The communities of “Cherry Grove” and “The Pines” on Fire Island, have been the summer playground for LGBT people for many decades. These historical “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) and 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. According to popular folklore, 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 group of nine brave Cherry Grove drag queens and "INVADE" the Pines. They hired a boat and commenced 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 to much adulation and FREE drinks at the Blue Whale bar. The "Invasion" was destined to become an annual tradition and celebration attracting hundreds and hundreds of drag queens who find their way to Fire Island every 4th of July.
I was introduced to Fire Island by my friend Julio during the summer of 1989 when I was a graduate student at NYU. The first time I saw and felt the energy of the Cherry Grove community, I was completely taken by it. It was love at first sight. We walked around the island, enjoying the beautiful landscape surrounded by enchanting sand dunes that guarded the nude beach, no noisy traffic because there are no cars, no cars because there are no roads. We had drinks and danced at the “Ice Palace” bar and disco, enjoyed talking to the residents and visitors and had a fantastic time that will be etched in my memory forever.
These days my husband Denis and I have a house in Cherry Grove. Since we met, during the summer of 1997, we have spent many summers in our beach house.
Since I was now part of the Cherry Grove community, it was only logical to embrace the community’s celebrations so I decided to do “The Invasion”. I have done this previously as a more glamorous drag queen but during the summer of 2003, I decided to honout my hero, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (the one who made the "unibrow" famous). I have a very special connection to this artist, because she is a role model of strength and will to live in spite of her many illnesses and severe physical disabilities. Frida lived her life creatively and triumphantly.
I went shopping for an appropriate outfit with a friend who had decided to join me, dressed as Cleopatra. He came all the way from Puerto Rico to experience the exuberance of irony, humour, fantasy and beauty of the 2003 Fire Island’s invasion. We arrived at our house the day before so we would have sufficient time to properly prepare ourselves for our homage to our icons for the 4th of July festivities.
The day came and we woke up very early. We went to have breakfast at a nearby restaurant and witnessed the ferries arriving full of men carrying huge amounts of luggage filled with their drag magic. We went home, got dressed and headed for the center of the town to join the festivities.
There were photographers everywhere and all kinds of characters from Unicorns to "Little Orphan Annie" (who carried a sign that read, "Your SON will come out, tomorrow”). The cast of characters included a walking version of "Mona Lisa" (frame and all), as well as a depiction of JonBenet Ramsey twirling a parasol with the message, “Daddy Did It”. Yes, there’s all kinds of edgy humor at the invasion, from light to dark.
I couldn’t believe the camaraderie and the joy on everybody's faces. There were hundreds and hundreds of faces, decorated with glitter, exuberant, amazing and often "over the top" make-up.
When the celebrations were over and the tons of make-up scraped off, I reflected on the entire experience and started to analyze my choice to honor Frida Kahlo. I wasn't interested in being "just a pretty face". I wanted to portray someone who I have always thought of as an iconic, strong and fearless example of womanhood.
When I became Frida Kahlo for a day, I realized my special connection with her had to do with my very essence. I thought of my fight and struggle with HIV and my disability that has landed me in a wheelchair. I thought of Frida and the message of her life, a message that drives my will to not only keep on living, but to do so with strength, style and creativity.
Frida taught me that there can be beauty and indeed TRIUMPH in what appears to be a broken body. Especially when a vibrant soul resides there and, indeed blossoms in that body with the power of a warrior who wants to LOVE and LIVE!