Interview: Thom Hansen, President of Cherry Grove Arts Project

Thom Hansen (aka Panzi) has spent every summer on Fire Island since 1970. He first made his mark on the island in 1976 as the first homecoming queen of Cherry Grove and today, his passions lie in helping the Cherry Grove and LGBTQ community as president and board member of the Arts Project of Cherry Grove.

Fire Island News (FIN): Fire Island has such an important place in your heart, when was your first foray into the culture of Fire Island and Cherry Grove?

Thom Hansen

Thom Hansen (TH): The first time I saw the culture was in 1971. I went out for a day trip to go to a bartender’s award dinner in the Ice Palace. Full moon over the bay, a beautiful beach. The Ice Palace was filled with drag queens. The police were there with their wives. Their wives looked like drag queens. There was a great show with a lot of drag performers. It was like ‘oh my god, this is paradise!’ No cars, just walks, drag queens, people, friendly cops, wow.’ So that that was the introduction and gave me the impetus to try to somehow or other make it a second home.

FIN: You have served on and off the board of directors of the Cherry Grove Arts Project since 1977. Tell me a bit about that. What are some of the highlights or big projects you have accomplished over the last 40 years?

TH: There’s so much because back then the Arts Project was the fundraising arm for all the organizations … so we were completely ingrained in the community. It was all about raising money to support the Community House as well as these organizations, so there was so much interaction in the community. There were shows, there were experiences, parties, casinos and art shows. I had a lot of time to socially romp, so to speak. I think my involvement with the Arts Project matured with time. I was 22 years old when I first joined. I was very young and energetic, now I’m a little older and a little more business minded.

FIN: Another upcoming event is The Invasion on July 4, what is your involvement with that?

TH: I lead it every July 4. It is not affiliated with any organization. It is not an Arts Project event. It is no one’s event. It is just a Cherry Grove event. The Invasion has become one of celebration of who you are, and one of joy. It started in 1976 as a rebellion against an incident in the Pines with nine of us but it has simply developed into happening, it has a life of its own. It grew and grew and grew every year and now it’s really very cool, it’s really big, it’s exciting.


FIN: Can you tell me a bit more about The Invasion?


TH: Everybody dresses up, it’s celebratory. You leave all your problems behind. Your taxes, your work, fighting with your lovers, bills, illnesses, anything. You leave everything behind and for one day, all you do is have fun, enjoy yourself, dress up and be silly, travel on a boat across the bay, go to the Pines to a reveling crowd of six to seven thousand people. You go to the bars and dance in the varied establishments over there. It’s become really a day of individuality. A day of celebration, and a reminder of the transgender community most importantly. I work on the logistics and try to guide it, but it’s just a wonderful event, it just brings so much joy. We have so many problems in the country and elsewhere, that it’s one day we try to absolutely forget everything and just party.

FIN: You are very active in Cherry Grove and Fire Island as a whole, why do you want this role of being so involved in the community and to help organize the events?

TH: I really fell in love with the Grove so long ago for so many reasons. As a youth, the one thing that was important was acceptance of me as a gay man. It was acceptance of me as a drag persona because I performed for years in the village. There was a lot of transphobia and dragphobia in the city, it was difficult. To come to Fire Island, to a place of pure acceptance was nirvana. I don’t know how to explain it. It just became ingrained in my heart, and because of that, because I’m an active person, I wanted to be a part of helping to keep the community as exciting as it was when I found it.

I’ve always enjoyed my involvement. I think people enjoy me as president, and I am just trying to keep the Arts Project on track for a solid future … To me it’s a goal of making sure the Arts Project remains relevant to the Cherry Grove community. We are trying to morph; we are trying to change. We are looking ahead, and I am glad to be a part of that … It’s an act of love really. If you want something bad enough in a community you don’t talk about it, you do something, you take action. This is my contribution.

FIN: Is there anything else you would like to speak to?

TH: The important thing I would like to emphasize is that Cherry Grove has several organizations. We have the Cherry Grove Property Owners Association (POA), we have the Cherry Grove Community Association, Inc. (CGCAI) we have the Cherry Grove Dune Fund, we have Northwell Health doctors house, it’s a time now where everybody is getting along and coordinating. We have a season that is spectacular because all the organizations respect each other. We all get along and work hand in hand. Sometimes we don’t agree, it’s human. We will get into a little fight here and there but in the end we’re all the fiber of Cherry Grove. It’s funny, for a community of 283 homes we have 10 nonprofit organizations, seven bars, it’s quite a thrilling community. We have a lot of unity in Cherry Grove and I’m glad to be a part, to celebrate it.