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The Fire Island Invasion

Tuesday, 05 July 2016 Written by // Félix Garmendía Categories // Pride, Community Events, Activism, Festivals, Gay Men, International , Lifestyle, Living with HIV, Félix Garmendía

Felix Garmendia says, "This is how we do it in Fire Island. Happy 4th of July!"

The Fire Island Invasion

“Invasion of Normandy”= World War II

“British Invasion”= The Beatles

“Invasion Of The Body Snatchers”= epic horror movie

“FIRE ISLAND INVASION”= ship full of men wearing dresses

The communities of “Cherry Grove” and “The Pines” on Fire Island have been the summer playground for gay people for many decades and these historic “gay communities” are an integral part of New York’s vibrant gay scene.

People from all over the world flock every summer to enjoy the beautiful nude beach, to cruise in “The Meat Rack”, (a wooded area connecting both communities, popular for clandestine rendezvousand relax in a magical, peaceful yet exciting little hamlet on a barrier island paradise just hours from New York City.

I've always thought of Fire Island as the closest "other planet" to the capital city of the world (New York).Drag queens have always been part of the Cherry Grove experience but were not very welcome and practically forbidden in the more affluent and conservative Fire Island Pines of the 70s.

Way back in 1976, a Cherry Grove drag queen was denied service at a popular Pines restaurant and bar called the "Boatel". Upon hearing about this blatant lack of respect and discriminatory behavior against one of her sisters, Cherry Grove’s Homecoming Queen, Panzi, decided to organize a small group of 9 brave Cherry Grove drag queens and "invade" the Pines. They hired a boat and headed to the Pines thus commencing the first “invasion”.

Fully expecting some kind of confrontation, the opposite turned out to be the case. Pines men were so surprised and entertained by this “Drag Queen Invasion” that they welcomed them all with hospitality, adulation and FREE DRINKS at the Blue Whale Bar.

The "Invasion" was destined to become an annual tradition and celebration attracting hundreds of drag queens and thousands of spectators who find their way to Fire Island every 4th of July.

Now, forty years after, Cherry Grove, Fire Island, still celebrates “The Invasion”. People from all over the world come to celebrate, “Independence Day”. It has been a long time since the “Theater people” (a term used by 95 year old post mistress, Jean Skinner, to describe the gay people who first arrived in the 1930s) made Cherry Grove their home away from home.

"Over the decades, LGBT people have created an oasis of cultural and historical reaffirmation of queer pride (not to mention a delightfully hedonistic, bacchanalia of cocktail parties, nude beaches and sex)." 

When the stars and planets align and with some planning and luck you can get from the chaos and cacophony of traffic choked Manhattan to this barrier island oasis in less than 3 hours. Cherry Grove has no traffic because there are no cars. There are no cars because there are NO roads. Cherry Grove thoroughfares are wooden boardwalks that traverse the community. “See you on the boards” is a common “goodbye” expression in Cherry Grove.

Over the decades, LGBT people have created an oasis of cultural and historical reaffirmation of queer pride (not to mention a delightfully hedonistic, bacchanalia of cocktail parties, nude beaches and sex). Cherry Grove was indeed, the first LGBT town in the United States. In a woefully closeted and oppressive world, Cherry Grove was a safe, glorious refuge. Cherry Grove, Fire Island was the epicenter of the gay universe in the summer.

History and tradition dictate that the Invasion must take place ON July 4th, whatever day of the week that may fall on. Hints of the festivities can be seen as early as the day before when guys start arriving on the ferry carrying wig boxes, and carefully handled garment bags.

Drag queens and spectators continue to pour into Cherry Grove all morning. By noontime, the dock and walkways sparkle with jettisoned glitter, and an occasional escaped sequin, as well as wisps of feather boa particles. By 12 noon downtown Cherry Grove is packed with shoulder to shoulder spectators waiting for the festivities to begin.

The ritual starts with Cherry Grove’s own “Dame Edna” with a bullhorn introducing and in some cases interviewing the drag queens. This would be akin to the “red carpet” portion of the Oscars. Cherry Grove has its own stable of resident, superstar drag queens that include, “China”, “Rose Levine”, “Bella”, “Cobra”, “Charity”, “Porsche”, “Ariel Sinclair”, “Anita Greencard”, “Holly Woo” and of course the founder of the Invasion, “Panzi Hanson”. One year, my friend Carl was “Little Orphan Annie” who carried a sign saying “Your son will come out tomorrow”.

After the Dame Edna, red carpet portion of the show comes the next segment. Panzi takes the bull horn and announces it’s time to board the ferry. Spectators line the boardwalk and the dock as each drag queen saunters their way to the ferry. It’s half parade, half runway fashion show. Nobody is allowed on the ferry unless they are in drag, a rule that’s strictly enforced.

I should point out that sprinkled among the drag queens a handful of “drag KINGS” can also be found. Denise as “Elvis Presley” is there every year. (See below for a photo of a handsome, bearded, proper looking gentleman in a red bow tie and military uniform, alleged to be none other than Isabella Rossellini who showed up in 2004.)

Panzi proceeds to lead the way and clear the path for the glamorous, comedic, sarcastic, as well as historical personalities such as Frida Kahlo, Marylyn Monroe, Mona Lisa. Two Cleopatras showed up one year and almost scratched each other’s eyes out. The Virgin Mary paid a visit riding on the back of a real, live donkey.

Panzi continues to herd the parade to the ferry. The entire day is an exhilarating spectacle, an explosion of color, creativity and joyous excess. Participants and spectators alike are totally absorbed in the carnival energy and fantasy. Finally, the ferry is full, the decks overflowing with feathers, glitter, sequins, and tongue and cheek mischief.

With deafening applause and cheering, whistles blowing, sirens blaring, the massive ship slowly groans away from the dock with its cargo of about 20 tons of drag queens. The trip to The Pines takes about 15 minutes.

Just about every living soul in the Pines is at the harbor to greet the ferry. The greeting in the Pines is just as exuberant as the departure from the Grove. The drag queens exit the ferry with the same style, grace and campy attitude they employed when they boarded the boat in cherry Grove.

As the last stiletto heel disembarks the ship, the INVASION commences. To make up for the rudeness, discrimination, and un-lady like treatment endured by the pioneer drag queens back in 1976, the Pines bars allow the drag queens to DRINK FOR FREE all day. If you’re in a dress, you don’t pay.

The “girls” invade all of the local bars and restaurants where they are treated like royalty (duh… they are queens, right?). At the bars, they are surrounded by Pines gym boys and men eager to mingle and be photographed with them. The more glamorous, campy, outrageous drag queens seem to attract the most attention so squeezing a fat ass into a girdle and tracking down size 11 red high heels is well worth the effort. The festivities last for hours and hours.

Fire Island is a magical place. The annual Invasion of the Pines makes it even more magical and unique.

Felix Garmendia as Frida Kahlo

First six photographs, except for Isabel Rossellini, by Abnel Rodríguez  

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