We kick off a month of #tripping with Fire Island Black Out, New York’s outrageous multi-racial gay beach bash
All this month, we're tripping out with daily adventure stories. Iconic journeys, recent travels, sideways looks at out-there places and the sharpest of shots of the world’s underreported zones. Everest to Ibiza. Sahara to Big Sur. Under the sea to higher than God. Check back daily on dazeddigital.com/tripping. Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused, this article tells the story of Fire Island in New York:
Fire Island has been New York’s homo getaway for decades now. Its appeal is best captured in photographer Tom Bianchi’s sun-kissed Polaroids of tanned 70s torsos, virile moustaches and straining Speedos; from those pictures, you might also spot just how white Fire Island once was. Things started to change ten years ago when 50 African-American friends headed to Cherry Grove and turned it into the annual Fire Island Black Out (FIBO). It’s grown year on year – now it’s a 5,000-strong gay weekend, still mostly black, but most definitely open to all. It’s also opened its attendees’ eyes to the general appeal of the island, a place where the promise of fun and sex and sun and more sex gets everyone giddy.
Cherry Grove may be older and hippier than the island’s most popular spot, The Pines, which is all A-gays (because of the insane house rental costs), but for one August weekend every year it plays host to this “premier multicultural event for the LGBT community and their families and friends,” a boring way of saying it’s a massive beach party with dutty wining in the sand, complimentary pear cognac and decidedly directional swimwear.
On the boat I’m sat next to a distinguished gentleman with grey stubble. Two hours later he’s in fluoro pink tanga trunks, knob outlined, giggling and flirting on the shoreline
FIBO is freedom, FIBO is fantasy, FIBO is the characters you meet along the way. On the boat over there, I sit next to a distinguished gentleman with grey stubble, wispy eyebrows and a neatly packed picnic hamper. Two hours later I spot him in fluoro pink tanga trunks, knob fully outlined, giggling and flirting on the shoreline. Nearby, Candice and Ian (below) are twerking, Candice in a cut-out cozzie and Ian in a stars’n’stripes thong. Candice reckons everyone should leave Miley Cyrus alone and let her twerk to her heart’s content –she might not have the booty for it, but “let her live! We’re all here to have fun.” Which is just what Ian’s doing now, splashing in the surf and showing off Old Glory with an impressive bulge up front. “All that’s balls – that ain’t dick!” his friend is screaming on repeat. Ian laughs it off: “It’s all good for photography, though.”
Apart from the group who said “no paparazzi!” and the “male model” who can’t be snapped without his agent’s consent, people love being photographed here – there’s boundless self-confidence, whatever the shape or size. Bald heads and big afro beards are a growing look, not inspired by Rick Ross, according to Stephen from Philadelphia, but by the sunnah beards of the black Muslims there. As with white gay guys appropriating the skinhead look in the 80s, it’s hard to tell whether it’s a conscious appropriation of a perceived oppressor’s look or just a hot aesthetic that’s catching. I’d say the latter. “It’s great here,” says Stephen, who’s come for the first time. “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how free people would be with their bodies.” “Extra free?” I say. “Right!” he replies in that affirmative American way that makes you feel cleverer, quicker, quippier than you are.
People come from all over the US for FIBO – Atlanta, Philly, Cali. It’s establishing itself as a big event on the gay calendar, alongside circuit parties, white parties, prides and the, errrr, RuPaul cruise, which 6’6 Karim and 6’4 Jarvis, a couple from Rochester in upstate New York, went on last year. They save themselves for the blowout events because the Rochester gay scene is small and not very accepting (they’re not gay in the way the scene there demands). The next RuPaul cruise – on which contestants from the show perform every night and superfans re-enact best bits and regurgitate Ru’s one-liners – will be passing through notoriously homophobic Jamaica.
A far smaller affair (most people have headed home), it’s friendlier still, even when the beach-ball war gets heated and one guy starts screaming, 'I’m that vengeful bitch!'
It’s easy to see why the likes of Karim and Jarvis save themselves for these events. People are freakishly friendly and life feels like a simple act of wish fulfillment: dream up the kind of people you want to be with, the place you want to be, and it’s made. If you’re normally a minority – and even more so if you’re a minority within a minority – such events are a wonder drug. People get high off the good times, the hot guys, the gorgeous girls, forget to pace themselves, go for a post-beach snooze and often wake up the following day having missed the night’s parties.
For a community that’s largely night-based, there’s something energising about socialising in the day. Even though the gay guys are more to one side of the beach and the lesbians to the other, FIBO is a rare occasion when everyone gets together. Shawna and Erin are a small’n’tall couple doing a long-distance relationship between Baltimore and Atlanta. As we dip a toe in the icy Atlantic, they tell me about Stadium, their favourite DC strip club, where straight men and lesbians bond over a shared love of breasts and butts. Back on the sand, Cynthia and Hilary seem to think that everyone’s assembled for their benefit, facing inland as if the crowd is their audience. Cynthia’s perched on a cheap fold-up chair, somehow making it look like a throne. Hilary, in watermelon-coloured Kevin Durant hi-tops, looks up from the sand, devoted to her Queen of Sheba.
Another person who treats FIBO like his own stage is Byron Barnes, who wins the tent contest hands down, year in, year out. Barnes designs Iman’s cosmetic range (he’s about to text her a photo of this year’s tent) and has been a make-up artist since 1973, working with everyone from Stevie Wonder and Grace Jones to Queen Latifah and Barbara Walters. He loves “tent expression” and works hard to make it just so. “I hired a truck, got here at 6am and set up with my boyfriend, Dishawn.” This year’s theme is pop art/tropical. It looks like a beachside Lorraine set. There are pink flamingos and mini palm trees. Previous tents have had black chandeliers or a cobalt blue theme. One constant is white. “I always do white, with a colour tint,” Barnes says. “White just feels fresh.” People are queuing up to do photoshoots in his roped off area. “Just leave a dollar,” he hollers.
As the sun sets, people head to the Ice Palace hotel to watch a poolside fashion show that brings back memories of 80s catwalks, when models twirled, swirled and swished their fabrics. I get roped into a three-way runway contest, but my reference to a faceless Estonian supermodel walking for Prada is completely lost on the hundreds of spectators. I should have gone for Tyra bounce, since the woman who slays me and the other contestants does a swingy #naomicampbellwalk. Obvious, but it’s what the crowd wants. Mortified, I exit the stage, quickly wiped from people’s memories by muscular male models and Miss Tina’s dance troupe. Miss Tina’s giant curling nails are inspired by glam sprinter Flo Jo, but are also reminiscent of an ancient Chinese man’s, although beautifully painted.
I hired a truck, got here at 6am and set up with my boyfriend, Dishawn
The party peters out; people board late-night ferries and get some kip in before the pool party at The Pines the next day. A far smaller affair (most people have headed home), it’s friendlier still, even when the beach-ball war gets heated and one guy starts screaming, “I’m that vengeful bitch!” People line dance the wobble (the electric slide of our times), pose in front of the sponsored backdrop and flirt mercilessly. I make friends with an assorted crew of guys from Philly, Atlanta and NYC – Jay, Roy, Michael, Eric, Ezra, Jon, Demetrius, Louis and Stephen – who love mimicking my English accent. I’m offered a lift back to Manhattan by someone I saw passed out on booze just two hours before. I decide to decline and head back to the city by train with the Atlanta boys. It’s like going through a portal. All that promise of a new kind of community retreats as the fully formed city comes back into vision. Not everyone’s gay, there’s no R&B soundtrack being piped onto the streets and absolutely no one is walking around in strappy swimwear. Why a permanent FIBO city can’t exist is a mystery to me. I’ll just have to bottle it and book for 2014.