You will find paradise close to home.
Fire Island, a narrow, 32-mile barrier island off the coast of Long Island, features two communities that have long served as a queer utopia and safe haven for members of the LGBTQ community.
A riveting new book, “Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise,” by British author Jack Parlett, pays tribute to the strange side of Fire Island by telling the resort’s history through the eyes of famous writers who wrote about it throughout history.
“I was just completely fascinated by it,” Parlett, 30, told the Daily News, of his first visit to the island’s LGBTQ hamlets, Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines in the summer of 2017.
With its beautiful beaches, legendary parties, and rich cultural history, Fire Island is celebrated in Parlett’s entrenched book as a magical island known for the campy folly of a boatload of drag queens who “invade” harbor every July 4, or the hedonistic sexual culture in the Fire Island Pines that’s still “alive and well,” writes Parlett, or the weekly underwear parties in Cherry Grove.
But it’s also a place where queer people can call themselves home, strengthen ties with their chosen families, and come together as a community to fight the devastation caused by the AIDS epidemic.
It’s also a summer paradise that has also been criticized for historically being more accessible to a privileged group, as Parlett points out.
James Baldwin, a frequent visitor to Cherry Grove in the 1950s and 1960s, cautiously noted that he entered a “primarily white, middle-class gay world,” Parlett writes. Six decades later, after his first visit to the Pines, Parlett could feel himself “becoming more neurotic about my eating and exercise habits” and even bleaching his hair “to mimic the kind of sun-kissed slenderness that I found on the early morning dance floor.”
Parlett, a literary scholar who focuses on queer studies and teaches American literature at the University of Oxford, was living in New York at the time while doing research for his Ph.D. about poets and gay cruising.
As part of his investigation, he headed to the area where American poet Frank O’Hara died at age 40, just days after he was hit by a buggy in the dunes of Fire Island Pines in July 1966. a gay town since the mid-20th century, Fire Island has deep ties to some of the most important names in queer art and literature in the world, including Walt Whitman, Patricia Highsmith, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, and Janet Flanner.
“I’ve been reading these poets and suddenly I saw for myself the place where so many of them have been and spent time – after that I just couldn’t stop thinking about this place,” he added.
Shortly after that summer, Parlett decided to work on a ‘literary story of the place’, a project that expanded beyond the literary world and turned into a critical love letter to the community’s history, cultural significance, HIV/AIDS activism and the role it has played. played in the queer liberation movement, while also looking at ways Fire Island can be exclusive.
While working on the book, Parlett wanted to “follow in the footsteps of certain writers on the island” by bringing together the Fire Island of WH Auden, Edmund White, and many of the gay writers who hit the scene in the 1970s. “What it was like to be there, but also what it was like to be queer in New York, what it was like to experience community or exclusion in these different historical eras,” he said.
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Despite Cherry Grove’s long-held claims of being “America’s first gay and lesbian city,” Parlett said he was less interested in “making authoritative claims about ‘this is the first’.” [queer community]’ and more focused on finding answers to questions like ‘what has the mythology of this place been like and how has it affected our sense of community over time?’
Writing as an outsider, Parlett wanted to lean in his research to do justice to the place while offering a critical portrait. “I see the book not only as a celebration, but also as something that tries to tap into the more complicated aspects of Fire Island as a space.”
For decades, the mystique of a sun-kissed gay Xanadu, just two hours east of New York City, is heightened by its prominence in popular culture.
There was the Kelly Ripa produced reality show called “Fire Island” which aired on Logo in 2017; the Tony Award-winning play “The Inheritance” that ran on Broadway in 2019; and the rom-com starring Kim Booster and “Saturday Night Live” star Bowen Yang, aka “Fire Island,” which premiered on Hulu this month.
“I didn’t mean to write authoritative history because I think a lot of people who have different experiences with Fire Island will have different claims to it as a space and different claims to its history,” Parlett said.
“For me, [the book] feels like a reaction to Fire Island as a place, [and] what we can learn from it.”