September 26, 2023

In the decades before the Stonewall Riot in 1969, an LGBTQ community emerged among New Yorkers in a remote hamlet on Fire Island known as Cherry Grove.

There, visitors spent the summer weekends sunbathing and partying and formed one of the first gay beach towns in the country when open gays could lead to marginalization or imprisonment. It wasn’t until 1980 that New York State repealed most of its anti-sodomy laws.

A new outdoor exhibit in the courtyard of the New-York Historical Society, on view through October 11, features dozens of magnified photographs documenting this story and illustrating how the hamlet allowed visitors to “become themselves, instead of what they thought ”. they should be, ”said Susan Kravitz, one of the curators. The images in Safe / Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove are from the Cherry Grove Archives Collection, a volunteer organization founded in 2011, some 40 years after community archivist Harold Seeley began collecting records.

Some of the photographs show the everyday ease and joy that comes with expressing forbidden sexuality in a safe space: In one, two men are kissing at a house party; in another two women sit close together on the beach. Other images capture moments from campy costume parties and theatrical performances. Many of the photos were found in the trash after local residents died and their homes were evacuated.

Cherry Grove residents were not immune to police raids and assault by drunk visitors. Even so, gays and lesbians flocked there every summer, including photographer Richard Avedon and writers Tennessee Williams, Patricia Highsmith, and Truman Capote.

While the photographers behind the pictures are largely unknown, many were likely the gay white men who began infiltrating the island in the late 1940s and 1950s, followed by lesbians. So the images themselves represent an ongoing act of resistance, likely recorded by those who shaped this little-known story.

“Mainstream America didn’t really document us or tell our stories,” said Parker Sargent, who co-curated the exhibition with Kravitz and Brian Clark.

Mrs. Kravitz, who has been visiting the Grove for 40 years, counts herself among the photographers. Two of her pictures show how Cherry Grove became more open-minded after the civil rights movement of blacks and Latinas from the LGBTQ community.

That acceptance – and the joy that is characteristic of the place – predicted the flourishing of gay and lesbian life in New York City and beyond, she said.

“The seeds were planted in Cherry Grove.”