Philadelphia’s LGBTers may have elected to celebrate Independence Day by attending the countless Welcome America festivities along the Parkway, watching the fireworks, or having a good old-fashioned barbecue, while others headed where the boys are, down to Rehoboth. But there was a third—and not insignificant—contingent that headed north, to the Pines of Fire Island.
It used to be that Fire Island was strictly the queer playground for New Yorkers: guys to the Pines, gals to Cherry Grove, rinse and repeat. But increasingly there is a Philly presence on the island. This year, I was part of it.
Fire Island is enriched with history that has significantly influenced gay culture. Celebrating its 60th anniversary season, Fire Island Pines was a safe haven for gays to be themselves, a notion that was completely unacceptable in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Home of the very first Tea Dance held in 1966, Fire Island has played hostess at one point or another to every gay icon—from Marilyn, Liza, and Cher to Sandra, Margaret, and Kathy.
In true Pines’ tradition, my Fourth of July began with a plethora of rhinestones, feathers, and stilettos. The annual Drag Invasion is where countless queens invade the Pines by ferry to express their freedom to the fullest! This being first of the Pines’ three summer parties (Pines Party will be held later this month; Ascension in August), the Invasion was established on July 4, 1976 by Thom “Panzi” Hansen. Earlier that summer, Hansen’s friend dressed in drag was denied entry to a restaurant in the Pines. At the time, the Pines was much more conservative than nearby Cherry Grove. Panzi gathered his gaggle of gays donning dresses and invaded the Pines by water taxi. That day a marvelous tradition was born, and has since been celebrated by Panzi, hundreds of drag queens, and thousands of spectators every year on the Fourth.
To my delight, I had the opportunity to kiki with Philly born- and raised Willam Belli, a season four contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race and actor extraordinaire. Adorned in a sultry sailor suit and Louboutins, Willam was shooting coverage of the Invasion for the LOGO cable network. He started doing drag to get into bars and clubs while underage; at 19, he moved to L.A. to pursue his entertainment career. I asked Willam what he loves about gay Philly. “Besides the pizza place across the street from Woody’s, I have a sense of comfort and safety when I am in the Gayborhood,” he told me. His last visit to his hometown was this past November, where he hit up nearly every establishment in the ‘hood. He offered a piece of expert advice to his fellow drag queens: “I do shots when bar hopping, instead of drinking full beverages. Less liquids the better so I don’t have to bring extra duct tape with me to re-stash the goodies.” Got it.
Although there isn’t a fireworks display, Independence Day on Fire Island certainly ends with a bang. Our last stop was the dance floor of the renowned Pavilion Nightclub. Destroyed by a fire in 2011, The Pavilion reopened its doors this past week. The extraordinary venue includes a “Welcome Bar” on the first floor that overlooks the harbor; a second floor High Tea deck that acts as an outdoor lounge at night; and most notably, a dance club equipped with a 2,000-square-foot dancefloor, a retractable skylight, state-of-the art sound and lighting featuring wall-mounted LED panels, and a chandelier donated by Waterford crystal that pays homage to the chandeliers that adorned the old Pavilion. New York nightlife impresario Tony Fornabaio keeps the club packed nightly with international DJ line-ups such as Eddie Elias, Tony Moran and Joe Gauthreaux, as well as surprise shows and special performances. Recording artist Sylvia Tosun performed her latest track “Love is Love,” to continue the celebration of making huge strides in marriage equality.
After a next-morning of coffee at the dockside Canteen, I strolled the boardwalks over to the summer home of long-time Philadelphia resident Louis Tedeschi. Louis, who owns Louis Christian Wayne Robert Salon & Spa in Cherry Hill, has been a staple on the FIP social scene for 23 years. He and his partner Kenneth Tepper, in my opinion, have one of the most gorgeous beachfront properties on the island. “There is nowhere in the world like the Pines. It belongs to us,” Tedeschi explains, swirling his hands to reference the gay community as a whole. “My best friends are here. I met the love of my life here.” Louis and Kenneth celebrated a milestone anniversary in 2010 with a white party at—where else—the Pavilion. The thing Tedeschi likes most about Fire Island? “The open door, informal, casual feel of the place.” But he notes that the vacation destination “certainly keeps you on your toes to stay fit, fashionable and fabulous!” He laughed. “Although we reside in the Pines for six months of the year, Philadelphia will always be considered my home.”
Next up, a quick wardrobe change and we were off to Reflections, one of Fire Island’s most iconic private residences, for the IndepenDANCE 19. The annual fête started in 1995 when the Pines was making a comeback from the AIDS scare. Hence, the outdoor circuit party always benefits health and wellness of our community. This year’s super-theme “Heroes” benefitted GLAAD, the Pines Care Center, and The Brent Varner Project. My gal pal and celebrity DJ/Producer Tracy Young has been spinning at this soiree since 2003. In addition to the hot beats, the event always boasts the sexiest men, the most outrageous costumes, and spectacular views of the bay at sunset.
Daniel Harvey, a 26-year old MBA student at UPenn’s Wharton School, has been coming to the Pines for the past four years during the Fourth of July week. Daniel really sums up what vacationing on Fire Island is all about: “As a gay man, it’s a place where you really don’t feel inhibited by your sexuality or your sexual orientation. My friends and I sometimes feel that it is the ‘gayest place on Earth’ because you just see so many people who are so much more open about who they are here than they would be otherwise.” But he also digs living in gay Philly. “I see Philly as a manageable NYC,” he says. “There are not as many choices for places to go out, but that means you almost always feel like a regular at the places you do go to and you always see a friend.” This kind of thinking is becoming common here, as more and more Philly-philes flock in. (Witness ChatterBlast’s Matt Ray, long a Rehoboth summer staple, who this year went in on a Fire Island share that included Unite Fitness’s Gavin McKay.)
The rest of my weekend was a blur of delicious brunches and Low Tea at the Blue Whale, hitting the beach, or laying out poolside while sunning to the sounds of DJ Matty Glitterati. The Fire Island Pines tagline is “Summer Perfected.” An increasing number of Philly boys (and girls) couldn’t agree firstname.lastname@example.org.