Dangerous Drag Dinners and Meat Rack Memorials: The Untold Queer History of Cherry Grove

"It was illegal to even have women’s clothing in your house at that time.”

For decades the Cherry Grove community of Fire Island has been a safe haven for gays and lesbians. After losing a generation to AIDS, Michael Fisher was afraid the queer history of Fire Island would start to disappear like the Pines beach. In his new documentary, Cherry Grove Stories, Fisher interviews residents, and longtime visitors, about their memories from the beloved Fire Island community. NewNowNext spoke with Fisher about the making of his film, and asked him to share his own stories of Cherry Grove.

What is your history with Cherry Grove?

I started going out there in 1985. One of the first people I met there, was this older man, Michael Delissio, who has since died, he was one of the original home owners out there, and he would sit around and tell these great stories. He would say when he first started going out there, "Imagine there were 30-40 guys, and every Saturday night there was no running water or electricity and they would have these dinner parties by candlelight. One weekend they all had dinner in drag, and on their way home two of the guys were arrested, taken off the island, and booked in Sayville for lewd behavior—they lost their jobs."

Cherry Grove Archives Collection

"All of the guys were committed to continuing their tradition, so back then in the houses they would build a hatch in the living room that was a little square hole with a trap door, and that’s where they would put all of their drag. And they would cover it with a rug because it was illegal to even have women's clothing in your house at that time." So he told me this story and I was like “This is amazing. I want to hear more stories about this.” So I decided to make this film.

How did you pick which stories were going to make it into the movie?

I interviewed 40 people, and I asked all of them the same questions, and just through the process of elimination. I wanted to have a linear format so it goes from the '40s, '50s to present day, and I wanted to have little chapters of what happened during those time periods. There's nothing worse than sitting there and watching a very boring documentary, and I really didn’t want that to happen.

Michael Fisher

What amazed me was hearing about how there was no electricity or running water in Cherry Grove back in the day. Was there something you learned during filming that comes to mind?

So many things. One, that they buried the hard waste on the west side of the island. So if you dig there now you'll still hit bottles and cans. There's a well there that is pure drinking water, and that’s where they used to go to get drinking water on the weekends. There's so much history there, I just sort of tapped the surface of it.

Why do you think there is this rivalry between Cherry Grove and the Pines? Has that always been there?

Yes. And you have to understand when the Pines first started It wasn’t a gay community at all. I believe there is a strong internalized homophobia from guys in the Pines. Where they feel threatened by drag, threatened by having any feminine qualities at all. I think the Pines is dedicated to maintaining a brand. I went to the Pines Party this year, and everyone looked the same. And when you went on the dance floor it was so segregated. In Cherry Grove it’s a big mix, a mélange of everyone.

Bill Ronin/Cherry Grove Archives Collection

In the film it's mentioned how Fire Island is going to look different in the future. How do you see it changing?

Well, because I go out there all year long I just see topographically how it’s changing because there's so much erosion. Forget about the people there, the bay is just creeping up, creeping up, and the beach is getting smaller and smaller. The Pines beach now is terrible. I think as far as Cherry Grove, I believe that gay people need places to go that are gay. And I think the younger generation will hold onto it more than you give them credit for. I think it will change, topographically, but as a social thing, I think it will maintain its gayness.

Do you remember your first summer going out there?

The first summer I went out there there was no one. It was the height of the AIDS crisis. Everyone was terrified. You would walk down the boardwalk and hear the clickety-clack of people’s IV poles being dragged down the boardwalk. It was really very scary, yet beautiful because these people did not want to give up their freedom of going out there. And so many people [who died of AIDS] had their ashes scattered in the Meat Rack. You would walk from the Pines to the Grove through the Meat Rack, and you wouldn’t see a soul, but you would see piles of ashes with roses or a cross on them. So yeah, at the beginning it was pretty crazy.

You said it was at the height of the AIDS crisis and scary, but yet you kept going back…

Yeah, because the people were lovely. We had a tight knit group, and a lot of our friends were sick, but we helped them, we became closer and more involved with each other. It was lovely. And there’s nothing like the ocean there. Forget about the gay culture, just as a place it’s amazing.

Cherry Grove Archives Collection

If someone was going out to Cherry Grove for the first time what would you tell them they have to do?

First off, go to the beach, go in the ocean. Then go to a drag show. I'm a Logan Hardcore fan. I also like Busted, and of course I love Hedda lettuce.

What else?

Probably take a walk to the Sunken Forest because I still think it’s pretty amazing.

Are you working on another project now?

I am. I am making a horror movie set in Cherry Grove. I'm probably going to shoot it out there next summer.

Can you talk about that at all?

Lets just say it’s going to be a case of mistaken identities.

NewFest 2018 Trailer from NewFest on Vimeo.

Click here for tickets to Cherry Grove Stories at NewFest.

Latest News