Mascara, Mirth & Mayhem: Independence Day on Fire Island: Photography by Susan Kravitz

(Article originally published in Fire Island News September 2, 2016) When Editor Shoshanna McCollum asked me to review a book on the invasion of the Pines in Fire Island, I thought deer, ticks and Lyme disease. Not a very upbeat topic to wind down this season’s reviews. What a surprise I was in for!  

Kravitz, Dean forArts and Humanities at Nassau Community College, has been documenting the invasion for decades, an event that hasnothing to do with damage done by four legged or flying creatures, andeverything to do with the celebration and spirit of gay/lesbian life on FireIsland. Most notably those residing in the communities of Cherry Grove and ThePines.

Back in the springof 1976, drag-queen Terri Warren and some of her like-minded lovelies went tohave a bite to eat at a Pines’ restaurant. They were regulars there, but thiswas a first for dressing up, which Terri had a yen to do. The more conservativemanagement refused to serve them, a slight that was not to be ignored.

So with thenation’s bicentennial at its height, history was being made on Fire Island ingowns and pantyhose that Independence Day. Led by Thom Hansen aka Panzi –the indisputable “heart and soul”of the Invasion who has lead the flotilla every year, they water taxied over tothe Pines, cheered by a gaggle of spectators waiting at the dock. A trueIndependence Day when you think about it, given that 200 years before, Americacelebrated its first Independence Day as a sovereign nation.

The LGBTQ communityhas been ratifying their raid for 40 years since, at the annual event known asthe Invasion of the Pines, making merry and rejoicing, embracing not only gays,but a community of caring and understanding that goes beyond group, hype, ortype.

           Says Kravitz of her collection: “Myphotographs are as much about the times in which they were taken as they areabout the people who populate them. Ultimately, they are about human rights andfreedom of expression as seen through the lens of the Invasion.”

You want bouffant?You want bling? You want boobs, jockstraps and hairy legs in heels? What say apink Chanel suit and pillbox hat ala Jackie K? You ferried over to the rightdock. Let’s par-tay! Keep in mind that it’s not all fishnet stockings and unshavedarmpits in Kravitz’s more than 80 images in both full color and black andwhite. Playful and exuberant, hilarious and high-camp yes, yet Kravits’sshutter is always on the lookout for the unexpected, capturing those caughtunaware, sad and wary in their leathers and Lycra. Her gimlet eye gets themall. 

But to view thebook as merely a compilation of photos on a particular theme, however tellingand affecting those images might be, is to see the monograph in half-light.There’s story here, and a compelling one, told from the point of view of thefolks who were there, are there, fleshing out –pun unintended – the backstory, givingwitness to the years following the Stonewall revolution, the horror of the AIDSepidemic, the lives lost, the freedoms gained, the text and personal testimonyadding to and enhancing the bigger picture.

From Thom—Panzi: “The Invasion remains acelebration of who we are and a day of respect for each other.”

Hal—Judge Mental: “It is the best party with themost fun… But it also takes me back to… memories and love for the friendsthat are no longer here to celebrate with us.”

Jim—Electra, recalling the 80’s: “It was atime before cell phones…and all that ‘self, self, self, self mass media goingon… we actually talked and laughed together without… texting… that’ssomething we’ll never get back.”

Michael—Coco Love: “What drag has taught me is tojust put yourself in another pair of shoes and see what happens.”

Richard—Bella: “When you are gay, people look atyou funny. [At] the Invasion no one looks down on you because you are dressed.Everyone is dressed. Straight people too…”

Lyn: “Everyonewants to be part of it, but I don’t think they know why it began…  continuing generations… should really bereminded of how this started.”

Diana: “The dragscene on Fire Island was just an adult summer camp [80’s] a place to play outloud and outside with your inner child.”

Ray: “It was likeMardi Gras… It was a wake-up call, not just for the Pines for everybody elsewho allowed themselves to be second-class citizens.”

And, in the words of Steven Mays, “queer activist,” writer, lecturer and career manager:  “…try to put a drag queen down and see what you get: a boatload of trouble. Several boatloads of trouble. Actually four decades of trouble…”  

KMW Studios $34.95 Softcover