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Morris Kight, a gay American original (Photos)

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Only if you knew what went before do you feel its absence.

Today, crimped by the coronavirus crisis, the quiet streets of West Hollywood are haunted by gay activists of the past — the rallies against police harassment and the anti-gay Briggs Initiative, the AIDS vigils and ACT UP protests, and the ground troops organizing for pro-gay politicians in a consequential election year.

Ubiquitous among the generations of activists was Morris Kight, the radical gay rights advocate with a theatrical cadence and genteel nod who adored the spotlight and brazenly asserted in a matter-of-fact manner that he had essentially founded all things gay in L.A. About half of that was true – though it’s hard to gauge with complete accuracy.

Today, when TikTok makes originality commonplace, the younger LGBTQ community might not fathom how original this gay rights pioneer was when homosexuality was illegal and in an environment where more conservative gays and lesbians intensely squabbled with more radical LGBTQ activists who insisted on respect, not respectability.

Kight, like Ivy Bottini, his lesbian feminist sister in the movement for gay and lesbian liberation, rebuked assimilation, while at the same time exercising his ability to command a mainstream stage the minute he walked through the door and demanding attention be paid for gays and other minorities during his more than 20 years on the Los Angeles County Human Rights Commission.

Morris Kight was 83 when he died at the Carl Bean Hospice in 2003. But for those who feel the absence of his theatrical activism, one wonders: what would Morris do if he were alive and thriving today?

“He’d be very busy. He would probably have multiple phone lines,” says ally and Kight friend Mary Ann Cherry, the “hopelessly hetero” author of Morris Kight: Humanist, Liberationist, Fantabulist during a recent phone interview. “First let’s acknowledge that the needs have changed. When there’s a gay teen runaway, when a teen is abandoned by their family, they have places to go and if they don’t know about them, they quickly learn about them.”

That’s considerably different from the 1960s and 1970s when Kight handed out his card to homeless LGBTQ teens and offered help with no strings attached.

If Kight were alive today, Cherry’s best guess is that “Morris would be focused on the Black Lives Matter movement. They are out there, they’re doing it. They are determined and they’re very obvious and vocal about it.”

And though Kight was known nationally, his focus was on a local level. “He would have been all over this homeless issue years ago,” Cherry tells the Los Angeles Blade. He would attend city council meetings complaining about years of economic injustice through development deals that “are now coming home to roost.”

Kight would also be complaining against the cooptation of the LGBTQ liberation movement through the influx of money, especially corporate money.

“The gay community has become very respectable, so to speak, and they don’t want to be identified with the old hippie roots,” says Cherry. “And there’s also a need to disidentify with the liberal ideology, because the truth is — not all gay people are going to be antiwar. And not all gay people are going to be pro-Black Lives Matter. We can’t assume anybody’s ideology based upon their sexual identity. And we make that mistake. And I think Morris made that mistake.”

Gay couples were the same before the Supreme Court granted same sex couples the freedom to marry, she notes.

“We understand, we appreciate the importance of being able to marry the person you choose to be with,” Cherry says. “But Morris always worried about the gay community becoming ‘heterosexuized’ — that they give into what the heterosexual community was about. And I think gay marriage kind of speaks to that — but it legitimizes people.”

Kight was also opposed to the City of West Hollywood “appeasing” Coors Beer, as was Don Kilhefner, who co-founded with Kight the LA Chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, which confronted psychiatrists over their use of lobotomies and other “behavior modification” practices, now known as “conversion therapy.” Kight also used his resources Rolodex when co-founding the LA Gay Community Services Center on Wilshire Boulevard in 1971. Kilhefner did not speak with Cherry for the book.

Kight was opposed to letting Coors off the hook. The boycott against the anti-gay company started in the late 1970s when Kight’s friend, San Francisco activist Harvey Milk, sided with union truck drivers and started a long association between gay rights advocates and the labor movement, which became critical in defeating the anti-gay Briggs Initiative in 1978. Eventually Coors Brewing Company met the boycott demands, though patriarch Adolph Coors continued to contribute to anti-gay causes.

Morris thought Coors hadn’t really done what needed to be done,” Cherry says. “You really can’t force a corporation or even a family like Coors to change their values.”

Kight and Kilhefner are linked together in LGBTQ history but that’s not the whole story. “When they had a cause in common, they were a great front. They really were very strong and powerful,” Cherry says. “But that was only around a cause — that wasn’t who they were as individuals.”

Indeed, Kight’s relationship with Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, was one of mutual respect and allowances for human foibles such as Kight’s renowned self-aggrandizement. The two LA gay activists, along with homeless advocate Rev. Bob Humphries, co-founded Christopher Street West and the Pride Parade.

Morris Kight: Humanist, Liberationist, Fantabulist, Cherry says, is “this man’s story about how one person can make a difference.”

But this well-research biography also serves a larger purpose, telling the unflinching but colorful arc of L.A. LGBTQ history through the life of this one dramatic original gay activist, Morris Kight.

Postscript: Mary Ann Cherry was the perfect person to write this well-research, dense biography of Morris Kight – most of the rest of us who knew Morris would no doubt have written a skewed version through whatever kaleidoscope lens we might be looking at him. This was a 17 year commitment. And Mary Ann also raises an issue not really tackled in LGBTQ history books: the serious ripple effects and harmful impact The Closet has on unsuspecting heterosexual spouses, children and friends. While LGBTQ people might deal with the devastation of internalized homophobia, Mary Ann looks at the selfishness of keeping that secret. She also honestly writes about Morris’ out-sized ego, as well as the monumental humanitarian community services he provided to marginalized people, especially LGBTQ youth with nowhere else to turn. Morris deserves this book and the LGBTQ community owes Mary Ann a debt of gratitude for adding such an important, serious contribution to LGBTQ history.

When I first started reporting for the “gay press” in the late 1980s after a career in mainstream media, I had no idea there was a gay or lesbian community. By 1988, I’d met a lot of gay people through 12 Step programs and AIDS services and memorials. But honestly, it wasn’t until I had long talks with Harry Hay, Jim Kepner and Morris Kight that I really grasped that we were an oppressed minority around whom straights devised a mythical reputation as abnormal sexual perverts and predators (thank you for the synopsis, Vito Russo!) – which we internalized as the truth!

It was an awakening. I was very grateful. So I took my job reporting LGBT news very seriously – while also giving myself permission to be a perpetual student.

Like Mary Ann, Morris used to call me at 6:00am about something that was happening. I explained to him that Frontiers, for which I was freelancing at the time, published every other week, not daily, so he could have called later. And like Mary Ann, Morris would finish whatever he had to say, then just hang up. No “goodbye.” It was as if he just didn’t have time for some of these minor niceties. And Morris didn’t drive so that sometimes fell to me – though mostly to AHF stalwart Miki Jackson.

Mary Ann’ book has lots of photos but here are some I took that I thought might be of interest:

I drove Morris to Dorr Legg’s memorial at the Milbank Mansion in 1994. It was my first realization that the LA gay movement of elders (not L or B or T yet) was essentially two contingents – the Harry Hay group and the Morris Kight group.

That division kept on for a long time.

But there were other times, especially at an event where Harry was being honored, where they would put their differences aside. Since I knew them fairly well by then, I asked if I could take a three shot of the movement’s honored elders – and they complied.

Morris, a pacifist, constantly challenged anti-gay LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, who militarized the police and for whom openly racist and homophobic LAPD Chief William H. Parker had been a mentor. It was odd, then, to see the two in public – holding their positions but sometimes being unexpectedly jovial.

Morris, who co-founded Stonewall Democratic Club, had the political era of many electeds and introduced then to the LGBT community, such as taking former Gov. Jerry Brown to the French Market in West Hollywood in 1992; or driving newly-elected Seattle City Councilmember Sherry Harris through riot-scared LA then to the LA Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center on Highland with AHF’s Miki Jackson; or celebrating Ivy Bottini’s birthday with LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Morris also advocated for the Death with Dignity initiative with Torie Osborn and Rev. Malcolm Boyd.

Morris also decided to rename “Queer Village” — the triangle at Santa Monica Boulevard and Crescent Heights in West Hollywood where AIDS and AB 101 (the gay civil rights bill) fasting protests had occurred — the Matthew Shepard Human Rights Triangle after the tragic hate murder of gay Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

In 2001, the City of West Hollywood planted trees and plaques at that site honoring both Morris and Ivy for their decades of LGBTQ activism.

Morris with Don Kilhefner, Betty Berzon, Gwen Baldwin and Lillene Fifield.

In 1983, Morris helped found Aid for AIDS, a small organization that raised money to give to people with AIDS for emergency payment of rent, mortgages and utilities to enable them to die with dignity at home instead of homeless on the streets. Later a friendship developed between AIDS activist Michael Weinstein, who went on to co-found the Chris Brownlie Hospice in 1987 and subsequently, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Morris attended AHF fundraisers and hung out during CSW Pride, if he wasn’t the focus of the parade. Morris died at AHF’s Carl Bean Hospice; his memorial at MCC in West Hollywood drew scores of dignitaries and old friends.

In 2003, the LA City Council, led by Councilmember Eric Garcetti, and Morris’ friends, including CSW co-founder Rev. Troy Perry, designated the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and McCadden Place as “Morris Kight Square” as the site of the first CSW Pride Parade in 1970. Several people noticed the amusing ironic fact that the Square is right outside the Scientology Hollywood store front, as if Morris was haunting the anti-gay “religion.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Fascinating mystery novel features gay private eye in 1947 Philly

‘Knock off the Hat’ explores a world before LGBTQ rights advances

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(Book cover image courtesy of Amble Press)

‘Knock Off the Hat: A Clifford Waterman Gay Philly Mystery’
By Richard Stevenson
c.2022, Amble Press
$18.95/200 pages

The Horn & Hardart automat is a great place to meet friends and eat (on the cheap) delicious meatloaf and coconut cream pie.

People wonder when Connie Mack, the Philadelphia Athletics’ manager, will retire and have a ballpark named after him.

If you’re queer, you dance, drink and hook-up in gay bars.

Life is good. Even on summer nights when few places are air conditioned. Except that if you’re queer, you can be  arrested if you’re in a gay bar that’s raided by the police. If you’re arrested, your name will likely appear in the Philadelphia Inquirer on a list of “deviants.”

This is the world of Clifford Waterman, a gay private eye, the protagonist of “Knock Off the Hat,” the fascinating new mystery by Richard Stevenson.

The novel is set in 1947 in Philadelphia. During World War II, Clifford, a former police detective, was in the Army. He was an Army MP in Cairo, where he jokes, “I was working with US Army unintelligence.”

Clifford was dishonorably discharged from the Army for being gay. Though ironically, his job in the service was to round up “drunks,” “dope fiends” and “perverts.”

An officer found him one night, “enjoying the company of a nice man named Idriss, who normally cleaned the latrines,” Clifford says. “On this particular occasion, this pleasant chappie was cleaning my latrine.” 

The era in which Clifford lives is repressive. The House Un-American Activities Committee is going after queer people and suspected Communists. If you’re LGBTQ and arrested in a bar raid, you’ll lose your job if your employer reads about it in the paper. 

Yet Clifford respects himself. He proudly hangs his dishonorable discharge on his office wall. 

In “Knock Off the Hat,” Clifford is called upon to use his detective skills, street-smarts and connections in the queer community, to solve a terrifying, puzzling mystery.

Usually, queer people who are arrested in a gay bar raid for “disorderly conduct,” can pay off Judge Harold Stetson. (Stetson is called “the Hat” because his surname is the name of a type of hat.) If they pay the judge $50 (a lot of money, but, with some belt-tightening, doable), they’ll avoid “public humiliation along with a hefty fine or even jail time,” Stevenson writes.

But now, the judge and his clerk have gone bonkers. They’re requiring queer people to pay Judge Stetson $500. If they don’t pay up, their professional and personal life will be ruined.

Scarcely anyone can afford this sum. A gay man, who’s proud to be a salesperson in the shoe department of the glam department store Wanamakers, is comparatively lucky. After he’s arrested in a bar raid, he sells his car to get the $500 to pay off the judge. Other queer people end up working at gas stations or even kill themselves because they don’t have that kind of money.

“Knock Off the Hat” takes place at a time when queer lives were, largely, devalued. Yet it’s far from grim.

The novel is filled with dark humor and engaging characters from an actress who pretends to be a deceased gay man’s fiancee to a left-wing queer farmer. In one scene, after Lauren Bacall drops into a dinner party, it’s revealed that her “dick” is “bigger than Bogie’s.”

Richard Stevenson is the pen name of the groundbreaking mystery writer Richard Lipez. “Knock Off the Hat,” was published after Lipez, who was openly gay, died at 83 in March 2022. Lipez envisioned “Knock Off the Hat” as being the first in a series featuring Clifford Waterman.

Also, under the pseudonym Richard Stevenson, Lipez over four decades (beginning in 1981 with “Death Trick”) wrote 17 mysteries featuring the queer detective Donald Strachey. “Chasing Rembrandt,” the last of the Donald Strachey series, will be released by ReQueered Tales in fall 2022.

The Strachey mysteries, set in Albany, N.Y., in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, are less dark than “Knock Off the Hat.” Donald Strachey, his lover Timmy and many of the other queer characters dance, cruise, and indulge in camp humor. Yet without being preachy, the Strachey mysteries address AIDS and other serious issues.

“Knock Off the Hat” is as riveting as the best of Raymond Chandler. Though it’s highly entertaining, reading it in this “Don’t Say Gay” era, is sobering. The novel with its depiction of a time when queers had no rights is a chilling reminder that we can’t afford to be complacent.

This isn’t meant to be a downer. Libation in hand, treat yourself this summer. Check out “Knock Off the Hat.”   

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Celebrating Arab and Muslim heritage, art, gastronomy

Three new books open a window to influential cultures

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‘Portugal: The Cookbook’ explores the Arab roots of Portuguese cooking. (Book cover image courtesy of Phaidon)

As a college student, I hungered for Arab and Muslim representation. Prejudice against our communities was mainstream and demoralizing. Things, however, can sometimes change sooner than we expect. 

Although Muslims and Arabs are still maligned, it is no longer as widespread and is often counterbalanced by allyship and, crucially, Muslim and Arab representation. From Hulu’s “Remy,” Netflix’s “Master of None,” HBO Max’s “Sort Of,” to the upcoming premiere of Disney+’s “Ms. Marvel” to Muslim characters on “Love Victor,” “Never Have I Ever,” and “Genera+ion,” Muslim characters and creators are now common. And these creators are diverse, proud, and often queer. 

Mahersalah Ali is a two-time Oscar winner (one for the Black queer Best Picture winner “Moonlight”) and Riz Ahmed is the first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor; he won an Oscar this year for a short film taking on British xenophobia, and spearheading an initiative to boost Muslim representation in Hollywood from screenwriters to actors. 

From starving to satisfied, it has been quite a transformation in American culture. And it’s not only TV and film. Political representation isn’t novel anymore. I still remember when former Rep. Keith Ellison was asked on CNN to prove his loyalty by the conservative host Glenn Beck. Today, Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are progressive trailblazers. Irvine, Calif., has a Muslim mayor in Farrah Khan. Joe Biden has nominated the first Muslims to the federal judiciary, one has been confirmed and the other, civil rights lawyer Nusrat Choudhury, awaits Senate confirmation. And Biden, lest we forget, said “inshallah” (God willing) on the presidential debate stage. “We’ve made it,” I want to shout. But I know we’re still fighting for full normalization in American life.

Hence my excitement over three new books (two cookbooks and one art text) that feature Arab and Muslim heritage, art, and gastronomy. 

Arab roots of Portuguese cooking 

“To these new rulers [the Moors], cuisine was an art, and food a gift from God that should be consumed in moderation and shared with those in need,” writes Leandro Carreira, the author of “Portugal: The Cookbook.” It’s not surprising to learn that Arabs and Berbers shaped the evolution of Portuguese cuisine, but what’s striking is the nature of its legacy. In this cookbook of 700 recipes, half draw from the Moors. 

When Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain) they brought with them not only warriors and administrators but architects, astronomers, poets, and, inter alia, cooks along with cookbooks, such as the Medieval “Kitab al Tabikh.” 

The Moors introduced hydraulics that irrigated the farmland (along with orchards and leafy gardens) and beautified the land by planting citrus trees both for the fruit and scent. The list of crops introduced by Moors includes eggplant, artichoke, carrot, lentils, cucumber, and lettuce. The latter would later christen the residents of Lisbon, who are colloquially known as Alfachinhas (“little lettuces”). Moors popularized sour oranges, apricots, dates, melons, and watermelons; spices such as pepper and ginger; pickling of olives and nuts; sour marinade to preserve fish; rose water and orange blossom. The Moors’ vinegary salads were the precursor to gazpacho. The introduction of sugarcane later severed Portuguese colonization and fueled the slave trade, and transformed sugar from luxury to staple. 

Naturally, the North African rulers brought couscous, the main consumed wheat until the late 16th century. To this day, northwestern Portuguese villagers prepare couscous using the methods and utensils introduced by Berbers 900 years ago. 

The Moors cultivated hospitality and conviviality at the table along with the order in which food is served: soups followed by fish or meat and concluding with sweets. The Arabs’ cousins, the Jews played their part in shaping Portuguese cooking, too. Jews prepared their post-Sabbath meal by laying aside a slow-burning stew of meat, chickpeas, collard greens, hard-boiled eggs, and vegetables; today, the Portuguese call it Adafina. Jews introduced deep-fried vegetables and Portuguese missionaries later brought them to Japan and (voilà!) tempura. 

In its history, “Portugal” evokes our interwoven humanity. 

Arabiyya: Cooking as an Arab in America

The past few years have seen cookbooks with narratives of culture and personal journeys foregrounding recipes — many focused on Arab culture. “The Gaza Kitchen” by Laila el-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt and “The Palestinian Table” and “The Arabesque Table” by Reem Kassis, for example. To this list, we can add “Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora” by the James Beard finalist Reem Assil. 

For connoisseurs of Arab food in America, Reem is no stranger. Reem’s California, a bakery in Oakland and San Francisco, has acquired temple status for its use of California’s ingredients in the service of Arab dishes. A few years ago, the New York Times praised Reem’s as an “Arab Bakery in Oakland Full of California Love.” (The bakery was, sadly, the target of vulgar anti-Palestinian prejudice for its mural of Palestinian activist Rasmeah Odeh.) 

Food was Reem’s saving grace. Facing a debilitating digestive disorder, and the wreck of familial stress, Reem left college and headed to the Bay Area live with her Arab uncle and Jewish aunt. Soothed by California’s climate, nature, and ingredients, she found mental and physical healing — and roots and purpose. 

“Arabiyya” is a guide to California-based, Arab-rooted recipes alongside tales of Reem’s journey and her family’s. Her grandparents fled the Nakba — the 1948 “catastrophe” of the forced exile of roughly 750,000 Palestinians at the hands of Israeli troops — and the Naksa, the 1967 War that forced her family to decamp once more for Lebanon. The Lebanese Civil War led to one more flight to Greece, and finally, California.

Growing up American, Reem knew little of her grandmother’s resilience. After her sitty’s (colloquial Arabic for grandmother) passing, she pasted together tales from relatives of her grandmother’s determination to uphold Arab hospitality no matter where she landed. Her identity as a Palestinian was threatening both in Lebanon and America — but she walked with dignity. Arab hospitality meant that home was a safe comfort no matter the headwinds outside, and, at times, her grandmother went lengths to survive. A tale of sneaking out during a pause in fighting in Beirut became family lore: sitty couldn’t forget her lemons (who would serve fish without lemons?!) even after a rocket attack knocked her down. 

Food’s healing and grounding became the thread uniting Reem with sitty. “I’ve come to realize that my grandmother, who loaded the table to its edges with tasty morsels of my favorite foods, lives through me,” Reem relates. 

Reem’s journey to cook and bake as love and spontaneity opened a window to heritage — a family’s history and Arab pride. Her recipes (like the California Fattoush Salad where traditional tomatoes are swapped for oranges and citrus and fried sunchokes) overflow with love. “Arabiyya” is destined to be a classic among Arab-Americans. 

Arab artists in their prime 

Artists from the Arab world exhibiting in the West face a challenge: Our culture is ubiquitous in Western depictions but poorly understood; a dilemma for the artist who must inevitably “interrogate the stereotypes that spectators bring to the practice of looking at mythologized places,” in the words of critic Omar Kholeif in his review of the Abu Dhabi-born and NYC and Dubai-based Farah Al Qasimi. 

Al Qasimi is one of five Arab artists featured in the new collection on “art’s next generation” entitled “Prime.” In “After Dinner 2” (2018), Al Qasimi captures the pressures of domestic life in her native UAE and the misconceptions westerners have about Arab domesticity. A mother stands behind her daughter kneeling on the couch while looking out at the window. The mother’s stance is recognizable to any child raised by an Arab mother: head tilted up and her arms stretched out — a plea for God’s mercy in the face of a stubborn child. The pink and white staging of the drapes and couch suggest the mother-daughter dispute is about marriage, the daughter having sights on another admirer. Neither the daughter’s nor the mother’s face is visible. The mother’s face overflows out of frame while the daughter’s rests behind the drapes. Al Qasimi’s photograph turns on its head the Western conception that Arab women are hidden “behind the veil;” their life is plain to see if one discards their preconceived notions and recognizes that mothers and daughters differ universally. 

Gulf Arab states, soaked in oil and gas money, however, pander to Western standards. Alia Farid scrutinizes the imitation. Urbanization has upended life in the Gulf, including in the official representation of culture. Seeking to parade heritage, Gulf states are crafting historical narratives that embody less the realization of culture and more a contrived display that weaves together disparate artifacts, as Farid displays in a mock-museum exhibition titled “Vault” (2019). These exhibitions stand as staid advertisements — a defensive declaration: “We, too, have culture!” — placing together all manners of ancient and modern objects without telling a coherent story or inspiring new creativity. 

In a juxtaposition, “At the Time of the Ebb” (2019) is a video installation documenting the celebration of Nowruz Sayadeen (Fisherman’s New Year) on the island of Qeshm, Iran. “We are brought close to culture at its grassroots level — the suggestion being that cultural life is built in communities as opposed to something to represent within the entanglements of a global museum industry, one that willfully neglects the culture it seeks to validate,” observe critics Hana Noorali and Lynton Talbot. 

The Middle East’s wars and rivalries inform the work of Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet, who works in Beirut and San Francisco. “Steel Rings” (2013) is a recreation of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline that was abandoned due to political upheaval but not before hundreds of miles of pipes were laid (and remain) underground. In Tabet’s exhibition, steel rings laid on the floor stand in for the pipeline’s route with engravings on the rings marking the locations passed underneath. The uncompleted pipeline is the only material project to exist between five regional nations. It is a sad statement on the region’s divisions that the only thing crossing that many borders is abandoned and buried steel. Humanization of the region’s troubles comes into relief in “Cyprus” (2015). The installation consists of a 1,800-pound wooden boat suspended from the ceiling. The boat was deployed by the artist’s father to flee Lebanon’s civil war but was unable to complete the journey to the neighboring island. Years later, the family found it on the coastline. Suspended in midair, solitary, the boat speaks to the anguish burdening people in the face of conflict — a hardship that is often insurmountable, like the boat drawback by the current. “Cyprus” centers our thoughts beyond the headlines — obscuring the human toil — and toward people struggling in their wake. 

It is refreshing to see Arab artists creating thought-provoking art on their own terms. And so, the wheels of American life roll on as we crave our hearts on its road.

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New book explores history of Fire Island

Scholarly memoir recounts 1938 hurricane and its aftermath

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(Book cover image courtesy of Hanover Square Press)

‘Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise’
By Jack Parlett
c.2022, Hanover Square Press
$27.99/272 pages

Ugh, it’s been a week.

Two hours into Monday and your brain was already screaming for something fun, something far removed from work, a getaway that lets you play. You need to dance this weekend. You need to feel the sun on your face and sand between your toes. And you may need to bring “Fire Island” by Jack Parlett with you, too.

Geographically speaking, Manhattan and Fire Island are a mere 60 miles apart.

Sixty miles – and half a world. Stretched out and  narrow but walkable, the island is home to several vacation communities. Two of them, Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, both located in about the middle of the island, feature prominently in LGBTQ history.

Parlett says that Native Americans sold Fire Island to white Europeans for a pittance, after which activities there were shifty and possibly illegal. By the 1820s, conversely, it was a hot vacation spot for the elite; in certain places, it was the place for finding romance, too, which Parlett says was a sign of the future. Famous men like poet Walt Whitman were big fans of Fire Island and over the next century, a then-quiet queer subculture began to grow.

Sometimes, it grew with families and children in the picture, the latter raised by nonconformists and theater people.

Even so, despite these many changes, Parlett says that Fire Island wouldn’t be what it is today, were it not for a hurricane that hit the island on the afternoon of Sept. 21, 1938. It devastated Fire Island and resulted in a real-estate bust. Cottage prices fell significantly, and vacationing there suddenly became affordable for gay New Yorkers.

Throughout the 20th century, Fire Island became a playground for performers, thinkers, and writers such as James Baldwin and W. H. Auden. It was a source of controversy for locals who objected to nude bathing. It was a source of embarrassment for Noel Coward. It allowed everyday gay men and women to dance, drink, and party freely.

And later on, it was a place to mourn.

Considering that this is a book about a getaway destination, “Fire Island” isn’t much of a vacation-y read. It’s actually pretty dry, in fact, and filled with people that were once very famous but aren’t exactly household names anymore. Their drama and the love triangles they struggled with are mildly interesting, in the way that you might perceive great-grandma’s old Confidential magazines in the attic.

And yet – the history. Author Jack Parlett offers a lot of solid information beyond those tired scandals to further show how Fire Island came to be a gay hot-spot and why that was important. These tales envelope the rest of the island, as well as current events in America, as a whole, and the impact those outside influences had on LGBTQ life, even today.

More scholarly than not, this book also includes a fair bit of memoir for readers who are looking for something less frivolous. If you want a book for fun, though, “Fire Island” is weak.

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