Tonight marks the premiere of Logo's latest reality series, Fire Island, which follows six gay dudes and the self-discovery, fleeting relationships, and excessive drinking that accompany one hot summer in New York's gay mecca.
While it's sure to feature sights familiar to anyone who's visited the island (like the annual Pines Party), it's also faced criticism for being a bit, well, contrived. Some say the show sets the gay community back; SNL even parodied its ridiculousness with a lesbian spinoff, contrasting its hard-partying dudes with a house full of even-keeled, wine-toasting, tearful-midnight-conversation-having lesbians.
The real reality of Fire Island lies somewhere between all that. This show, to be sure, plays on stereotypes—when many think of Fire Island, they probably think of a place not far off from Logo's version, where gay guys let down their hair and sparks and claws fly. But what happens on the island goes far deeper than White Party selfies. It's a near-magical place where people grow up and learn hard truths and sink their teeth into life itself, and from Edmund White to Andrew Holleran, novels about the Island have enshrined both those qualities. For close to a century, it's been as high culture as it is low, as catty as it is revelatory. There's more to find than dicks in the Meat Rack—you might just find yourself.
One would hope the stars of Fire Island find themselves, too; judging from the first few episodes, they've all got some growing up to do. But that's what makes for good reality TV, after all. We tapped a roster of gay dudes to hear their life-changing stories from the island, whether ridiculous or profound.
Aaron Perry, LA-based sales executive, on self-consciousness (and choking on meat):
I've only been to Fire Island once, for one day, and I somehow managed to publicly humiliate myself in that short amount of time.
Everyone on Fire Island has some level of self-consciousness—whether it's fear of bumping into an ex or not looking great in a bathing suit—but not everyone has choked on meat alone at Fire Island tea. From what I saw and what I've heard, everyone is always grilling out there. But that doesn't mean they do it well. I was at a pool party where I only knew one person. I did what anyone does in those circumstances, hovered by the food. The food happened to be (high protein, low carb) steak kebabs that were wildly overcooked. I started to choke. My throat did this crazy thing that dislodged the steak in what felt like an out of body experience. Embarrassed and alone, I instinctively hid from the party to choke in peace, away from the gays.
I lived, barely. Had a sore throat for a good week. It remains the perfect metaphor for the fear and shame of Fire Island. And I still have to relive the humiliation every time I tell the story about choking on meat on Fire Island, and then explain it's not a euphemism.
Jeff Leavell, writer, on theoretical physics:
When I was 18, it was late at night, and I was walking back to my friend's parents' house on Fire Island (his dad was gay). I was walking down the boardwalks that cut through the island, and I heard all this moaning in the bushes and walked into this dune and stumbled upon like 20 guys fucking this one dude. It turned into a full on mini-orgy right there in the night. It was kind of stunning. One of the guys told me he was getting his PhD in theoretical physics. He and I spent a lot of time making out, and then we branched off on our own and went down to the beach. We had these long and crazy talks about physics and multiple universes and all kinds of shit. We did a lot of fucking on the beach as well. He talked a lot about infinity and how all the choices we make, the people we are, everything we do, branches off into different directions, creating different universes, so in one universe he and I met and ran away together, living our lives in love. The next day, I was walking the beach with my friend. Ahead of us was a wedding ceremony. And, in all the weird ways the world works, there was the guy I had spent the night with, getting married to this blond chick. We made brief eye contact but that was it. I never saw him again.
Frankie Sharp, DJ/party promoter, on getting a desperately needed cigarette:
One year I DJed at the BOFFO art festival. I was done with the festival, and my boyfriend and I were just wandering the boardwalk, as one does. And then my friend offered me liquid mushrooms, which I had never heard of before. And I hadn't done mushrooms since I was in my early 20s. So I thought, OK, this is hilarious and fun, let's do them. We took them, and we just started wandering all over the boardwalk, from Cherry Grove back to the Pines. It was me, my boyfriend Alex, and my other drag queen friend, Claudia. We decided to lay down on the boardwalk because it felt like the best thing to do while high, and I decided I really wanted a cigarette—but we couldn't go to the Pantry, because it was like 5 AM.
And I look over, like, do you guys see that? Maybe half a block away there's this moving sling inside of a kitchen—and I'm like oh, there's people in there, and I think they're smoking, because I think I can see smoke. So I really want a cigarette, I'm high on drugs, and I super need this, so I just marched on over there confidently and rang their doorbell, and a full-regalia leather daddy smoking a cigarette was like, "Can I help you?" And I said, "Yeah, I was just wondering if you guys had any cigarettes? I really need a cigarette. I can even give you a dollar." That shitty thing people do. And he was like no, sorry, we have nothing for you, and slammed the door in my face, and I was like, Wow! I came back, and we were laughing, and we just left, but when we were maybe a block and a half away, all of a sudden we hear "hey, hey!" and out comes this guy running down the boardwalk, and he's wearing nothing but a harness and one of those puppy tail butt plugs. And he said here, here, here, I have this for you! And he gave me my cigarette for the night.
That's one of those great things about Fire Island, where it's so absurd that you think it's completely appropriate to interrupt this random weird sex leather sling party for a cigarette. But in actuality, it is totally appropriate. It's part of the magic there. And then I saw my puppy butt plug guy all fresh and dewy with a to-go coffee, a briefcase and a Thom Browne suit on the first ferry back Monday morning on the way to work.
Mitchell Sunderland, Broadly staff writer, on wild bears:
I've mostly gone to Fire Island for journalism. One time, my colleague Matthew and I stayed at the Belvedere. It's a roughly $400 a night hotel where clothing is optional, women are banned, and most of the furniture comes from estates and old movie sets. The food, though, is mostly danishes that tasted like they came from Costco, served by a boy who kept yelling about how he was going to make Taylor Swift a drag icon. Somehow neither Matthew nor I managed to have sex there. We were sitting outside our room, though, and a fully nude man started hitting on us, trying to pull the "I'm an actor" line—he later let slip he was a real estate agent. But the worst part was that we got no sleep all night because a bear was getting fucked next to a statue outside our window for HOURS.
Brandon Graeter, broker, on underwear party footage you won't see on TV:
At the underwear party, there's a back room with people hooking up. I don't go back there, but one time, I lost my (very drunk) friend, and someone told me they last saw him there. I went in and found him wandering the abyss. It reminded me of Sandra Bullock in Gravity—floating in this vacuum of nothingness, grabbing for random dicks and anything that would give him life. I took his hand and pushed us through curtains of sweaty bodies. I was George Clooney in this situation, leading him back to the light. Being at the underwear party is a lot like being space—no one can hear you scream, you can't really breathe, and you go into complete darkness on a mission to explore, only to end up desperate to be home and safe.
Michael Musto, actor, author, and columnist, on that commute:
I don't like the speedboat between the Grove and the Pines because it's terrifying (and I'm cheap), so I always walk through the Meat Rack to get from one resort to the other. The problem is, once you're in there, you run into creepy looking people wanting to be paddled and adorable deer who are dying to infect you with Lyme disease, not to mention sand that's extremely challenging to walk through, especially if you're exhausted from a full day of gossiping.
But one year, a friend of mine and I tried to do the Meat Rack walk, and we couldn't see any of the above because a thick fog had set in. We couldn't even see our hands in front of our faces. So we clung to each other for dear life and went one scary step at a time for what seemed like hours, ultimately navigating our way back to civilization. It was like some gay Nancy Drew adventure, and ever since then, the speedboat doesn't seem so bad.
Jason Moore, director of Pitch Perfect and Sisters, on sharing a house and unscripted bonds:
Having a share on Fire Island in my 20s taught me how to share small spaces, responsibilities, stories, and in some cases, I suppose, how to share men. In these houses, walls were thin and doors were open, so if you drank someone's protein shake or borrowed someone's speedo (perhaps directly off their boyfriend), you were going to come under scrutiny for it. This is where we learned to make amends for such transgressions—or how to throw shade, even on the brightest of days. But mostly and happily, it accelerated friendships. There's nothing like sharing a water view, a walk home, or a common address to bond you to others and to make you feel like you belong to a tribe.