amid ecological precarity.

Featured Image: Storm surge on Fire Island, New York. Photo by Brian Johnson and Dane Kantner, 2008.

Amelia Carter is an Environmental Humanities graduate student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. She also works as a research assistant in the Exhibits department at the Natural History Museum of Utah. Her research interests include, but are not limited to, queer ecological precarity, critical tourism studies, and post-industrial leisure cultures. Her thesis examines the specific intersection of class, climate, and colonial occupation in queer vacation communities. WebsiteTwitterContact