Life & Style

February 24, 2016

I Grew up in a Gay Beach Utopia

Novelist Tod Wodicka on his childhood among the divas and dream houses of New York's Fire Island

  • Written by Tod Wodicka
  • Photography by Thomas Giddings

Beyond the ubiquitous playground slur, and despite my father being one, I’m not entirely sure I knew what a gay person was the first time I travelled to Fire Island in 1985.

I knew it was a bad thing, obviously, maybe the worst thing, but beyond that, a ‘faggot’ or ‘queer’ or ‘homo’ was about as real to me as a monster or an ‘asshole’. What did they do that was so terrible? What did one actually look like? And, further, why did I throw a baseball like one? Was the way one threw a ball really such an accurate indicator for being the worst possible thing ever? God, I fucking hated baseball.

I was nine years old, from a small, sheltered, conservative town in upstate New York, and I was about to find out that these monsters looked like my father, they looked like his friends, all of whom were kind of awesome. They looked just like normal men, if maybe a little more fabulous.

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And they had an island all to themselves. And, in a way, so did my little sister and I: because back in the 80s, we were pretty much the only children living in the Pines, the gayest of Fire Island’s gay communities.

I know this now from being a father myself: young children, if secure and loved, can pretty much roll with anything you give them. An entire ferry full of men dressed as women? A nude beach? An island without cars, children or too many women, where buff, shirtless men pulled all their belongings and groceries around in red Radio Flyer wagons? OK, what else you got? The boundaries of the normal world were still generous, fluid, accepting.

We spent our summers there every year until I left for university. I think the thing that struck me most, at first, wasn’t so much the homotopian aspects of the Pines but the fun park logistics of the place. You got there by ferry, always one of the highlights of a visit. If the weather was good, you rode on top, a thrilling, windy transitional crossing from one side of the real world—the ugly, fugue-like depression of Long Island—and into another: this magical island of Lost Boys.

Arriving in the harbour, which is the only commercial area of the Pines, sometimes had the vibe of could have something of an outdoor airport reception area vibe. People waiting for their buddies, loved ones, all high-pitched, celebratory greetings. Men waving from the tops of boats. You always felt like you were on the edge of someone else’s party, you always heard a party somewhere, and you always felt welcomed in a strange way, like a long lost relative. I now understand this as the relief, maybe, of people entering a community where they were finally totally free to be themselves. Hairy leather queens with handlebar mustaches walking fluffy dogs. Muscle boys. All sorts. But mostly just men like my father, middle-aged or older, nothing particularly flamboyant, just like any other boring adult you might see on the other side of the water that separated homophobic 80s America from whatever new kind of thing was fermenting in the Pines.

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In the harbor there was one grocery store, a restaurant and bar, an ice-cream stand, a pizzeria, a club—maybe two clubs?—and a hardware store. I hated going to the hardware store. The first thing we’d do is go to the place where all the red wagons were locked up, hundreds of them it seemed, and get ours. You got everywhere in the Pines on elevated boardwalks that ran through the jungle-like vegetation of the island. It reminded me of Florida, like some kind of Disney World adventure land, but instead of animatronic singing pirates, you got, well… you can imagine.

The houses were all elevated, on stilts.

Some were colossal beach-side mansions, others smaller, but no less interesting. At night their windows lit up like aquariums. Our house was a strange creation, built by Horace Gifford. Part tree house, part light-filled work of modern art. This was home for the summer. I’d read books in the hammock hanging above one of the many elevated balconies, or have dinner with my father and his friends outside on one of the many porches. It was quiet, and there were routines. Every Sunday we’d take the Radio Flyer wagon down to the harbor and buy the Sunday New York Times, bagels, fresh juice. Then just relax and let the Sunday lazily run itself out. It wasn’t just a debauched sex island, it was home, and it was as normal as a home can ever be. (Homes never being entirely normal.)

There were fires on Fire Island, of course, every year a house or two or three went up like the kindling. Having giant pockets of air beneath every house is any house fire’s wet dream. One evening we awoke to the house next to ours ablaze. They went up so fast, and it felt like a slow-motion dream. But the community was prepared. I remember strangers comforting my sister while my father got busy watering the sides of our house with a hose in hopes that it would be spared. It was.

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Fire Island is thin, you can walk from the ocean side to the harbour side in five or ten minutes. I spent most of the summer on the beach, body surfing and avoiding jelly fish. You got used to the nudity, to the very large cocks – I don’t think you were allowed to parade up and down the beach if you didn’t meet a certain length and/or girth requirement. (And I’m not going to say I developed a life-long complex here, obviously, because I have a gigantic penis, but let’s just say that I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in Manhattan there is a therapist who will never hear the end of this…) Of course, there were certain areas of the dunes, particularly between the Pines and its next door neighbor community, Cherry Grove, that we weren’t allowed to wander into. For pretty obvious reasons.

And I remember the deer. The deer were not fabulous on Fire Island. They seemed rangy, feral, diseased, possibly from years of inbreeding or the Lime disease carrying tics of which my sister and I were instilled with a pathological fear of: never touch a tree or leaf, we were told. Never step off the boardwalk. There were more female deer in the Pines than female humans, and my sister and I loved how torpid and tame they were. They’d walk right up to you as if it were a petting zoo. The gay community, not exactly being traditional hunter types, probably didn’t give the deer much to fear. If larger, these woeful creatures could probably have been mounted and ridden around like horses. (It’s not hard to imagine that this wasn’t tried once or twice after an all-night party.) Maybe in a hundred years they will be, or they’ll be domesticated like dogs.

There were dog trends in the Pines. Every year you’d see a particular breed. One year, everyone had Dalmatians. Then corgis. Then there was the year of the pug. (That was a dark, confusing year.) Then those snooty, anorexic racing dogs. What happened to the dogs when a trend outran a breed? This was unclear. It’s likely the untrendy breeds ended up in the more lesbian-centric Cherry Grove community, whole foster homes full of poodles abandoned like last year’s shoes.

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I remember The Invasion. This was the traditional summer weekend when the ferries and boats arrived full of drag queens. You just roll with it.

Of course, the Pines in the 80s, was a ground zero of loss. It’s likely that everyone lost someone to the AIDS epidemic, my father certainly did, and every weekend the community came together with benefits and other kinds of outreach programs. People came to the island to spend their last days. It was a fraught time to say the least, even a child could pick up on that, if not totally understand it. I remember posters for shows by Divine, of John Waters fame, and my father still speaks of extravagant benefit parties which featured Radio City Music Hall Rocketts, Chippendale dancers and Joan freaking Rivers doing whatever they do atop docked yachts. Plus fireworks.

Being the only children there wasn’t as strange as you might imagine. We were stared at a bit, sometimes, sure. People tried to figure out what we were doing there, probably, and whether we had stumbled into their homotopian world by mistake. Once, when I was about nine, likely due to my small arms, I was invited to take part in fisting orgy.

Kidding!

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Because, mostly, that kind of stuff didn’t register at all. Not in the least. And, if anything, we were treated like unicorns, like magical creatures, especially my adorable little sister, who I remember being particularly beloved. Everyone wanted to talk with her, maybe get her advice. What we couldn’t have known then, what nobody could have guessed, was that my sister and I were the harbingers of what was to come, that the off-island world would actually change, and change so quickly.

Seven years ago I returned to the Pines with my father, his husband and my own son to spend a week in a rented house. I hadn’t been in nearly twenty years. The change was incredible. There were children everywhere. Babies, toddlers, teens. And I got to watch my father, probably one of the few gay grandfathers, taking a second generation onto the beach of a place the world was finally starting to catch up to.

Tod Wodicka’s second novel, ‘The Household Spirit‘ was recently published by Jonathan Cape and Pantheon. He lives in Berlin, where he is at work on ‘Bathhouse’, his third novel. Read Tod’s piece for Amuse: ‘Tips for an Eight-Year-Old Me‘ on the whisky-fuelled, overdrawn realities of a day in the life of a writer.

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