If you’re a gay person living in America, then you’ve probably heard a thing or two about Fire Island. If you haven’t, here’s the rundown: it’s a tiny gay Cancun about an hour and a half outside of New York City.
Fire Island got a lot more attention last year with the release of the Hulu movie of the same name starring Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang, which centered a group of queer friends of color (save one) who came up against rampant microaggressions, fatphobia, and generally cattiness from the white, cis, gays on the island. The movie exposed what New York queers have known for a long time: If you’re not white, cis, and muscular, then you’re not really welcome there.
Even though I’ve been in New York for more than eight years, I put off going to Fire Island for exactly that reason. But when a friend invited me to go with him a few weeks ago, I figured that it’s been more than a year since the movie was released and surely it must have generated enough social awareness to make it more welcoming to people of color.
To get to Fire Island from Brooklyn, I took two Long Island Railroad trains, a short 5-minute shuttle bus to a dock and then a 20-minute, $25 ferry. My friend and I went in mid-September, the second to last weekend before the summer season ended. Things were starting to wind down, meaning less parties to go to, which I enjoyed as it meant that I got a chance to have more intimate conversations.
My first impression of the island was that it was physically a much more beautiful place than I had imagined. The sand was actually white, deer roamed the woods, and the houses along the beach had huge windows that displayed beautiful interiors, tastefully decorated by the gays who inhabited them (my favorite thing I saw was a deer antler chandelier). Walking through the island for the first time, it’s hard not to feel emotional seeing elderly gay neighbors interacting with each other and pride flags waving outside many of the houses.
My friend and I stayed in a shared house that we had booked on Airbnb and shortly after we arrived, we were introduced to the other guests. All four of them were white men in their 30s, with nice jobs, and who seemed polite enough. Later that evening we went to “Tea,” a gathering that happens every day at 6pm at the Blue Whale Bar.
Basically, every gay person on the island goes to Tea, and it’s where you can meet other people and get intel about what other parties are happening that night. Tea was the first time it really sunk in just how white Fire Island is. In a crowd of maybe 200 people, I saw, at most, 20 people of color.
While I had fun, it had been a long time since I found myself in such an overwhelmingly white space. I didn’t feel uncomfortable, per se, but I definitely didn’t feel totally at ease.
The house parties we went to that weekend were pretty much all “copy and paste” versions of each other. Almost everyone was a lawyer, or a doctor, or had some other high-paying job, and generally didn’t seem to have much interest in me, what I did, who I was, nor what I liked. I suspected that part of the reason I didn’t make many friends was because most of the people there weren’t interested in f***ing me, which is fine, but it bothered me that people didn’t want to know me as a person.
However, the friend I went to Fire Island with was white, which gave me a little bit of a clearer vision of how different our experiences were.
Within a few hours of being in our house, one of the people residing within it messaged my friend on Grindr to have sex. The reason we got invited to parties in the first place was because people were hitting him up and telling him where to go. For the record, I was on Grindr too, and received 3 or 4 messages the entire time I was there, which severely limited my access to anything fun.
The few times we did go to houses that had groups of people of color – usually trans girls and more effeminate, gay men – they were almost always in a corner separate from everyone else (they were also always having more fun than anyone else). One day we were in the jacuzzi of our Airbnb and one of our housemates discussed how he had just had sex with someone who looked exactly like him and that it had always been a fantasy of his to fuck his twin, which gives you an idea of where these people’s heads are at.
He was visiting from North Carolina and disclosed that after the release of Fire Island, many of his friends wanted to go to the actual location. I wondered silently if any of them had actually reflected on the point of that movie beyond that fact that Fire Island exists.
Eventually, I felt burned out from the house parties and I hit up my friend, Moses, who had been working on the island all summer. Moses is Black, 25, and in charge of programming events. He invited me to a POC-focused event he had helped produce called “Sunday Sounds,” which also had Fried Platano, a nightlife friend of mine, as the DJ.
This was by far the most fun I had on the island.
I know some people are thinking, “Duh, what did you expect?” Honestly, I was kind of hoping that Fire Island had gone through some cultural rebirth, but I can say with confidence, now, that it’s still an extremely long way away from that.
Because of its inaccessibility (a stay on the island is at least a couple hundred dollars per night), it’s still an enclave for people with plenty of privilege. It’s also much easier to go if you know someone with a house or a timeshare on the island and it turns out that if you’re an affluent, white man, you end up inviting your affluent, white friends and other people you plan to f*ck, which are decidedly other white men.
On our last night, my friend was invited to an orgy with two of our housemates, so I met up with Moses in one of the island’s staff cabins. Everyone in there was Black or brown and Fried Platano played the best Latin Techno I had ever heard. This was another ethereal experience, of people who were fully queer, of color, and dancing – a stark juxtaposition to every other experience I’d had on the island.
We danced for as long as we could, until the police came and made us turn off the music. I ended up talking with one of the guys in the cabin and we fell asleep, cuddling.
Overall, I had a beautiful experience on Fire Island, and being there really does feel like a dream, a place where the rules of the outside world don’t apply, a place where you will never be “othered” for your queerness. Even so, if you’re a person of color, I wouldn’t recommend going alone unless it’s with a big group of POC friends. The social dynamics of the island took me back to high school, when I wanted so badly to be desired by white men.
It’s a place that still feels stuck in the early 2010s, where white, gay men were very comfortable being white, gay men. I’m a different person now, so being in a place that centers whiteness as the epitome of beauty and desirability made me feel, more than anything, bored and uninspired.
I’m fortunate enough to be aware that there are other places where every part of me is celebrated. As I get older, I am less and less interested in putting myself in places where I’m not valued in the ways that make me feel good. As difficult as it is to say, my verdict is that I am not into Fire Island, and I’m only saying that because I know they could do better if they really wanted.
“At the end of the day, nobody taught us how to love, so we’re really figuring it out on our own.”
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