A Black Man Ran to Gay Enclaves to Feel Safe. But Was He Welcome?

Zach Stafford, The New York Times, April 29, 2022

Zach Stafford, the former editor in chief of The Advocate, traveled to gay safe havens as he has for so many summers, but the summer of 2020 was different.


Just days after the pandemic made landfall in New York City in the spring of 2020 — and right as the city streets became ghostly reminders of what was — I began to run every morning.


I’d run down the West Side Highway as the sun slowly crawled across Manhattan from the East River. I’d run through the empty avenues that dice up the West Village, passing bars and restaurants I used to get too drunk in. And I’d run, and then I’d run some more.


Once it became apparent that the pandemic was not ending anytime soon, I decided to get in my car and run away even farther to communities that I had grown to love and where I thought I would feel safer.


Before the pandemic hit, I had become one of those gays who spent his summers or special holidays at one of the various famous gay towns that were popularizedin the 1960s. It first began with the lesser-known (and less expensive) Saugatuck, Mich., which bills itself as the “most gay-friendly small town in Michigan” and is popular among vacationers from Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis.


Then as I made more money and more friends, I graduated to renting in Palm Springs, then to Provincetown on the very tip of Cape Cod and finally to the most exclusive: Fire Island Pines, the out-of-the-way vacation spot on Long Island. These places are regarded as aspirational for many L.G.B.T.Q. people not only because they are beautiful, but because there are so few places in the world where you can just let your hair down and be yourself.


So,when the world turned upside down and everything seemed to no longer make sense, I escaped to Fire Island to hide. As I was running down the wooden walkways of the Pines, I passed “Black Lives Matter” signs and began to feel the heat inside me grow. A question kept rattling inside my head I’d never really considered before: If these places love Black people so much, why do none of us live here?


Fire Island isn’t a big place. There about 650 homes and about 300 residents year-round in the Pines, meaning an entire apartment building in New York City could house the community that lives there. Next door is Cherry Grove, a smaller and more economically accessible area of the island that is known to have more women. Fire Island is in Suffolk County, where Black residents make up less than 9 percent of the population.


So exactly how many Black people own homes there?

“I didn’t know too many people of color at all,” Alejandro Varela, 42, author of “The Town of Babylon,” said of other homeowners who are of color. “I didn’t even feel comfortable asking.”


Mr. Varela bought a home in Cherry Grove with his partner last summer. “Often when I ran into a person of color they were the only ones in that group,” he said.


Queer people of color and transgender people know how complicated any space considered L.G.B.T.Q.-inclusive can be. For years, there has been tension about who is represented by larger efforts for equality and what equality even looks like for all of us. (Even in the upcoming film starring the comedians Bowen Yang and Joel Kim Booster, called “Fire Island,” we can see an effort to show people in queer spaces that don’t center solely on white gay men.)


When it comes to racial equity within the movement, there is a lack of focus on issues that weigh most on Black L.G.B.T.Q. folks, particularly Black transgender women. Black transgender women continue to be overrepresented in rising homicide rates impacting transgender people. When there have been efforts to fold movements like Black Lives Matter into Pride Parades, there has been resistance even though the modern L.G.B.T.Q. rights movement began as a response to police brutality.


This disconnect stretches into housing access: Black L.G.B.T.Q. people making up a disproportionate number within the already stunning statistic that L.G.B.T.Q. youth at large make up 40 percent of all youth homelessness.


These issues are acute on the tiny, remote Fire Island. “Everything happening in the wider world has been happening in this microcosm called Fire Island,” says Tomik Dash, 38, president and founder of Black and Brown Equity Council of Cherry Grove (BaBEC), a social justice organization on Fire Island that he co-founded in the summer of 2020. “People come here thinking the outside world doesn’t touch here, but it absolutely does.”


Like me, Mr. Dash ran there, too, in the summer of 2020. Like me, he had fallen in love with Fire Island, first going there in the summer of 2015 as a day-tripper, lounging on the beach before heading to Low Tea, a popular happy hour on the island that was being D.J.-ed byone of the most beloved artists on the island, Lina Bradford, a Black transgender woman. He was hooked, returning for a longer stay the only way he could afford to at the time by finding summer jobs there that also provided housing. Eventually, he figured out a way to buy a share within the elusive Pines rental network that remains competitive. But summer 2020 was different, as the video of the murder of George Floyd replayed again and again.People began speaking about their experiences in ways he’d never seen before.


Then the graffiti incident happened, and everything changed for him.


Someone spray-painted ‘BLM’ on a building in Cherry Grove, a Facebook debate broke out and a division was made very clear. Some white residents commented that the community must find out who had done this and involve law enforcement. Others tried to remind people that calling the police would only perpetuate the issues that the graffiti was trying to raise. Mr. Dash watched this online debate breakout before moderators had to shut it all down and decided that he’d publish his own response to some white residents to stop being anti-Black.


“Fire Island, more specifically the neighborhoods of Cherry Grove and the Pines, are often touted as two of the most welcoming destinations in the country for people in the LGBT+ community,”he wrote in the new magazine he had just launched on the island. “But recent events have validated what I have known for a long time. These places don’t always feel welcoming to everyone, and particularly not to Black and brown people.”


Days later, Victor Jeffreys II and Angelo DeSanto, artists and activists, held a Black Lives Matter march on the beach with more than 300 people showing up in support. With this momentum, a movement on the island took hold that continues today with a variety of initiatives led by BaBEC and a similar group called Committee on Black Equality, including Juneteenth-focused events.


Their goal through this work is to make the island a place where people of color can now run to and feel more welcome. A big part of this work that the groups continue to champion and have yet to solve is housing, with their goal being to diversify the homeownership of the entire area as a structural solution to the inequities they see there.


“This is the hardest one,” Mr. Dash told me while discussing the dreams of more accessible housing.Average home sales were around $550,000 in Cherry Grove and over $1M in the Pines — and that was before the pandemic. “Barriers to homeownership is something that doesn’t just exist in Fire Island— it’s a systemic thing that exists in our entire country.”


The group has considered doing unconscious bias training with real estate agents to maybe help solve it, but even that doesn’t get to the root cause of the matter. Black queer people just do not have access to the same capital yet.


During the pandemic, a flurry of organizations mostly led by Black transgender people have all tried to deal with this issue head-on— even outside the perceived safety of these famous gay enclaves that really became cemented during the H.I.V./AIDS crisis as safe havens.


Organizations like G.L.I.T.S, led by Ceyenne Doroshow, raised over $1 million to provide stable housing for trans people in New York City as the pandemic hit. In New Orleans, the House of Tulip, a trans-led group, raised funds and not only began providing real housing options to mostly L.G.B.T.Q. folks of color there but has done so through securing land trusts in the state of Louisiana. Even in Colorado, we’ve seen an alpaca farm called the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch emerge that provides housing and job support for mostly transgender and gender-nonconforming people.


In Provincetown, city officials are trying to reroute money to create more affordable housing as the pandemic only continues to make it more and more expensive.


So, some change is happening slowly— and that does have some people feeling optimistic. But there’s still a lot of work to do.


Lola Flash, 63, is ready for a more racially inclusive Fire Island.


“I think it’s a perfect place for that change that needs to happen,” they recently told me. “Those guys out there are CEOs of this and that and if we can get them to start thinking differently and embrace difference then a change will come.”


“Maybe not in my lifetime, but some time,” they continued.


Mx. Flash, a prolific Black queer photographer whose work is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art, has been summering on the island since the 1990s, through a combination of renting shares, staying with friends, and last year,through the BOFFO artist residency. Similar to Mr. Dash, they have heard about their fair share of microaggressions from other vacationers while there, but says they never really thought about race in a big way until 2020.


The artist decided to do a series of works entitled “Unsung Fire Island” where they interviewed various queer people of color who were on the island about their experiences there and also took their portraits. Mx. Flash says the conversations all held similar themes and stories in them too. The common refrain was just how alone they felt among seas of mostly white gay men.


A sentiment I knew all too well.


Members of a community I held so dear to my heart were finally joining in a movement to save a body like mine. But I was angry that it took this long, that not even stories of Marsha P. Johnson and Stonewall could get them to say my life really mattered until a pandemic stopped life as they knew it.


And it mixed with a fear that this moment wouldn’t sustain itself, that once the summer passed they’d go back to business as usual and their lives —and the houses they lived in — would take down the Black Lives Matter signs and act like it never happened. “There’s a lane called Black Duck Lane right when you get off the ferry, and I want it to have all Black homeowners on it,” Mx. Flash told me while giggling as they pitched to me the idea that they had discussed with the only Black homeowner currently on the street. “We were talking about how great it would be if it was all Black homes.”


Mx. Flash laughed because Black people on Black Duck Lane would be funny, but they also laughed nervously, because that day is so far away. But the dream of this happening is what leads us to a radical hope:We need a world where race and money are not obstacles to going on vacation in a place where we hope we are welcome.


“All humans should have the time to relax and de-stress and go to a place that is fun and enjoy the ocean,” Mr. Varela told me. “It shouldn’t be about how wealthy you are.”


“If it exists and you’re queer, then you should have access to this.”