Fire Island is a thin strip of sand dunes and sunken forest and friendly deer and narrow boardwalks and buried shipwrecks. There are no roads or cars or bicycles. Unless you can charter a helicopter, the island is reachable only by boat, and only if you have the money or connections to arrange lodging. The place is rarified in more ways than one. It is not uncommon to arrive on the ferry from Sayville, N.Y., while a drag queen is standing on the edge of a dockside trash bin, lip-syncing to Celine Dion. People on the docks wave at the arriving vacationers, who wave back, because, well, we’ve made it. Fire Island is the safest of safe spaces for gay people, and has been for generations.
The news from Orlando arrived at 6:03 a.m. Sunday — perhaps the only hour when the whole island is asleep — in the form of quiet alerts on smartphones, suddenly glowing on bedside tables, in jean shorts, under chaise lounges. Twenty-some dead. Then around 50. A gay club.
No one really pays attention to the day or time here, because the island seems to exist outside the parameters of the real world. So the news was somewhat slow to permeate a space that is all about cooking and relaxing and dancing and having complete strangers wander in because they heard the music and because they know that everyone will be welcoming and non-threatened, and so on. It’s utopian.
As I’m typing this, the glitter lacquer on my fingernails is catching the sun. You get the picture.
This place was created by an older generation of gays so they could be themselves without fear of repression or pain or violence. In 2016 my friends and I don’t need this place to be ourselves, because the world has spun forward a whole bunch since the 1950s, since Stonewall, since AIDS at its worst, since even 10 or 12 years ago. But we certainly rejoice in being here. It is an inheritance. It is still a sanctuary from the real world and its tedium, conformity, ugliness and capacity for great and targeted violence. After cooking dinner Saturday night, we went around the table to articulate what the place means to us. One of the guys likened it to a communication of love through the generations. A never-ending story, he said. (Which I followed, of course, by putting a Limahl remix on the stereo.)
I’m just catching up on the particulars of the news, and we’re all in the awkward situation of feeling personally impacted by this mass shooting, confounded by the nexus of terror and hate, and entirely removed from this whole thing because of our privileged vacation. Yesterday was like paradise. There were a dozen of us, lounging in the sun, the music a bit too loud, the house waterfall splashing into the pool (yes, I know, ridiculous). But we kept finding each other around the house, having a private cry, like we needed to hide our reactions to the real world in order to maintain the perfection of this space. All it took for one guy from Miami was seeing the victims’ names; all it took for me was seeing an Instagram of a woman standing in a D.C. intersection during the weekend’s gay-pride festivities, waving an enormous rainbow flag. To 32-year-old me, this always seemed like pageantry, but now it felt like the act of risk and defiance and pride that it has always been to older men and women who’ve dealt with worse.
The rainbow flags on beachfront properties are at half mast. Showtunes Sundays at the pavilion began with Judy Garland singing “Smile” and ended — after a word about “our friends in Orlando” — with “Seasons of Love.” So cliché. But cliché is a balm. And a conduit. Yes, we were in the safest of safe spaces, but we were still in a gay club, and that was the slaughterhouse du jour.
Each mass shooting brings a new demographic into the crosshairs. Charleston was obscene, but I would never be at a prayer group. Newtown was mind-boggling, but I don’t have children. These tragedies were abstract in their immensity. Orlando? Easily could’ve been me at the club, or any of my friends. Gay men go dancing. As Pulse was being shot up, we were dancing in our house on the island, cut off from the world. We’re lucky and privileged to be able to treat this older generation’s safe space as an amusement park. But the starkness between my weekend and the reality in Orlando is a bizarre reminder that there are very few actual safe spaces, particularly when a lunatic has an assault rifle.
At some point yesterday afternoon, I retreated to the back deck to glance at the news and social media. And I saw the woman with the rainbow flag in D.C., standing in the intersection as if there are no assault rifles in the world. A friend came out and he sat by my side. Even though I was wearing sunglasses, and even though we had never seen each other cry before, he knew. And he wordlessly took my hand and held on for several minutes. And that grip is the meaning in this madness. A lunatic killed 49 people in a safe space, in a venue for joy, and 1,000 miles away on a barrier island a friendship tightened.
We talked about how gays have nothing at stake anymore, no unifying force driving us toward a goal, because rights have never been more equal, and we have assimilated into society and culture, which was the goal all along, wasn’t it? And yet this is not so. A gay couple in Moscow was arrested for leaving flowers outside the U.S. embassy. The Orlando shooter, poisoned by extremism, was perhaps a gay man himself, taught to loathe who he was, and chose to tear apart a world he could not reach.
“They should’ve been here with us,” said one of the guys in our house, wishing retroactive sanctuary for the boys and ladies in Orlando. It’s great that a gay club like Pulse can operate in a major city, that the first openly gay Army secretary was confirmed last month, that marriage equality was affirmed in all 50 states a year ago next week; it’s sad that one of the few true safe spaces is reachable only by boat. Is this an LGBT issue? A gun issue?
Terror and hate: not much difference. One yields the other. They also yield solidarity. More people are brought into the fold of shared understanding. The world improves despite horror and setback, and sometimes because of it. In 1973, after 32 people burned to death in an attack on a gay bar in New Orleans, some bodies went unclaimed by ashamed family members; since Sunday it feels like vast numbers of Americans have claimed each one of the dead in Orlando. That very evening an orthodox Jewish congregation went to a black gay bar in D.C. to hug and mourn and buy a round of beer, and there were glimmers of utopia on the mainland. As the song goes: Thereupon the rainbow is the answer to a never-ending story. ◙