Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town

Esther Newton

Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 378 pp.

Reviewed by: Christopher Baum, Ph.D. Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the Graduate Center, CUNY

 

In the Preface which accompanies the new edition of Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town (2014), Esther Newton humbly remarks that as she flips through the pages of her text (now regarded as a classic in both anthropology and queer studies) she thinks to herself: “well done” (xv).  I couldn’t agree more.  Cherry Grove is a remarkable cultural history that tracks the genesis of queer sociality in the United States.  The project initially began as a question that Newton asked upon her first visit in the 1980s, namely: How is it that “this little sandspit came to be, as far as we now know, the world’s only geography controlled by gay men and women?” (3).  By “control,” Newton signals a serious interest in questions of political and economic influence, which she traces through the historical formation of community organizations (oriented around ownership, performance, and commerce).  Apart from the short new preface, the eleven chapters and photographs remain unchanged from the original version published in 1993.  Supplemented in part by newspaper archives from local townships (and later Cherry Grove itself), Newton masterfully crafts a version of lesbian and gay history as relayed by her 46 named “narrators” (a term she finds more suited to historical analysis than the anthropological convention of labeling interlocutors “informants”).

 

Newton’s central argument is that the existence of Cherry Grove—a distinct geography controlled and inhabited by lesbians and gays at least since the 1930s—was vital in forming (and ultimately transforming) diverse lesbian and gay identities in the United States during the twentieth century. Considering the strict divisions between public and private life under industrial capitalism, Newton argues that it is particularly apt that this would occur within a resort community, seen as the “proper” (or at least more tolerant) sphere for sexual expression.  Those familiar with Newton’s first book, Mother Camp (1979) will be acquainted with her framing of “camp”—a concept highly influential to later theories of gender performativity—which she described as “a relationship between things, people, and activities or qualities and homosexuality” and one that she cites as fundamental to community building in the Grove (73, see Chapter 3 in particular).  At each step Newton is careful to point out that the formation of an imagined “gay nation” (à la Benedict Anderson) was seldom stable, and frequently challenged (beginning especially with the influx of working class, ethnic and racial minorities in the 1960s).

 

Cherry Grove is organized chronologically into six main sections. The first and shortest section looks at the years between 1936 and 1945, and showcases a small coterie of New York City intellectual and theater elite who are remembered as the early Grove “pioneers.”  Of particular note are the remarkable details concerning the devastating 1938 hurricane, which put an end to heterosexual family vacationers, and inserted an opportunity for lesbian and gay home ownership since the location held little appeal to most others. The second section (1946-59) more fully elaborates Newton’s thesis concerning the role of the Grove in the formation of lesbian and gay identities based on “homoeroticism and gender dissidence” (40).  While this was a political period marked by intense social stigma and institutionalized homophobic violence, it was also a moment of sexual freedom and exploration.  Newton characterizes the Grove community during this period as an elite “country club” replete with racial, class, gender, and ethnicity-based forms of exclusion.  The third section (1960-69) is perhaps the most robust, and details how the Grove began to gain attention as a national tourist destination and gained a foothold in the lesbian and gay popular imaginary.  In particular, major infrastructural changes and an influx of capital investments led to a proliferation of commercial spaces, and with it a new generation of non-white and working-class lesbians and gays. The attending struggles that erupted over property, space, and commerce led to critiques of the emergent gay nationalism.

 

The fourth section explores the presence of women in what had remained a gay (male) dominated space, which tended to view women as “alien kin, sisters yet strangers” (203).  Divided into two sections, Newton positions the historical interventions of lesbians in the Grove amidst broader political and economic shifts in women’s lives. She is careful to make the case for understanding lesbian history in its own right and resists subsuming it within gay (male) history or women’s history more generally (although these are all clearly intertwined).   The final section (1970-1980) reckons with the mounting hostility between the overtly political Gay Liberation Front on the mainland, and the generally non-political homeowners on the Grove.  While both were critical of bourgeois democracy, they devised radically different rhetorics concerning the political dimensions of sexuality.  While the text draws to a close at the beginning of the 1980s, the epilogue addresses transformations in the Grove as a result of the AIDS pandemic, rising property taxes and an aging population.  The new Preface picks up where the original text leaves off, and details a trip Newton took to the Grove in 2012, almost fifteen years since her last visit.  Newton remained distant from the Grove primarily owing to the death of several interlocutors whom she loved dearly, and other personal reasons.  Her re-visitation is astute and sometimes funny, the sole limitation being its brevity. Newton picks up on several threads from the original text told vis-à-vis meetings with her former friends and narrators. She conveys details concerning a new female majority, the emergence of new community organizations, and the welcome influx of non-white renters.

 

This text will continue to resonate for those interested in exploring the imbrications of anthropology and queer history; it is particularly notable for its methodological clarity, and I would especially recommend it to those using life-histories to understand historical transformations around space and identity.  It is also a must-read for those interested in understanding the ways that race, gender, and political-economic factors have shaped sexuality throughout the twentieth century.  Finally, recent shifts in both gender and LGBTQ politics in the United States make the republication Cherry Grove particularly à propos. In the final pages of the text, the late filmmaker and historian Vito Russo, points to the double-edge of certain new freedoms afforded to queer men and women in the late 20th century that were unimaginable in bygone eras.  He suggests that one day “homosexuality” will “become ordinary, which is sad to me – very, very sad. What I’m trying to find is, is there a way to help gay people to move into the mainstream and retain their uniqueness?” (297-8).  Given recent expansions in LGBT civil rights in the US (i.e. the legalization of same-sex marriage and the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”) as well as shifts in feminist organizing (such as the recent closure of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival), Russo’s question captures the complex feelings of hope, fear and nostalgia that accompany major changes in the politics of gender and sexuality.  Newton’s text succeeds in offering a helpful perspective in thinking through these transformations.

 

Christopher Baum is a Ph.D. Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center, and is currently (2015-16) conducting ethnographic research for his dissertation.  His work explores the formation of the adult film industry based in Los Angeles County and looks at transformations around issues of labor, regulation and technology.

 

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