Exactly one year ago, I felt like I was being told to choose my identity on Fire Island.
Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines are two communities on the island, which sits almost four miles off of the south shore of Long Island in New York. The communities have a long gay history that has made them premier summer getaway destinations for members of the LGBTQ community. Often touted as a “safe-haven” or “sanctuary,” the demographics of the area haven’t always made that sentiment ring true for Black, Indigenous and people of color who visit. Homeownership in the Pines is 92% white, and the thousands of people who rent vacation shares on the island each summer are also predominantly white.
Last year, I was attending the Cherry Grove Pride Parade with a group of Black Lives Matter supporters when one of the organizers told me to remember that this was a pride parade and not a BLM march.
“But I’m Black and I’m gay,” I said to myself.
The organizer’s words felt out of touch after cities across the country had announced that their Pride marches would be turned into rallies for Black lives lost to police brutality and gun violence after the murder of George Floyd. It also felt like erasure since the gay rights movements began with trans women of color, and reaffirmed why racial equity work in this beloved LGBTQ summer destination was necessary.
So we formed a new organization after realizing that trying to address these concerns within existing Fire Island community associations might take too long. In June 2020, we formed the Black and Brown Equity Coalition, for which I serve as president.
This year, BaBEC organized Juneteenth Fire Island and showed how to build real inclusion with the most marginalized people in mind. Our organization, whose mission is to promote racial equity in Cherry Grove, hosted events designed to educate, inspire and entertain.
The programming included a Beach Solidarity March, organized in collaboration with the anti-gun violence group Gays Against Guns, in honor of Black people who have lost their lives to police brutality and gun violence. From there, people marched back to Cherry Grove for its first Progress Pride Parade, which ended at Cherry Grove Dock, where a brand new progress pride flag was raised high over the harbor. The flag has a chevron of black, brown, pink, light blue and white stripes that represent the most marginalized communities of color, the transgender community and people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as those who have died from complications of the disease.
The weekend included salon-style conversations about policing Black and brown bodies, and how white people can use their privilege to advance diversity, equity and inclusion. Fire Island is no stranger to drag pageants, but since 1966 only four Black contestants have ever won, so the Black and Brown Equity Coalition hosted the first Mx. Juneteenth Fire Island Pageant to celebrate Black drag artistry of all gender expressions, with intentions to crown a Black contestant every year.
The coalition paid over $10,000 to Black people who helped organize and participated in the weekend’s events as part of a commitment to provide economic opportunities for Black and brown people on the island. A portion of the money that we raised will be donated to Gays Against Guns, Black Trans Femmes in the Arts and the Northstar Fund.
I am so proud of the way everything transpired, how it has been amplified and also how it has inspired other communities. People in Provincetown, an LGBTQ destination on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, heard about what Black and Brown Equity Coalition was doing to commemorate Juneteenth and reached out to see how they could do the same, launching a historic sister city initiative. It baffles me to think back, even just to last summer, and reflect on how things got to this level.
Last year, when the world’s energy was focused on the systemic oppression that Black people have been facing for centuries, a vandalism incident occurred at the Cherry Grove Community House. Someone posted photos in a private Facebook group showing that parts of the building had been spray painted with “BLM.” Most commenters seemed to think the person responsible wasn’t a movement sympathizer but rather someone who wanted to stir up controversy. However, the dialogue that ensued revealed a lot of overt racism in the community. People left replies saying that “blue lives matter” and “white lives matter.”
In response, I wrote an article titled “A Guide To Being Antiracist in Fire Island.” I talked about what I saw in that online thread, how it made me feel as a Black community member and burgeoning business owner on the island, and I listed 16 things that white people on the island could do to be antiracist immediately. The article took off and people began contacting me, many in shock about the amount of hate they did not know existed on the island, some wanting to help effect change.
In the seven years that I’ve been coming to the island, I’ve never experienced overt racism until I started being vocal about inequality. Since BaBEC was formed, we’ve gone out of our way to develop relationships with the other community organizations, which has largely been a positive experience. This year, we organized our first Cherry Grove Progress Pride Parade after two community organizations — the Arts Project of Cherry Grove and the Cherry Grove Community Association, Inc. — invited the Suffolk County Police Department to march in the long-running Cherry Grove Pride Parade.
BaBEC, who had been planning to march in the traditional Grove parade, met with the leaders of both community organizations and explained the optics of inviting cops to march during Fire Island’s inaugural celebration of Juneteenth. We explained how police presence would create an environment where Black and transgender people would feel unsafe. In response, the groups asked the officers to march in plainclothes, and moved their parade to the following weekend.
We had hoped the groups would rescind their invitation to the Suffolk County Police Department, and their decision not to is a prime example of building something without the most marginalized members of the community in mind. Their decision was racist and transphobic because it put the value of one figurative blue shirt over the lives of hundreds of Black, brown and transgender people.
My experiences on Fire Island in the last few years have empowered me to stand up taller, speak louder and advocate harder in the fight for racial equity in Cherry Grove. Juneteenth weekend was more Black, more brown, more femme and more queer than I have ever seen Fire Island. I hope that more people support us in the future. This is a movement not a moment, and the Black joy that ensued over the course of last weekend was a beautiful testament to that.
Here’s a look at the weekend, in photos and portraits captured by photographer Evan Ortiz: