The Best Island in New York?

Fire Island has long been a place where members of the LGBTQ community could openly express themselves. As one young man finds, the barrier island that stretches alongside Long Island, New York—only accessible by ferry and completely car-free—is still a unique and safe escape. Nick Santa-Donato shares the story of his first experiences there, the self-discoveries he made, and the liberation of finally finding a community where being different is the norm.

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I always knew that it was going to be OK when I came out, but it was still the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Even if you're surrounded by unconditional love and support every day, you have to face heteronormativity, face the fact that you're different. It wasn't until I went to Fire Island, which is completely saturated in LGBTQ culture, that I looked back at the rest of the world—all the advertisements and movies that are from a heterosexual perspective—and realized how affected I was by this culture I don't identify with.

At the Blue Whale for Low Tea, a nightly cocktail event.
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I didn't expect the community of Fire Island to hit me that way. When a timeshare there fell into my lap (a few friends and I hopped on last-minute to fill a house), I thought it was just going to be a vacation version of hanging out in Brooklyn. But there's something different about Fire Island. All across the community there's a feeling of: "We are gay, and we are all gay together. This is our space, these are our homes, and no one can take that from us."

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The famous Fire Island Lighthouse, which was built in 1858. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

Making a Home

Every Friday night there's an underwear party at the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove. I don't really go to those kinds of gay bars back home, so walking into this space full of nearly naked men was overwhelming—not because I felt attracted to a lot of them, but because I felt so much love being around all these queens whowere celebrating their bodies.

Strong floatie game on Fire Island

On a more intimate level, when my friends and I are hanging out on our deck, we feel free to prance around and be impulsive. The first weekend we were there, my friend Eric and I arrived first, and when the other members of the house got there, we greeted them with a spontaneous lip-syncing performance of "Mysterious Ways" from The Color Purple. When it was over, I was like, "We're so gay. It's unbelievable."

Hanging by the pool at the timeshare

It's not that we wouldn't be able to sing and dance back home, but on the island, there's this additional layer of unconditional safety. This island culture was even more important in the '60s and '70s when gay culture was extremely restricted. Fire Island was really a safe haven where people could come to be themselves for the weekend. It still retains that feeling today.

Celebrating Individuality

Of course, there's still a big community of peacocking and showing off your amazing body. Everywhere you look there are these Adonises strolling around with their shirts off. On one hand, it's a feast for the eyes, but on the other, it's intimidating. I wonder whether or not it's perpetuating the idea of vapid gay men who spend all their time in the gym, but don't really have much substance otherwise. There is a little bit of a sassy edge to the culture—it's easy to feel self-conscious around that.

Santa-Donato with a favorite accessory

But I've also realized recently that I care less about that than I used to. Fire Island is also my space, just as much as it's a space for sex and showing off your body. It's a space for being yourself, so if I want to go to a pool party wearing a T-shirt and backwards baseball cap, I'm going to do that.

A car-free island means lots of long walks on the beach

I do still have to check my self-consciousness, though. It's very internal—I see all these good-looking people and think, How does that make me look? But then I see someone walking into the bar wearing a 1950s swimming cap with embroidered flowers and think, OK, I'm fine, because he's being his truest self, and he's a star.

Fire Island is also home to some serious nature with 26 miles of shoreline, dunes, and maritime forests. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

A New World

Fire Island is not for everyone, but, for me, having this experience has shaped a greater self-confidence in my day-to-day life. I now feel more comfortable striking up a conversation with someone new or looking people in the eye when I first meet them. Being exposed to a place where I feel completely at home has led to a process of self-discovery that translates beyond the Island, because I always know I have this place to go back to. I don't think that there's anywhere else like it on Earth.

To plan your own Fire Island escape, see fireislandferries.com.

Follow Santa-Donato at @nsantadonato.

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