The first time I went to Riis Beach in the Rockaways, I had no idea that I was about to enter a magical land of liberated queer and trans folks holding space together on the glittering sand. I packed my SPF and beach towel with the intention of simply lounging out and relaxing in the ocean with my femme friends — I had figured there might be a few fellow gays with whom we could congregate, but had no idea what I was in for. As we piled into the crowded Q35 bus, I looked around to find a sea of beautiful queers from all walks of life: some donning glitter in their chest hair, others sporting fishnet looks, and others sharing stolen kisses while crammed into one bus seat together. We were all headed to the same place — officially named The People’s Beach at Jacob Riis Park.
“When you look at the vast stretch of Riis Beach and the intense concentration of people at the queer end, I think it speaks volumes,” longtime Riis beachgoer Christine Davitt tells GO. The rest of the beach is dispersed with small pockets of families throwing frisbees and straight couples hosting summer BBQs. But as you enter the “queer” section of the beach, you can hardly see a patch of sand as our towels create an expansive and colorful quilt under a canopy of rainbow umbrellas that cover beautiful queer bodies.
The park area was named after social reformer and photojournalist Jacob Riis, who made his mark on society through documenting the wretched city living conditions for marginalized and poor communities. And the beach has long been a destination centered around community vibes like Riis’ work. “My family used to go [in the ‘90s] and we’d drive out to Riis when public transport didn’t go out there,” recalls lifetime Riis beachgoer Hudson Krakowski. “My dad would fill up the car and we’d drive out as a summer weekend activity. For first generation New Yorkers, it was where you went. Now, you’ll find people voguing in the water and feeling free to go topless.”
After renovations in 1937, Riis Beach quickly became a popular cruising destination and hotspot for gay men. Lesbian and queer women claimed a nearby spot at the sand in the 1950s and by the 1960s, the entire stretch of beach was teeming with a diverse array of LGBTQ people. While today Riis’s unnofficial, and to many, official moniker is New York’s queer beach, “normie” New Yorkers also feel comfortable at Riis and surrounding attractions. Riis has indeed evolved into a space known to be inclusive and welcoming to all.
Every year, you can find celebratory queer events on the beach — some queer people, who are called to the ocean instead of the streets, spend Pride weekend at Riis. There’s also an annual Fat Femme Beach Day and monthly queer sports games, just to name a few. “My first time at Riis may have been for the annual Fat Femme Beach Day,” Davitt recalls. “It was awe-inspiring to go to the beach and be surrounded by fellow queer, fat femmes.”
Last year, Ashley Young, who indentifies as non-binary, ventured out to Riis for the first time only knowing the one or two friends they were meeting up with. After walking through a sea of frat boys to get to the queer section, they immediately felt a sense of safety and comfort when surrounded by their community. “The energy was celebratory, vibrant, bright, and at the same time, peaceful,” Young says. “I felt received by many smiles, much conversation, and full-bellied laughter interacting with friends and queers who I was just meeting for the first time.”
If you are visiting New York City for the summer, it’s time to officially add Riis Beach to your list of must-visit activities. Even if you show up by yourself, you’ll leave with a stronger sense of a new community. “Everyone is so social and approachable. I know if I went on my own I’d still leave with ongoing connections,” Young affirms. As an annual regular at the beach, Davitt asserts that if you come as you are to Riis, you’ll be welcomed with open arms. “There’s no need to be nervous! Riis truly feels like a community and everyone is welcome there,” she says.
On your walk down the boardwalk from the bus stop to the rainbow umbrellas, you can stop for fish tacos, fried chicken waffle cones, or ice cream. You’ll likely meet lesbian moms on your walk, running around topless after their children. You might find gay men making out in the ocean with glitter streaming down their skin. You’ll definitely find people being their authentic selves. “Being able to be a trans person topless, it was very nice and it felt really good to not have to wear a swim top because that’s not something I identify with,” Krakowski tells GO. At Riis, queer and trans bodies are out and proud.
For more on the history of Riis Beach visit nyclgbtsites.org. For info on visiting Riis Beach this summer call (718) 318-4300 or visit nps.gov for general information. Visit mta.info/ for transit directions.