Ever feel like you need a vacation from being queer? I have. Spend 25 years living in New York City’s Chelsea gayborhood, followed by another three in Fort Lauderdale, and it can sometimes seem as if your entire adult life has been but 30 seasons of Queer as Folk (The L Word? Pose? Will & Grace? Noah’s Arc? Sense8? Please select the era, demographic, and pronouns of your choice, hunty.)—and all you want to do for a holiday is escape every cliché of “the lifestyle.”
Well, if that’s your worst problem, consider yourself blessed. Seventy years ago, our LGBTQ+ forebears could only fleetingly enjoy a carefree, 24-hour-a-day queer life by running off to a handful of destinations comfortably removed from a homophobic America: most notably, Provincetown, Massachusetts, Cherry Grove, New York, and Key West, Florida.
Of these, perhaps the most secluded was Cherry Grove on Fire Island. While it’s just 60 miles from Manhattan, Cherry Grove is inaccessible by car and reachable only via ferry, boat, or seaplane (fancy!). That extra separation made the Grove a place where queers from greater NYC felt they could really let their hair down, and by the late 1940s the town was attracting gays and lesbians from all over. There, during the deeply closeted era of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Lavender Scare, they socialized openly, often with their straight neighbors, and found the emotional and social support to open up and thrive.
You can get a taste of that life by shuttling off to a latterday LGBTQ+ mecca, Wilton Manors, Florida, to see “Safe/ Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove” at Stonewall National Museum & Archives, a fantastic exhibition drawn from the holdings of the Cherry Grove Archive Collection.
The show boasts several display cases chock-full of memorabilia: ferry tickets, revue posters, house name plaques, and, yes, even a few reminders that the liberated life was not entirely carefree, such as a fingerwagging public notice addressing “a serious situation in Cherry Grove…the matter of drag” and a newspaper clipping naming five men charged with “outraging public decency” after being picked up during a 4:30 a.m. police raid on the Meat Rack, a cruisy strip of scrub just east of town.
But the heart of the show is the 60-plus photos displayed on the walls—scenes at once achingly familiar and startlingly fresh. Many Cherry Grove regulars worked in the arts or entertainment, and the combination of artistic talent and queer sensibilities made the modest town— where ramshackle cottages often slept six or more—an unlikely beacon of cheeky glamour and fabulousness. Some of the show’s most striking images (often by photographer Bill Ronin) capture locals enjoying themselves at elaborate costumed house parties or performing in bawdy, outrageous theatrical productions.
But what sticks with me, are the touching, intimate photos of everyday life in the town and on the beach— because in the 1950s holding hands was just as revolutionary an act as throwing on a dress.
It still is.
“Safe/Haven” is an exhibit at Stonewall National Museum & Archives (Stonewall-Museum.org) in Wilton Manors, Florida. (closed in light of the pandemic). For more on the history of Cherry Grove, visit CherryGroveArchivesCollection.com.