To most people, Fire Island is the land of gay, but to Long Island families, it’s the land of beach days, overpriced crab, and towering ice cream cones. I spent many a weekend with my richer-than-me friends there, in their parents’ shabby chic homes, painting sea shells and bringing back magnets from the gift shop for my parents, blissfully unaware of all the gay babes a few miles away. I had no idea this was where queers came to turn up.
That’s right, me, the gayest Long Island lez in the world, hung out on Fire Island for years without knowing it was lesbo central. That’s because I’d go to the “family” (aka boring) section called OBP. Yes, dear lez, there is more to Fire Island than Cherry Grove and The Pines. And yes, I agree, those areas are irrelevant.
Anyway, I spent a lot of uneventful days on Fire Island. But there’s one that I will never forget.
Our big, loud Sicilian family was amped about our Labor Day pilgrimage to Fire Island (we didn’t have enough money to stay overnight, those houses are expensive, honey), but we always made the best of our day trips and balled out buying food, drinks, and souvenirs. Every Long Island girl has an endless supply of Fire Island sweatshirts. We had just missed the ferry to OBP, so we had to wait for the Cherry Grove ferry and walk to our destination.
“Just don’t sing the YMCA,” my Uncle joked (every Italian family has a lowkey homophobic uncle but you love him anyway because he makes amazing sauce, cries at weddings, and gives you $20 every time he sees you). I didn’t understand this reference at all. I was sitting next to my childhood BFF, Lindsay, both of us feeling cool AF in our Abercrombie polos and denim shorts.
“What does he mean about the YCMA?” I whispered to Lindsay.
“I dont know,” she whispered back. Then she proceeded to do the YCMA (always a little rule breaker, that girl). A few skinny tank-top clad men whooped next to us and did the YMCA too. My mom eyed us in disapproval.
I was probably around 11 years-old, and while I was acutely aware that I was “different,” I didn’t have language for it yet. I regularly watched porn and obsessed over my dad’s dirty magazines, but I wasn’t quite sure what a lesbian was. I thought I might be one without knowing what it meant, but I had never heard the word, let alone met one in person.
We decided to wait for the ferry in the bar/restaurant right by the dock. As soon as we entered, I feasted my eyes on the biggest group of Long Island butches and femmes I had ever seen. It was sort of like the lesbian version of “Grease,” how into butch/femme they were: the femmes hanging on the butches, the butches eating out of their perfectly manicured hands (a LI femme never gives up her acrylics, not even for lesbianism). They were all drinking like they were going to the electric chair. They all seemed so free, so happy, so unapologetically sexual.
One of them was wearing a shirt that said “New Dyke, Teach Me” and another was carrying a sign that said “Taste The Rainbow.” They were ready AF for the turn up. After all, opening weekend on Fire Island is a HUGE DEAL. I hardly touched my chicken fingers and fries (a big deal as I was an obese child) because I was so distracted by the dykes. I hadn’t really thought about what “gay” was, but somehow I intrinsically knew that they were. I intrinsically knew that I was.
“Shots for everyone!” a butch covered in rosary tattoos declared. My mom shook her head in disapproval and sipped her Pinot Grigio. Lindsay seemed unaffected, slurping down her Shirley Temple. How was I the only one that was completed fascinated by these women?! I couldn’t get enough. I hoped we’d get on the same ferry as them, and much to my delight, we did.
Then their fun really began. They drank beer out of paper bags and blasted music on their boom boxes. A bunch of them took their tops off and chilled in their skimpy bikini tops. I pretended to be interested in a racing boat next to our ferry, but obviously couldn’t take my eyes off of their cleavage, their ponytails, their swagger.
The leader of the pack, an obnoxious but lovable softball lez made her way to the front of the ferry.
“If you’re a lesbian say YEAH!”
The ferry erupted with, “YEAH.”
She got a cocky look on her face. “If you’re a lesbian say HELL YEAH!”
“If you’re interested in my friend,” she pointed to the New Dyke, “say f*ck yeah!”
I wanted to yell f*ck yeah, but I knew my mom would whoop my ass. I could not stop staring at these women. There was something “different” about them. Maybe it was the keys clipped to their belt loops, maybe it was their tattoos, maybe it was their unabashed personalities… or maybe it was because they were all making out with each other. My heart rate was increasing by the second. I wasn’t interested in leaning over the side of the ferry with Lindsay, our tradition, purposely getting sprayed with the waves and squealing with delight, our eyes burning from the salt. Instead my eyes burned from forgetting to blink as I desperately wished I wasn’t a fat eleven-year-old squeezed into JC Penny shorts, but a 25 year old femme in a bikini, heading to have the weekend of a lifetime.
Lindsay seemed curious about these women, but not moved to her core like I was. “I think they’re gay,” she remarked, then went back to fiddling with her disposable camera. But I was mesmerized.
My mind raced with thoughts. Will that ever be me? When can I grow up?
As a child, I was always, always, always eager to be an adult. I spent all my free time day dreaming about being a writer and getting tattoos and living in an apartment. I also spent all my free time thinking about sex. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to have it. Until then, I spent time watching porn, devouring whatever I could. I remember being like five years old and asking my mom how long until I cold kiss someone with tongue. Yes, my mom made me see a therapist.
Now, my fantasies about wanting to grow up were even more intense. I spent all day in my head, willing myself to time travel to when I could be one of the lit ass lesbians on the ferry.
My family seemed uncomfortable. They kept their gaze down, and refused to look at or laugh with the rest of the ferry. I knew better than to ask them questions.
When the ferry pulled in and all the gays erupted in cheers, my mom and aunts ushered Lindsay and I off the boat, and away from the bars teeming with rum and drag queens. We trudged to the land of lobster rolls, graphic tee shirts, and sunblock covered noses. It was safe. Sanitary. Family oriented. Boring.