Fire Island Was, and Still Is, Grindr IRL
I went to a Pride Party in the Pines hosted by the gay dating app.
All photos by Owen Kolasinski/BFA.com
This month, THUMP honors Pride with a celebration of LGBTQ nightlife all across America. Follow our coverage here.
I first knew of Fire Island, the famous gay getaway, through another man's nostalgia. A few years ago, I interviewed Tom Bianchi, a photographer who was releasing a book of polaroids he took there in the 1970s and 80s, when the skinny island off the east coast of Long Island fully developed into a Mecca for gay life. The island had been a sanctuary for gay people since at least the 1940s, but it really boomed in the post-Stonewall 70s, when a generation of sexually liberated gay men from the city—many of them young professionals—brought the loose party culture of Manhattan out to the island with them. Bianchi's photos of this time had a soft dulled tone, as though they had been dipped in the ocean and laid out in the sun. The men in them were almost exclusively beautiful, tan, and naked, hanging out around the island's blanched wooden houses and big blue swimming pools, or on the sandy beaches and dunes where people had sex.
Now a grey-haired (and still buff) man in his 60s, Bianchi told me through tears that many of the people in the photos have died of HIV/AIDS in subsequent years. As Mickey Weems, a historian of gay club culture, told THUMP recently, Fire Island was almost another casualty of the epidemic. "On Fire Island, people were suddenly dying," he said. "Empty houses dotted the boardwalks."
But Fire Island has regenerated since, and judging from a quick Google search of house rental options, it's as popular (and expensive) a destination as ever. Bianchi still summers there, though he remains wistful about the island's heyday, and glad that he documented that mythic and impermanent time. "Fire Island was, for me, a little utopia away from everything," he said. He offered advice to me, at the time a gay man in his mid-20s, trying to find his own magic. "What I want for you to see in the book is a template for the way things can be," he said. "That's what we came up with on how to live a beautiful life. You guys can make your own version of that. Do it consciously; do it with fun; do it beautifully. And just enjoy the hell out of the experience."
And so, with that wisdom ringing in my mind, I finally made it to Fire Island for the first time this Saturday, and, appropriately, during the weekend of New York Pride. I was invited by Grindr, the largest gay mobile dating app in the world, which offered to arrange a shuttle for me and a small group of writers and photographers for the two-hour drive from Manhattan to the ferry port in Sayville. They also put us up in a hotel right in the Pines, one of two famously gay areas on the island (Cherry Grove is the other one), not so far from the Meat Rack, a wooded sandy outdoor area where guys go to cruise.
The app has dipped their toe into Fire Island's waters last year, hosting a pop-up shop with the fashion designer Telfar on the beach. This year, Grindr was hosting what they were calling a "Slumbr Party," a full day and night of celebrations—with special guests like artist Raúl de Nieves, photographer Luke Gilford, and DJ Honey Dijon—to commemorate Pride in one of the gayest places on earth.
I took the bait, with questions buzzing in my head. It has become commonplace for New Yorkers to romanticize a past city that they encounter in any number of retrospectives, like Bianchi's monograph or Patti Smith's memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe in the Chelsea Hotel. Living in this cleaned-up expensive city, we've grown accustomed to yearning for a time when New York was cheap and fun and full of sex and art and drugs. Would I fall through a sepia-shaded black hole into a gay Never Never Land, like the one I had seen in Bianchi's photos? When a place is as much an idealized concept as it is an actual location, can it ever live up to the fantasy? Grindr—the very company that was hosting this party—has made it easy to find other men just like you all over the globe, not just in exclusive enclaves. In the era of Grindr, when meeting other people is possible with the click of a button, why was our nostalgia for Fire Island so strong?
We boarded a noontime ferry for the trip from Long Island. A drag queen named Thorgy Thor, a former contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race, sat on the bottom level, wearing a red wig with a Carmen Miranda-like headwrap, a "Make America Gay Again" t-shirt, and shiny gold platform club kid sneakers. The Pines, where we docked after the 20-minute boat trip, is traditionally known as a destination for affluent gay New Yorkers, but I was struck me by the fact that the people here—strolling by the water in short shorts and sunglasses and speedos—seemed to come from all walks of life. I switched on Grindr, and spotted an entire array of these revelers right there on the app, smiling or shirtless on my phone.
Fire Island has no real roads; instead, it has an intersecting, maze-like system of timber boardwalks. The island is known for its raw wood-and-glass modernist houses, but the Grindr party, which promised "art activities" on the invitation, took place at an enormous contemporary compound right on the bay side of the beach, with a big white square palace and a swimming pool. The bartenders were serving bubbly rose in a can with pink straws, and there was a sushi bar for all to snack from, protected from baking in the heat by two umbrellas. When I went to make myself a plate, a thin boy in a puffy pirate shirt, a jock-strap-speedo, and chelsea boots with frilly white socks ran past me towards the water and nearly knocked my shrimp to the ground.
This wasn't a sepia-toned getaway at all, I thought—it was cartoonish and bright and booming, thanks to the excellent DJ Anthony DiCapua, who played a mix of dancehall and rap and R&B that included Beenie Man and Lil Mo. Down by the water, there were guys wearing cowboy and sailor hats, snapping selfies in front of a painted backdrop of clouds that the photographer Luke Gilford had built for the party. Raúl de Nieves, fresh off of his breakout showing at this year's Whitney Biennial, had set up a station to customize speedos for guests; his assistant imprinted the word "Church" on the butt of a red, white, and blue bathing suit for me, too small for me to ever wear. A merman in a blue tail and a cascading silver necklace was swimming through the pool, his black underwear peeking out of the back of his scales. There even was a runway erected across the pool, and some boys catwalked down it, asses hanging out of their suits, and then fell into the water—maybe intentionally, maybe not.
After a couple of hours, I left to try to score some quiet beach time before the big party that night. Walking down the boardwalk, I could hear Justin Timberlake blasting from the Grindr house for a while, but then it eventually muffled out, and mostly what you heard was songbirds, with occasional bursts of Donna Summer and other divas ringing from different homes around the Pines. Between the leaves, I caught flashes of a few guys in colorful bathing suits hanging on their porch, as well as a couple having sex by a big glass window. It felt, for a moment, like I had time-warped back to Bianchi's Fire Island, a private place. I found an uncrowded stretch of beach, lay down in the sun, and ended up burning my face a little.
That night, the big Grindr party was at a club near the pier. It kicked off with, of all things, a performance by Macy Gray. She sang for a few minutes, did her famous hit "I Try" remixed with a generic club beat, and then walked off the stage. Next up was another Drag Race star, Peppermint, who performed her song, "Shady Phone," about guys who never text you back—an appropriate track for a Grindr party. She told jokes until her blonde dreadlock wig fell off, and a security guard escorted her and the hair out of the club. Honey Dijon DJed next, playing gay classics like Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody." The Absolut vodka was free and poured by shirtless bartenders, as waitresses passed around trays of chicken salad and watermelon.
Outside on the porch of the club, everyone congregated to smoke cigarettes. A few people seemed inebriated, but things were fairly tame. No one was naked, and there was just a few boys making out in corners. Then I spotted the founder and CEO of Grindr himself, Joel Simkhai, a slim, smiley man with a poof of brown hair. He launched the app in 2009 and lives in Los Angeles, and he told me that he's been making the trip to come to Fire Island for years. "It's a magical place of brotherly love," he said. "A paradise."
After a day on the island, I thought I'd ask him, in the age of Grindr, why it was still important to have places like Fire Island. Bianchi's generation had needed a watering hole to gather around in order to fully be the men they wanted to be, and meet the men they wanted to meet. Why would a man like Simkhai, who invented a service that made it possible to meet people anywhere, still bother to make the pilgrimage?
Because it was fun, Simkhai said. "Grindr is all about that, too," he said. "Bringing people together and connecting. And it's nice to do it in a physical space. It's always nice when you have everyone around a table." He sounded surprisingly and charmingly analogue for a man who'd invented a dating app.
Bianchi's Fire Island might have been more ambered and washed out, but maybe the world hadn't really changed that much since Bianchi's day. I asked Simkhai if Pride and Fire Island parties were as important as they've ever been. "I don't think like that!" he said. "It's always important to celebrate who we are." Then he spun off onto the dancefloor and disappeared into a circle pit, surrounded by guys in tank tops and shorts.