Getting to Fire Island’s Cherry Grove, a small beach town with a rich LGBTQ+ history, requires sunbathing-hopefuls to catch a ride on a boat. This relative seclusion and the hamlet’s simultaneous proximity to New York City allowed 1950s Cherry Grove to be a summer sanctuary for New Yorkers at a time when being gay was criminalized in the United States.
A free outdoor exhibition, titled “Safe/Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove,” at New-York Historical Society explores the town’s mid-century memories through an installation of over 70 photographs, supplemented by ephemera from the Cherry Grove Archives Collection. Curated by Brian Clark, Susan Kravitz and Parker Sargent, the show is currently on view at the museum’s back courtyard through Oct. 11.
“As you walk around this exhibition, we hope you will become aware of the joyous freedom of expression that LGBTQ people demonstrate in so many of these photographs,” Kravitz said in a statement, noting that the pre-Stonewall era in the United States was full of “persecution and prosecution” for queer people.
Photos capture the lounging ease of the summertime guests and the town’s vibrant cultural life, which allowed for an undoing of the restraints imposed by “proper” society. As a creative hub known for its theatrical productions and elaborate events, Cherry Grove attracted high profile writers and artists such as Christopher Isherwood, Patricia Highsmith, Tennessee Williams, W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers and Truman Capote to its waterside locale.
And while the island offered a retreat for its visitors in the 1950s, the exhibition juxtaposes the scene’s joyful images with stories of raids that swept through the area in the 1960s.
Continuing into later decades, the installation highlights Cherry Grove’s shift from welcoming predominately white, affluent vacationers to becoming more inclusive to working class gay women in the 1960s and to queer Black and Latino people after the Civil Rights Movement — advocacy for which continues in the present through groups like the Black and Brown Equity Coalition. Images stretch into the 1980s, a time marked by the devastating effects of the AIDS crisis.
Audio that captures personal accounts from community members of Cherry Grove punctuates the historical survey and is available to visitors to listen to through their cell phones.
“At a time when they faced homophobia and persecution, the residents of Cherry Grove found a sanctuary where they could socialize and express themselves freely,” Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical, said.
Free, timed tickets to the “Safe/Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove” exhibition can be booked on the New-York Historical Society’s site.