From Fire Island to Palm Springs, Hope for a Great Gay Summer of ’21—But ‘Hope Doesn’t Pay the Bills’
Fire Island Pines inventory is at a record low, but the No. 1 question is: “What will it be like this summer?”
A calendar full of fun and reservations, every weekend packed with generation-long traditions and new experiences. Making your way through a club packed with people, the fact you’re rubbing up against someone’s sweat barely registering while in a state of bacchanalian euphoria. Snaking lines outside of restaurants, bars, and parties with excited revelers while Ubers and Lyfts pull up as if it were the gay Academy Awards. A season when your only concern is if you can even afford it all and if you can’t, there’s always another zero interest credit card you can apply for.
The queer summer of 2020 should have been an extended state of steam-blowing, relaxation and personal evolution: another season full of faded hand-stamps, empty bottles of Espolon, and thirsty Instagram shots surrounded by friends, acquaintances and strangers. Instead, as Andrew Kirtzman, the owner of the Madison Fire Island Pines, put it: “It was the strangest summer I’ve experienced in 40 years out here.”
Much like how the rest of the world stopped abruptly in its tracks thanks to the handiwork of the coronavirus pandemic, the LGBTQ community, knowing a trend when they see one, had no choice but to join on in. In its wake, it left a pent-up demand with the energy currently buzzing after the chasm the past year left in its wake. “The inventory for rentals this coming summer is at a record low,” says Kenny Sullivan, the resort director at Fire Island Pines, of the demand for lodging on the island. “We also have a lot of homeowners choosing to keep their homes this year instead of renting them out. They prefer 3,000 square feet of beachfront house as opposed to a 750-square foot apartment in Manhattan.”
Aside from scant hotels, including Sullivan’s eponymous Fire Island Hotel, visitors stay in homes or Airbnbs, largely rented out by a week or month at a time. Earlier this month, local haunts including Sip n Twirl, Pines Pizza, and Pines Pantry opened for the season. Meanwhile, indoor dining is (at press time) 75 percent. “From what I’ve seen online and heard from realtors, people are definitely going to be coming to the island and we’re going to be very busy this year,” says Sullivan. All this, despite the fact there’s no telling what the guidance from New York State will be come summer.
Not only were America’s gay vacation communities, whether the shores of New York’s Fire Island, the quaint village of Provincetown in Massachusetts, or the desert air of Palm Springs, California all monumentally altered for the past year, gay culture in general was also put on pause. “Within the LGBTQ community, as individuals we already have to go on this journey to understand ourselves,” explained Terron Moore, a media executive who lives in Long Island City. “When you think about the community and all of the ways in which we were starved of it, it feels unique. Everyone on earth is excited in their own way to get back to normalcy, but the queer community was stripped of so much of how we seek belonging and acceptance.”
And while some people partied in the midst of the pandemic, social distancing be damned (see: The Puerto Vallarta Uprising of 2020), Moore made Dr. Fauci proud and skipped out on what would have been his inaugural trip to Fire Island last year. A rite of passage for many queer people, it was a canceled vacation that would have been much more than a simple summer getaway.
“Going to Fire Island feels like a very particular and vital part of the gay experience, especially as a New Yorker,” Moore explains of the community, a gay mecca since 1952. “It’s a coming-of-age kind of thing and I was really looking forward to it, but it was a personal decision not to have my first trip be during a really uncertain and stressful time. It was definitely disappointing, but I do know friends who went and say they had a great time although it was much different than normal.”
At the Madison Fire Island Pines, a nine-room guest house located steps from the community’s main ferry dock and a short walk from the beach, Kirtzman realized right away that last summer was going to be a tough one. “We usually get a lot of bookings over the winter, but last March and April we were deluged with cancellations which drained our resources dramatically,” he remembers. “We must have lost $50,000 in bookings and we almost didn’t open the place. We were so worried the island was going to be deserted that we didn’t make the call until two weeks prior to Memorial Day.” While bookings did pick back up as the season proceeded, Kirtzman says people were forced to experience the getaway with a different perspective. “While there were illicit parties, people enjoyed the area more for the natural beauty and quiet than for the social life.”
The cultural touchstones that embody a quintessential Fire Island summer were also altered. The Invasion of the Pines, a previously sacrosanct 4th of July tradition dating back to 1976 during which a boat full of drag queens arrive at the dock and flaunt for a raucous and welcoming crowd was no exception. “Instead of 4,000 people lined up, it was 200 people seated at tables and being served,” explained Sullivan. “All of the queens came from neighboring Cherry Grove on a smaller boat. It wasn’t the chaotic crowds and loud music you’d see during a normal invasion, but at that point any kind of entertainment was damn good.”
It was that kind of tempered experience which was also felt in Provincetown, the popular queer Massachusetts getaway colloquially known as P-Town to spare the plight of saying an extra syllable. At the Boatslip, the iconic hotel and community hub known for its Tea Dances, they were also unsure if they were even able to open at all. “We didn’t know if anybody was even going to come if we did,” says Maryalice Kalaghan who holds the official title of the property’s Vibe Manager. She also DJs the tea dances. “They’re our moneymaker and we were eliminated from having them.”
In the face of uncertainty, Kalaghan and her team took a gamble and shifted normal operating procedure, which included serving food for the first time. “We hired a chef, got tables and put them on the deck and just used the facility in a different way,” she says, noting she was eventually ‘astounded’ at the number of people who came for the socially distanced, albeit muted, fun. “I’ve been here since 1993 and in my wildest nightmares I couldn’t have imagined anything like last year. At the same time, it was a great feeling to see an outpouring of support. Now the No. 1 question is, what will it be like this summer?”
Kalaghan isn’t alone facing that ubiquitous query. As vaccines roll out, restrictions begin to lift and the normalcy of life begins to resurface, all eyes now point toward the what could be the Great Gay Summer of ‘21. While President Biden promised in March that July 4th could be a benchmark when we could start seeing a resemblance of the Before Times, it’s a lingering question that so far has no clear answer.
When it comes to the Massachusetts guidelines that Provincetown adheres to, Kalaghan says so far there’s been little clarity aside from the fact she’s certain at least a normal Memorial Day Weekend won’t be in the cards. “We know people will be coming this summer but we don’t know what will be allowed,” she says. “When are we going to know? We can’t plan, but we’re already sold out for the 4th of July. It feels unfair because places like Fenway Park are opening and selling alcohol. We’re hoping we can at least do more than last year, but hope doesn’t pay the bills.”
It’s a conundrum West Coast counterparts are also grappling with. Trading the shores and quaint homes of Provincetown for the desert air, golf courses and pools of Palm Springs, locals and would-be visitors can’t help but muse about what’s in store for the future. Rob Giesecke, the owner of the airy queer spot Chill Bar, sardonically likened the past 12 months to a Kafka novel. “Watching people turn on one another was surreal and disheartening,” he says. “We’ve seen a broad range of responses to the pandemic, just like mainstream culture. Everything from extreme caution to nihilistic rebellion.”
In order to survive, Chill Bar’s pandemic plan mirrored the Boatslip in that they converted the nightclub, and its typical fare of cocktails and beer, into a full service restaurant. “I needed blind optimism to keep going,” Giesecke admits. “We’re not completely out of the woods yet from a public health perspective, but I think if we can stay safe until enough people have been vaccinated, our businesses and community will survive.” And while the typically busy time for Palm Springs is the fall season (that’s when the area’s sweltering temperatures decrease), he’s hopeful crowds could come earlier this year based on President Biden’s July 4 benchmark. “We’ll be fully ready by the fall, but the timeline means we’ll likely have a lot of people willing to brave the summer heat and visit us even sooner than that.”
Back on Fire Island, Sullivan has a similar attitude. “On a personal level, I’m a very optimistic person,” he says, noting he’s hearing cautious murmurings that events like the area’s famed Pines Party, canceled outright in 2020, will be held in some form. (This year’s theme is slated to be the deeply appropriate Return to Wonderland). “I’d like to think at some point this summer we’ll see an elevation to what a normal year looks like. But there are a lot of variables that depend on that which are out of my control. Depending on vaccinations and infections, we’re at the mercy of the laws set forth by the state of New York.”
Whether the scenarios lean positive or negative, one thing is certain: it’ll be a summer like no other, and travelers like Moore are clamoring for it. He booked his first Fire Island excursion for this coming Labor Day weekend and, in addition, is on the hunt for a possible trip even earlier than that. “I am just dying to go to a drag show,” he says. “I want to go so bad. There’s a palpable excitement in the air for summer, absolutely.”