Can Young Gays Enjoy Fire Island?
These days, Fire Island's decaying gay bars mostly attract middle-age men. We went to America's most notorious gay travel spot to see if young gays can enjoy the fun.
Fire Island has long been seen as a gay wonderland. It's a place where queers like W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Stephen Spender used to slut it up. Its sex parties and nude beaches were so notorious, they were immortalized in the fictional pages of "The Gay Gatsby,"Dancer from the Dance.These days, however, if you visit the barrier island that sits in the Atlantic Ocean, east of New York City, you'll find nary a twink.
Although it remains a popular gay tourist spot and you can still buy enemas at the hardware store, young gay dudes do not frequent the island the way they used to. Today, the homo haven is overrun by middle-aged retired guys and their fag hags. If you do see someone in their 20s, they're a Wall Street queer's miserable sugar baby. When I once told another 20-something gay I had gone to the Island a few summers ago to interview porn stars, he looked at me as if I had taken a time machine back to a 1970s Times Square porn theater.
However, in the 70s and early 80s, it was a completely different story. Gay clubs like the Pavilon's disco were bursting with sex-crazed young dudes who were took loads of drugs so they could dance and fuck all night. But when AIDS hit the gay community like a tsunami in the 80s, the Island changed. By the mid 1980s, gay visitors had swapped the late night bacchanalias for late afternoon "High Tea," a cleaner mix dancing and socializing. As AIDS slaughtered a generation of gay men, a "gay generation gap" grew, forming a divide between gay men who grew up fighting for AIDS research and young gays who came out when they were 14 and started using Grindr on their 18th birthdays. Nowhere is this gap more visible than on Fire Island.
Can young gays even enjoy Fire Island? Last summer, I decided to spend a weekend there with VICE's photo editor Matthew Leifheit, who is also a 20-something homosexual, to find out.
Party promoter Daniel Nardicio was our guide. He's middle-aged, but he looks ten years younger, in a good way—unlike some older, body conscious gays who have more muscle than Schwarzenegger and look like they've overdosed on Botox. Daniel started organizing parties professionally about 15 years ago, after he threw an event attended by reality TV star Austin Scarlett, who laid about at the party, eating sausage, while everyone else danced around him. The last few summers, Daniel's parties have served a great mission: He wants the old and the young gays to socialize together and bring back the true spirit of Fire Island.
Daniel throws his generation-blender parties at the decaying Ice Palace nightclub in Cherry Grove, Fire Island. (The island has two gay beaches: Cherry Grove and the Pines.) On Fridays, he hosts underwear parties, and on Saturdays he throws concerts. Somehow, he has convinced gay icons like Liza Minnelli and Carol Channing to perform on the rackety stage where drag queen impersonators typically play.
Daniel picked us up on the corner of Bedford Avenue and 7th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was easy to spot him because he drove a giant pink Playgirl-themed van. He wore sunglasses and a fitted T-shirt. On the drive to the ferry, he spoke with a bald guy sitting next to him about Liza Minnelli and Alan Cumming—he referred to them by their first names—as Matthew and I played on our cell phones. "Look at them on their cell phones!" Daniel said as he looked into his rearview mirror. Before we parked his car on the ferry, we stopped at Costco to buy a shit ton of food.
"I know you think its all dancing on tables," Daniel said, "But this life is a lot of work."
It's a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun. Daniel stays at a house on Fire Island with several of his friends. When we walked into his home, Daniel stripped down to his skitties and took out a penis-shaped water gun and started squirting people. A voluptuous blonde walked out of a room naked. She laughed. "God," she said, "Hurricane Daniel is here."
The woman was a famous burlesque dancer named Dirty Martini. On any other island, she would have stood out, but she seemed normal in the house, where Daniel wore only underwear and there was a shelf full of sculpted penises and a plaque that read "Liza Memorial Fridge." Like a kid at Disneyland, I was mesmerized. This was gay heaven.
"You can't go in the pool with clothes on," Daniel interrupted me.
"I just need to take some notes first," I told him.
"God, you millennials! Always working!"
Matthew and I stayed down the road at the Belvedere, a clothing-optional male-only luxury hotel. The founder, John Eberhardt, worked as a TV set designer and built the gay Playboy mansion out of old sets and antiques from the Mae West and Astor Estates. His portrait hangs on a wall in a main room, along with old clippings from the 20th century, a time when young men with big butts still hung out on the nude beach alongside their older counterparts. Today, the hotel is owned by John Eberhardt's adopted son, Craig Eberhardt.
RELATED: Matthew Liefheit's photo series, The Stone Dicks of Fire Island's Belvedere Hotel
Each room revolved around a different theme, and all weekend the hotel supplied us with an unlimited amount of condoms and Danishes. (Gay men love junk food as much as we love promiscuous sex.)
A barely legal houseboy named Nigel took us on a tour of the property. He worked with another houseboy named Elijah. (For some reason, all the staff twinks had the same names as Wild Thornberries characters.) Nigel was saving up for moving to New Orleans, where he planned to start a professional career as a drag queen. He had recently started lip-synching Taylor Swift during performances.
"I prefer [Swift's third album] Speak Now," he said. "[But] Red is good. 'All Too Well' is deep. Like, girl, did you just lose your virginity?"
When we reached "the yellow room," he took us through a sliding glass door onto an all white porch filled with Greek-style statues.
Wearing nothing but a towel, he sat down with his legs wide open. Looking into the ocean, he told me that he'd grown up across the bay in suburban Long Island and always dreamed about a sexual, decadent gay life, not realizing he lived across from gay mecca.
"Where else can you be naked at work?" he wondered aloud.
I understood Nigel's point-of-view. Growing up in suburban Florida, I also dreamed of a sexual deviant place filled with danishes and drag queens and boys. My hormones mostly motivated this fantasy, but I also wanted a gay mecca because I was sick of being one of maybe three faggots everywhere I went. At work, at school, often even at home, gay people live in straight people's world.
This is why gay men have moved to New York for decades. But as anyone who has ever met a baby boomer who did heroin once with Sid Vicious at CBGB knows, New York has changed. High rent and draconian regulation makes it difficult for slutty gay bars to survive. Not to mention, everyone spends all their time on their iPhones, swiping up and down on Grindr instead of connecting with people in IRL.
But at Daniel's Friday night underwear party at the Ice Palace, cell phone reception barely worked. Between the wooden walls and the humid air, the club looked decayed, but the crowd seemed very in the present. Men walked around in their underwear looking at each other's bulges instead of their phones. Everyone was actually tuned into each other. This is what I'd always been looking for.
Daniel stood at the door encouraging people to remove their pants before they entered. His staff took men's clothes and placed them in black bags. Eventually, rows of black bags full of pants and shirts filled the patio.
On this particular evening, Daniel accomplished his goal: Everyone from twinks to senior citizens attended the party in everything from boxers to jockstraps to briefs covered in pills. (One man skipped underwear and carried a golden fanny pack over his ass.) Some guests wore flip-flops, but all the go-go dancers danced in high-top sneakers.
For the first few hours, the crowd looked unfuckable, but Daniel promised me this was typical. The hotties always show up at 12:30 AM.
"It's like a Star Wars party the first hour," he joked.
At the same time, Daniel hates when people complain about elderly guests because everyone's dicks get wrinkly one day. One time, Daniel said, he saw someone mock an old guy in his underwear, and he screamed at him, telling him it was his elderly relative who invented underwear parties years ago. The man apologized.
He sees himself as a connector and an instigator at his events. As people walked past Daniel, he encouraged them to drink despite his own sobriety.
"It's not a success unless I'm handing out day-one chips!" he said.
Within a few hours, so many men had packed the party—Bravo host Andy Cohen even stood at the bar—I couldn't walk through without brushing past a twink's smooth legs or a tall older man's botoxed face.
Someone projected Cobra Snake-like videos of a guy rimming someone's bubble butt on the wall, and the go-go dancers grinded on each other on the bar. When I needed a place to write down a note, a go-go dancer put his butt out so I could prop my notebook on his ass.
Before the DJ had even played two Madonna songs, guys had started making out and grabbing each other's bulges. Matthew asked an artsy-looking twink if he had met him before, and the twink said, "[No,] I just have really good underwear!"
The sexual vibe came across more as camaraderie than creep fest. We made friends with a group of guys on the patio. Their ages ranged from 21 to late 30s. An older stranger walked past and grabbed my dick in my underwear. He laughed and then everyone else laughed with him.
The cross-generation bonding continued throughout the weekend. On Saturday night Kathy Najimy—a.k.a. the fat witch from Hocus Pocus—performed at the bar. Hoards of young gays and old gays (and a few fag hags) lined up, wearing shorts and dress shirts, to see her one-woman show. On stage, Najimy made jokes about Grindr and the "glorious underground moldy Ice Palace," which was both a compliment and a diss. She catered to the gay crowd, even reminding everyone, "Sarah Jessica [Parker] played the other witch [in Hocus Pocus]."
The young and old gays also sang along with the drag queen who performed every weekend. Inside the wooden club, she lip-synched to the summer's most popular pop while wearing a white dress that reminded me of Britney Spears's outfits on her Femme Fatale tour. "I gave up Beyonce for this song," she said before launching into her "song of summer"—Sia's "Chandelier." When she hit the refrain, she leapt off the stage, grabbed onto the ceiling's rafters, and then flipped upside down to hang like a sparkling bat.
When we got back to our hotel room that night, we listened to our guests next door. They were watching Maury episodes. I looked up at the painting in our room and saw a sad man walking into the distance. I know that man: When you're gay, you often feel like him, longing for a world that isn't dominated by terrible straight men. But I didn't feel that way on Fire Island. No matter what your body looked like at the parties, whether you were carrying a senior citizen card or your first license to drink, you could be the big fat queen you want to be.
When we weren't at a party or a drag show, we sat in the back of the hotel with a bunch of older men. At one point, one of them asked, "Where do the younger gays go?
I said, "Warehouse parties in Brooklyn," but with the help of Daniel's and more twinky word-of-mouth, the answer could soon be Fire Island.