"Once Upon A Time There Was A Place Called Fire Island"

For trans filmmaker Parker Sargent, Fire Island is more than just a vacation spot. This strip of sandbar south of Long Island is a place of acceptance, freedom and family. 

“It's very hard to exist in a world that doesn’t want you there, and Cherry Grove wants you there,” Sargent said. 

Sargent uses the lens of her camera to showcase the important histories of Fire Island. She is inspired by her community and their stories in her films, and the way she feels at home on Fire Island. 

Cherry Grove started as an escape for wealthy families from Sayville in the 1920s, a time in which same-sex intercourse — nevermind relationships — was widely illegal. Slowly, gay men began to find security in these dunes in the 1940s. By the 1960s, a popular vacation spot among the queer community of New York emerged. “[The Grove] existence was always based on protective isolation,” said historian Esther Newton in her book, “Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town.”

The Fire Island Pines Taxi Service in 1959. Courtesy of The Fire Island Pines Historical Society.

“Apparently this buffer is important.  Other queer communities were also protected by water, notably Provincetown and Key West,” Newton said in an interview. 

Fire Island is just 12 miles across the Great South Bay and it  protects Long Island from harsh waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The barrier island  has become known as a summer playground for wealthy visitors, but its communities tucked in its sandy dunes have served as haven for the queer community for almost a century. 

Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines — since the 1930s, queer New Yorkers have escaped to this secluded sandbar to claim the freedom to be open about their sexual and gender identity. These Fire Island communities and their histories now seek protection in the face of climate change.

Rising ocean waters threaten Fire Island. Since 1947, sea levels have risen an average rate of 0.13 inches annually, according to the National Park Service, which monitors the island’s wilderness. This means sea level has crawled up the shore nearly 10 inches in 70 years —  and it’s only expected to rise faster. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association estimates an intermediate rise of 1.5 feet by 2050, which would increase erosion of Fire Island’s sand dunes and lead to more frequent, intense flooding. 

Though Fire Island is not yet drowning, Suzy Goldhirsch, president of the Fire Island Association, which represents its 17 communities of homeowners, said the sea level rise is shown best in the changes of the Ferry service.

“Depending on the tide — high tide or low tide — you have a step,” said Goldhirsch, whose family has lived on Fire Island for six generations. “Usually, at high tide, there used to be one step. In the last 10 years, 8 years, 5 years, there is two steps. And now sometimes there is three steps.”

“And also sometimes, the ferries stop running, because the water is up over the dock, so they can’t see where the dock is,” she added. 

Goldhirsch also noted there is more flooding on the bay side of the island — the Great South Bay — during regular storms and nor’easters. 

Signs remind beach goers to stay off the dunes to protect them in Ocean Beach. By Julia Heming.

Signs remind beach goers to stay off the dunes to protect them in Ocean Beach. By Julia Heming.

Jordan Raphael, park biologist at the Fire Island National Seashore, called the fight against climate change “an uphill battle.” 

“We can do a management plan to conserve natural resources but how do you manage for sea level rise?” he questioned, noting, “It’s a global thing.” 

For many, the eradication of Fire Island seems inevitable. Robert Bonanno, president of the Fire Island Pines Historical Society, tells people that one day everyone will say, “once upon a time, there was a place called Fire Island.” 

Sargent, the filmmaker, fell in love with Fire Island in 2014, after visiting for the Invasion of the Pines, an annual drag celebration every Fourth of July weekend that started in 1976. She said she feels safe and comfortable in a way that she never had in New York. 

Fire Island has become a place of relaxation and freedom with nude beaches, drag bars, clubs and restaurants. It is a place where people escape to feel comfortable in their queerness and celebrate it. 

Invasion of the Pines in 1997. Courtesy of The Fire Island Pines Historical Society.

Invasion of the Pines in 1997. Courtesy of The Fire Island Pines Historical Society.

Sargent has created multiple documentaries based on the queer community on Fire Island. 

“My community is sort of asking me to make these films,” she said. Sargent said she is always working on multiple projects at once as she works to tell the stories of the community members that are aging and leaving the area.

Fire Island may not be an easy place to live at a certain age. It requires a 30-minute ferry ride to get there. There are no cars on the island, because of its protected federal park service. So, residents and visitors have to walk a mile or two to the only grocery around, or commute the dozen miles back toLong Island. Yet, this community continues, determined to share their history. 

“I make love letters to the community in my films,” she added. 

“The highlight is being able to live in a queer community that is where you are not the minority, we are the majority. It’s hard to explain this…but to gay people, you never feel 100% safe because at any point someone can bash you, whether it's verbally or physically, simply because they don't like who you are,” Sargent said.

She credits Fire Island for inspiring confidence as she embraced her gender identity.

In many ways, New York eventually caught up with Fire Island to embrace its queer community — same-sex marriage, expanding surrogacy options for LGBTQ families, and enforcement against hate.  To Sargent, Fire Island has remained a beacon, offering a different level of freedom and safety.

For Fire Island residents, the island is separated from the world to a point. They call going back home going back to “America” solely based on how different society is. Fire Island is its own world. 

“It represents where we just go and be ourselves and finally have a say over the narrative of our neighborhoods,” said New York City-based drag queen Bella Noche. 

Noche grew up in New York but was introduced to Fire Island when she was 22. 

Fire Island is more than just a space to vacation, the community is reliant on the seasonal influx of  visitors and workers dependent on jobs. 

For some, like Noche, the decision to perform on Fire Island is easy. “Performing in Fire Island is a little notch in the belt, it’s something for the resume,” she said. 

If Fire Island were to disappear, people who depend on those jobs would struggle. Business owners would lose their livelihoods, as well. 

“A lot of people would not have that viability for work, so economically it would have a big chunk of the gay community struggling,” Noche said. 

a group of white flowers

Bella Noche performing at the Albatross Bar in Ocean Beach, Fire Island in 2017. Courtesy of Bella Noche.

Bella Noche performing at the Albatross Bar in Ocean Beach, Fire Island in 2017. Courtesy of Bella Noche.

For Sargent, there is a level of understanding that rising sea level and extreme weather will radically change Fire Island. She said she discusses whether the island’s transformation will happen in her lifetime and ruin the cottage she and her wife have worked so hard to keep. 

She said she also recognizes that the loss of Fire Island would be the loss of a safe haven and historically rich place.

“If climate change has gotten so bad that Fire Island is decimated, humanity communities are going to have a bigger problem,” she said. 

This means should climate change permanently affect the ability to live on Fire Island, everyone would have somewhere else to live. Additionally, Sargent said she hopes that the global changes would require more attention than homophobia in society. 

The changes in economic access to the area has already begun to change the community, as a new generation enters the scene. 

Sargent noted there is an economic inequality that exists on Fire Island, since many of  these weathered bungalows and modern glass mansions are second, vacation homes. 

“It’s not like it was years ago when there was a really strong sense of community where people came together for a cause,” said Bonanno, from the Pines historical society. He points to the new trend of buying property as a source of income through short-term rental sites, like AirBnB — a stark difference from the community where “everyone knew everyone.” 

Despite his views that one day climate change will cause the ocean to swallow the Grove and the Pines, Bonanno said he still sees hope in the future of Fire Island — with a mix of natural barriers and house raising to keep the community resilient a little longer. 

“I do see a real renaissance coming for Cherry Grove, there is a lot of building going on and new ownership. I do believe by 2024 there will be a renaissance there.” 

The economic inequalities also means that the ability to visit the area or buy property there is not accessible for the entire queer community. 

“It is unfortunate though, there are a lot of queer people who can’t go to Fire Island for many reasons,” Noche said.

Until climate change is felt more, Sargent and her wife will spend their summer weekends getting on the ferry traveling across the bay and running into the open arms of the friends who have become so much more to them. 

“When it's your community and you return every year, it really is a family,” Sargent said.