Friday, June 27, 2008

Citations in Fire Island Meatrack Spark Outrage

This story seems to continue to spark conversation and even gossip as the facts of what happened in the famed Meatrack become more and more clear. The article I posted to EDGE Fire Island yesterday certainly seem to clarify from the Fire Island National Seashore's perspective what happened. And it also seeks to report on the variety of reactions residents of both Cherry Grove and the Fire Island Pines continue to have. Stay tuned...

With the height of the all too-short summer season less than a week away, the news of possible arrests inside a strip of beach between Cherry Grove and the Fire Island Pines that has long been a popular cruising spot for gay men sent shock waves through the two hamlets.

The Fire Island National Seashore, which maintains jurisdiction over the Meat Rack, also known as the Carrington Tract, was quick to point out its rangers made no arrests. It did confirm to EDGE, however, they cited two people for disorderly conduct on June 15. Rangers restrained one of these men after he allegedly threw a substance into the weeds and attempted to run away. They cited him for possession of a controlled substance.

Three additional people received citations for disorderly conduct on June 21 for allegedly engaging in sexual activity within view of the trail. FINS spokesperson Paula Valentine categorically denied any raids or targeted policing of gay men inside the Meat Rack motivated these citations. She said the rangers issued them while on what she described as routine patrols-although the first two were issued during an orientation tour for new FINS seasonal staffers.

"They’re there to protect resources and protect people," Valentine said. "If they come across people engaged in activities that are inappropriate for a public place, they are going to have to respond to them."

She further noted FINS received additional funds from the National Parks Service to put more rangers on the beach this season. The seashore has also used this money to provide lifeguards on Barrett Beach, additional canoe and guided programs at both Watch Hill and the Sunken Forest and to resurface the boardwalk at Sailors Haven.

FINS again defended its rangers’ actions.

"Park rangers check for litter and vandalism and impacts to wildlife," it said in a statement released to journalists after a number of gay bloggers and Web sites began to report on what allegedly took place. "Park rangers are also there to provide first aid and emergency medical services. But when an illegal activity is encountered, they are obligated to do their jobs as federal law enforcement officers."

The citations, which many in both the Pines and the Grove initially concluded were arrests, sparked concern and even anger among a number of local residents. The Suffolk County Police Department arrested dozens of gay men during raids in the 1960s on sodomy, indecent exposure and other charges. Local activism eventually stopped these Meat Rack incursions, but these citations brought the issue back to the forefront for some.

"For 40 years, [things have] been running smoothly here," East End resident Philip Otten told EDGE on a recent Tuesday night at Island Breeze in the Grove. "People come here because of the freedom."

Mid-week patrons at Low Tea and Sip n’ Twirl in the Pines also discussed the citations-and resulting hubbub-as they enjoyed their beers and cocktails.

"It’s absolutely frustrating," one Pines resident, who identified himself as Andy, said. "This is an adult island. This is an island about non-censorship. People want to be free."

FINS acting superintendent Sean McGuinness met with members of both the Fire Island Pines Property Owners Association and the Cherry Grove Property Owners Association to address local concerns. CGPOA president Larry Lane said McGuinness stressed to him "the issue is resolved" and "we should not have any further problems."

"I’m satisfied for the moment," Lane said. "We’re hoping there will be no further problems."

Valentine further stressed FINS will continue to work with both FIPPOA and CGPOA to respond to any further concerns.

"The key thing is mutual respect on both sides, from every aspect," she said.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Meatrack Update

This sign appeared on a bulletin board in Cherry Grove last Sunday after reports of arrests inside the Meatrack began to circulate wildly across Fire Island--and beyond. [Photo courtesy of Philip Otten]

With all of the gossip, rumor and even innuendo swirling across Fire Island and the gay blogosphere in recent days about what reportedly happened inside the Meatrack, it is important to point out rangers with the Fire Island National Seashore did not arrest anyone. They did, however, issue two citations for disorderly conduct and one for possession of a controlled substance on June 15 and three more for disorderly conduct on June 21. A FINS spokesperson stressed to me yesterday these citations are not part of any calculated attempt to target gay people or raids into the Meatrack, but rather are simply part of routine patrols.

FINS' budget this year provided additional resources to fund more patrols of stretches of beach over which it maintains jurisdiction. This fact explains the numerous accounts of people who said they have seen more rangers inside the Meatrack, also known as the Carrington Tract, in recent weeks. But it also did little to dampen the suspicion and downright outrage many in both Cherry Grove and the Fire Island Pines continued to express to me last night in both hamlets. These citations have certainly handed FINS some very unwelcome attention. And they have also shed an unwanted spotlight onto the Grove and the Pines. The story may fade into oblivion once the facts of what happened become clear, but it certainly opened a can of worms many on Fire Island thought had been permanently sealed long ago.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Arrests in the Meatrack?

A sudden illness kept me in bed for a majority of the past weekend here on Fire Island, but I did have enough energy to purchase two wigs, a playboy handbag and gaudy costume jewelry to compliment my upcoming Invasion costume. One story that stood out from the past several days, however, are the series of arrests that reportedly took place in the Meat Rack over the last two weekends.

A number of Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove residents told Boy in Bushwick over the last few days about these alleged patrols inside the strip of land, known as the Carrington Tract, between the gay hamlets. These sources reported National Park Service rangers reportedly issued summonses and tickets to those found engaging in public sex and urination. This blogger has yet to confirm these accounts, but it is certainly safe to say people in both hamlets are outraged over what has allegedly happened over the last two weeks. Log onto both the Fire Island News, EDGE Fire Island and this blog for further updates.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Buck Angel, a man with a pussy: LGB without the T

The debate over whether transgender people are actually included within the LGBT acronym the leaders of the movement for [gay and lesbian] rights have created certainly shows no signs of abating anytime soon. And the fact that more than a few gay men remain uncomfortable with transgender or gender variant people remains a reality within the movement.

My first ever Village Voice story, which appears in this year's Pride issue, examines what arguably remains a difficult topic about which to talk. Working for one of the country's largest LGBT advocacy organizations for a year and a half certainly provided some valuable insight for this story. And the article simply discusses a reality about which many people within remain arguably uncomfortable to talk.

As the undisputed king of transgender porn, Buck Angel thrives on his ability to deconstruct traditional notions of masculinity. He unabashedly promotes himself as a man with a pussy. Headlining the 2006 Black Party was a career high: "It was super-awesome—the audience was amazing," Angel says. "Everything was really positive."

That was, however, far from the universal view among the thousands of hyper-masculine attendees. The Black Party—the mega dance-and-flesh fest held every March at Roseland—reflects the hyper-masculine ideal that dominates gayborhoods like Hell's Kitchen, South Beach, and the Castro. Joe Jervis, live-blogging during the party, summed up the sentiments of many attendees: "Men who have been fucked, fisted, shackled, flogged, and pissed upon have finally crossed a lurid and yet rarely discussed carnal threshold. They have seen, in person, a pussy."

Angel himself concedes that his unconventional plumbing causes discomfort among gay men: "I don't conform to what you tell me I should do," he says. "The world is not black and white. Sexuality is not black and white. Gender is not black and white. And I'm putting that out there in your face."

Angel's performance at the Black Party was a direct challenge to the men who have pretty much run the gay-rights movement for decades. The transgendered—which encompasses anyone whose gender identity and expression doesn't fit into traditional masculine or feminine roles—may have helped instigate the 1969 police riots at the Stonewall Inn. But since then, the movement has endured an ongoing struggle to find its place at the table, even as it continues to become more institutionalized and more an accepted part of mainstream America.

Transpeople present a threat to the conformity of today's gay leaders. The faces of contemporary gay activism are the well-scrubbed visages of Ellen DeGeneres and gal pal (and soon wife) Portia de Rossi; Rosie O'Donnell and Kelli Carpenter; and such folks as Nathan Lane, Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson, and TV judge David Young. The Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation—two of the largest and most powerful national gay-rights groups in the country—put forward these trained spokespeople to mouth carefully crafted messages and talking points that effectively market their brand of lesbian and gay identity to a largely straight audience.

Despite some notable setbacks, this strategy has largely worked in creating what Suzanna Walters, chair of the Department of Gender Studies at Indiana University, calls "a model of tolerance and acceptance that perpetuates the message: 'We're here, we're queer, but we're no different than you.' That makes these mainstream organizations nervous about their hard-fought gains."

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, a Washington-based lobby, believes this situation has created tension between the transgendered on the one side, and gay men and lesbians on the other: "It becomes easy then to blame some other associated group for attracting the hate and disrespect," she says. "So passable non-trans gay people suspect transpeople—or even non-passable gay people—of being the problem."

Race is another factor. Kai Wright, author of Drifting Towards Love: Black, Brown, Gay and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York, believes that discomfort toward transgender or gender-variant people (sissies and butches) remains particularly entrenched among gay men of color.

"We're more sensitive to it, because the amount of gender policing we do among each other—casually and socially—is striking: Are you man enough, women enough, the right kind of woman?" Wright says. "As individuals, we struggle with gender nonconformity, because it is something that has been thrown at us so much."

This discomfort can be far-reaching. After last year's Gay Pride March, a male bouncer followed Khadijah Farmer, a 27-year-old black lesbian, into the women's restroom of Caliente Cab Company and demanded that she leave because her appearance was too masculine. Farmer received a $35,000 settlement that mandated the implementation of transgender sensitivity training for the popular restaurant's staff.

Michael Silverman, executive director of the New York–based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, based Farmer's lawsuit on the city-wide anti-gender identity-discrimination law. The bouncer violated city regulations when he targeted Farmer because of what her lawyer described as "unconventional gender expression"—treatment hardly unique to Farmer. "Gender issues are still quite scary and uncomfortable for a lot of people," Silverman says. "It's sort of an us-versus-them, black-and-white, sun-and-moon scenario." But, he adds, "we aren't night and day, or black and white—we're all affected by these questions about gender-based discrimination."

The long-standing complaints by transgender activists that their gay counterparts haven't done enough are based on what they see as a visceral level of discomfort with the subject.

At least one prominent gay leader is willing to come clean about his own issues. Matt Foreman recently left his post as head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force for a position at a gay philanthropic organization. Before that, he headed the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state's major LGBT political lobby. While there, he sparked widespread outrage among New York transgender activists over his decision not to push for trans protections in the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act back in 2002. The bill had been languishing in Albany for three decades before it passed the state legislature. Foreman readily concedes that he feared including such protections would have jeopardized SONDA's passage. He maintains that gay-rights leaders have made significant strides since then: "The people who move the movement do get it," he says.

A highly contentious debate over the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act most clearly exposed the fault lines between the transgendered and the rest of the LGBT coalition. The bill was first introduced back in 1974 as a proposed amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that would add sexual orientation to the federal non-discrimination statutes. As it turned out, gender identity and expression was only added to ENDA in the late 1990s.

Openly gay Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank introduced two versions of the bill last September—one that included gender identity and expression, and another that didn't—because he feared the inclusive bill did not have enough votes to withstand a challenge on the House floor. This tactic sparked the creation of a coalition of more than 370 local, statewide, and national LGBT organizations, largely spearheaded by Foreman, to support the inclusive bill.

However, the Human Rights Campaign remained conspicuously on the sidelines, even though the nation's largest gay-rights organization had endorsed Frank's bill. HRC has long faced criticism from activists for its perceived bowing and scraping to the D.C. status quo, but this latest maneuver caused Donna Rose, the only transgender member of its board, to resign. Activists staged boisterous and embarrassing protests outside the organization's annual black-tie dinners at the Hilton in midtown and in other cities around the country. The group Radical Homosexual Agenda unfurled a sign that read: "Can't Spell LGBT with HRC! Trans Power Now!"

Activists also unfurled a banner inside the hotel during HRC president Joe Solmonese's speech. Security guards quickly whisked them out, but the absence of two of the city's most prominent openly gay politicians, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and State Senator Tom Duane, who cited "scheduling conflicts," spoke even louder about HRC's freeze-out. "There was consensus and one rogue organization," Keisling dryly notes.

An HRC spokesperson declined repeated requests to comment for this story. Solmonese, however, has gone on record saying that HRC had changed its policy and would only support a trans-inclusive ENDA. This declaration, however, arrived less than a month before Frank introduced his bill. Pauline Park is speaking for most transgender activists when she complains that HRC "values relationships with people in power and access to power more than people in the community."

New York congressman and mayoral contender Anthony Weiner spoke passionately in favor of a transgender-inclusive ENDA on the House floor: "We should also make it clear to those who are watching this discussion: We're not going to negotiate against ourselves," he warned. "Some things are immutable—there are some civil rights that are immutable—and this is one of them."

For his part, Frank tells the Voice that transphobia had nothing to do with his decision to remove gender identity and expression from ENDA; the votes simply didn't add up. But Frank concedes that the "ick factor" among many members of Congress presents a significant impediment to passing an inclusive ENDA.

"Sexuality is a tricky question," he says. "You get into transgender—it embraces all of that—and you have people's fear and dislike of things that are different. Nobody is more different to an average person than a transgender person, and that makes them nervous."

Frank also believes that transgender activists have relied too heavily on mainstream LGBT groups to push the issue. "They haven't done any lobbying yet," he complained. "They insist the gay community will do it, and they are wrong to say the gay community will do it. They have done a very bad job."

Keisling categorically denies Frank's claim. She says that Frank had given her and other organizations their marching orders before last fall's controversy erupted. These included increasing their grassroots efforts outside the Beltway and focusing on specific members of Congress, whom Frank himself identified. "The LGBT movement and our lobbyists, to a large extent, followed Congressman Frank's lead on education around ENDA," she says. "It was his bill."

Keisling also bristles at the suggestion that transgender activists are riding on their gay counterparts' coattails: "Gay activists and organizations were and are, in fact, a very important and effective part of the lobbying for the inclusive ENDA."

Foreman also blasts Frank's criticisms as a way to cover his tracks: "Contrary to Mr. Frank's assertion, all gay activists, including HRC, had been lobbying hard for the inclusive ENDA—not just last year, but for many years before that," he says. "When Mr. Frank and other House leaders turned tail, every single major national and statewide organization—with the exception of HRC and the Log Cabin Republicans—mounted an all-out effort to get the inclusive ENDA back on the table. The scope and depth of this effort surprised the House leadership, and must have embarrassed Mr. Frank."

If anything, the ENDA debacle has emboldened Keisling and her cohorts to lobby Congress even harder. Tammy Baldwin, an openly lesbian Democratic congresswoman from Wisconsin, described her colleagues on the Hill as receptive to their efforts: "People were getting calls in their district offices and in their D.C. offices saying, 'Support a trans-inclusive ENDA,' " Baldwin tells the Voice.

Activists continue to criticize Frank for a willingness to take the "T" out of the LGBT coalition: "Barney is a hero in many ways, but he's hung up on trans issues," Foreman said. "I was once too, so I know all these bullshit arguments inside out."

Frank calls "the transphobic thing" silly. "It's kind of an emotional outburst," he says. "It is easier to yell at your allies than to go out and convert your opponents."

Back in the clubs, bars, and dance floors where the real changes in consciousness occur, however, Buck Angel's career as a man with a pussy continues apace. And he remains as defiant as ever: "There are no rules, as far as I'm concerned," Angel says. "Nobody can deny I am a man. I am not conforming to anyone who says I'm not. Nobody can tell me different."

Monday, June 16, 2008

California same-sex couples to start marrying today

The question of whether marriage for same-sex couples is an issue on which the broader movement for lesbian and gay (and transgender) rights should focus a significant amount of time, energy and especially money is one with several answers. There is an arguable groundswell of people within it who contend this issue is the most important civil rights concern of their generation. There are others who contend marriage is nothing more than a narrow sighted attempt to assimilate into heterosexual society. And there are those who maintain the push for marriage for gay and lesbian couples comes at the expense of anti-LGBT hate crime legislation, socio-economic and racial justice for LGBT people of color and other arguably more important issues.

This debate will certainly continue, but those couples in California who plan to pronounce their commitment to each other before their friends, families and communities starting today will almost certainly celebrate the date for what it is--a groundbreaking milestone towards equality and justice for all. Not everyone in LGBT America will get married. And there are certainly those who may deliberately shun this societal institution, but the choice as to whether one should get married should not lay with the government. Love is love. Commitment is commitment. And the couples who will begin to walk down the aisle today in the Golden State are certainly ready to legally express that reality.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Fire Island theatre experiences renaissance

Fire Island was, in many ways, an escape for New York's theatre elite as far back as the late 1800s. Oscar Wilde and Christopher Isherwood are among those from Broadway, off-Broadway and other genres who could have been seen on the beach or at then Duffy's Hotel in Cherry Grove.

Local residents are often quick to point out how they feel the Grove is making a come back after years of decline after the AIDS epidemic largely decimated the hamlet in the 1980s and early 1990s. And this season's line-up seems to accurately prove that argument as I reported in EDGE Fire Island.

Many are quick to point out the Grove--and Fire Island in general--is one of the most beautiful places in the world. This writer is inclined to agree, and those within New York's theatre and Broadway elite appear to agree.

As the peak of the all too short summer season on the beach fast approaches, both Cherry Grove and the Fire Island Pines continue to play host to a variety of playwrights, actors, musicians and other fixtures on New York’s theatre, cabaret and concert scene.

Comedienne Michele Balan, Elaine St. George, Jacqueline Jonée and Rose Levine are among the performers slated to appear at the Grove’s Community House this season. The Arts Project of Cherry Grove will also stage its 10th annual "Ocean Aires: Rated X" on Saturday, June 14, and "I Love New York" on Saturday, June 21. "Our Favorite Things" will also show during Labor Day weekend.

Christopher Phillips, a board member for the Arts Project of Cherry Grove, told EDGE in a recent interview these performances and appearances provide local audiences with a unique experience not usually found in traditional venues.

"You really do get a much more intimate view... than anywhere else," he said.

Richard LaFrance, founder and artistic director of the Island Repertory Theatre in the Grove, agreed. Steven Fales will bring "Confessions of a Mormon Boy" to the beach next month. And IRT will stage its adaptation of "Sordid Lives" in August. La France said he feels these productions continue to put local theatre on the map.

"It makes me feel very proud of the work we’re doing out here," he said. "Well-known people in the theatre want to come here-that’s the honor."

In the neighboring Pines, Malcolm Gets and Melissa Errico’s performance at Whyte Hall earlier this month are the latest in a series of concerts and other events on a Fire Island Pines Arts Project calendar that includes Brian Stokes Mitchell ("Man of la Mancha" and "Ragtime"), pianist Henry Wong Doe and vocalist John Putnam.

"[FIPAP] has a long history of bringing arts and culture to the Pines," FIPAP board member Mark Ricigliano said. "As we hold [onto] that tradition, we continue to expand our offerings, from a craft show and comedians and now a cabaret series and classical piano concert."

New York’s theatre and Broadway elite have summered on Fire Island-and especially in the Grove-since the late 1800s. Playwright Oscar Wilde, Catalan actor and bandleader Xavier Cugat, actresses Paulette Goodard and Arlene Francis and gay author Christopher Isherwood are among those who frequented the hamlet during its heyday.

Phillips stressed his hope the APCG’s line-up this summer proves actors and other performers are once again drawn to the Grove.

"The fact these performers want to perform in Cherry Grove is because they feel at home here," he said. "They feel they are with their own."

LaFrance agreed.

"[People] are also coming to Cherry Grove now for the theatre," he said. "We’ve always thought of it as... alternative entertainment, and people do come from all over to see our shows. Theatre is always good for a community."

Log onto Arts Project of Cherry Grove, Island Repertory Theatre and Fire Island Pines Arts Project for more information.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Random reflections from New York

With Pride month in full-swing here in New York, a number of random thoughts continue to go through my mind as I sit in my apartment in Bushwick at this late hour. They include how I can possibly attend at least one Pride-related event over the next two weeks, the joy I felt talking with two Daily News reporters at B Bar in the East Village last night and the anxious feeling I have about my cover story for the Village Voice Pride issue that comes out next Wednesday. This blog is more or less the equivalent of Carrie Bradshaw writing about her socks during an episode in season four of "Sex and the City," or more accurately me simply scraping the bottom of the barrel after hours of writing and editing stories for EDGE.

The parallel to my random thoughts is LGBT New York, as an entity, is arguably a combination of random events, people, occurrences, etc. that are drawn together in some sort of systematic combination of politics, culture and mere existence. These events, people, occurrences and other things all help to create the gay (or lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or gender non-conforming) world in which many of us live. The reality that is gay and lesbian Fire Island remains alive and well for me. Randomness, on the other hand, such as this blog, help to at least slightly alter it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Fire Island with a slice of turbulence

This sailboat battens down the hatches as a powerful squall line descends upon Cherry Grove on Sunday, June 8.

Another weekend has passed and I'm enjoying the relative cool of Fire Island this morning before I head back into the city later this afternoon. The hot and humid weather over the Tri State during the last few days certainly drew more than a few weary city goers to the beach. It's still very early in the season, however, so the crowds were more manageable than what one may expect.

That said, this weekend marks the start of our third issue. And I spent the weekend capturing the beach's latest swimsuit fashions--no joke! I also interviewed WNYC host Richard Hake at his share in the Pines and spent yet another Saturday night partying in the Grove with new and old friends. I also watched thunderstorms develop over Long Island--the mainland as native Fire Islanders call it--from the roof deck at Democratic National Committee treasurer Andrew Tobias' and his partner, designer Charles Nolan, yesterday afternoon. These storms turned into a very nasty squall line that raked the beach around 6 p.m. I had the unenviable privilege of riding this storm out on a water taxi between the Grove and Ocean Bay Park with two tweenagers and their parents. I can joke now hazard pay is not included in my compensation with the Fire Island News, but the trip certainly made for a turbulent end to a hot and humid weekend on the beach.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A new era

The New Hampshire primary, which took place on January 8, seems like a arguable distant memory.

The think overcast that hung over Fire Island today cannot contain the excitement of millions of Americans, myself included, over the history that was made last night. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama clinched his party's nomination after a campaign that lasted 16 months. I endorsed him earlier this year ahead of the New Hampshire primary. I continue to support his candidacy, and the site of him announcing his victory in St. Paul last night was nothing short of monumental out of the sheer fact he is the first black person in this country who could arguably become president.

The last 16 months have certainly exposed me to an extremely diverse range of political views. Operatives who represented the candidates on both sides of the aisle guaranteed this journalist had more than his share of material on which to base his coverage. Growing up in New Hampshire gave me a unique perspective as to how the process works--and how candidates try to home their messages, etc. And it's arguably a huge relief that this lengthy process has come to an end. But all of us--even those who backed New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who herself made history with her very strong and determined campaign--can eventually take some solace in the fact Democrats have nominated a black man as their candidate for the White House. This nomination indeed marks a new era in American politics.

Monday, June 2, 2008

A quiet kick-off to Pride month

Another quiet weekend has passed here on Fire Island, but gays and lesbians across the country continue to gear up for the frenzy of parties, marches and other events that traditionally mark Pride month.

Thousands of New Yorkers from across the city descended upon Jackson Heights yesterday for the annual Queens Pride march and street festival while thousands of others gathered in Asbury Park for the 17th annual Jersey Pride. Thunderstorms and torrential downpours largely dampened the annual Out in Sayville festivities here on Fire Island and across the Great South Bay on the mainland, but local drag queens still put on quite a show at Cherry's in Cherry Grove on Saturday night.

The gay ideal–for a lack of a better categorization–has become something of a cliché as pop culture continues to embrace it. Ellen, Carson and Stamford (for those queens who love "Sex and the City") have become everyone's best friends–or at least those who have cable television. The visibility these figures bring is certainly something all of us should celebrate, but the fact remains, however, millions of LGBT people across the country have yet to achieve this very basic of goals. Their parents still kick them out of their homes. Their neighbors still taunt them with anti-LGBT epithets. Governments around the world continue to persecute them. We are doomed to fail as a people if we neglect to recognize our own history–and struggle towards this thing we call equality and justice. Pride month provides all of us an opportunity to remember this history as we celebrate ourselves and the arguable progress we have achieved both as individuals and as a group... so on that socially conscious note: happy Pride!