A Celebration in Drag

Photographer Susan Kravitz ’65 captures gay liberation on Fire Island.

By Eveline Chao

Many have called it Fire Island’s Stonewall—after the 1969 protests in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village that kicked off the gay rights movement.

Forty years ago, a restaurant in the Pines—a beach community on Fire Island, New York—refused to serve Teri Warren, who was dressed in drag. When Warren’s friends from the neighboring community of Cherry Grove, a longtime summer haven for artists and theatre people drawn by its openly gay atmosphere, heard what had happened, they were outraged. On July 4, 1976, they fought back by dressing in drag en masse and storming the Pines in revelry. The “Invasion of the Pines” turned into an annual celebration.

Photographer Susan Kravitz ’65 first visited Cherry Grove in 1979 as a straight woman and returned for more than 30 years, photographing the Invasion and the community at large during a pivotal era in American culture when LGBTQ life became more accepted into the mainstream. During this time, Kravitz also came to terms with her own sexuality. Her first book, Mascara, Mirth, & Mayhem: Independence Day on Fire Island, documents these cultural and personal transitions through her photographs.

The Invasion has continued year after year, even during the bleak years at the height of the AIDS epidemic when members of the community were dying. That period gave way to what Kravitz calls the “out and proud” years of the last decade.

Her photographs of the Invasion, which also were exhibited this fall at fotofoto gallery in Huntington, N.Y., capture that freedom “to be who you want to be,” she explains. In Cherry Grove, “you get off the ferry and you’re in a place where you don’t have to worry about people pointing a finger at you or being disappointed in your choices,” she says. “It’s a place where you can be yourself, and there aren’t many places like that in this world.”

In one image, revelers gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes while primping on a dock as their pearls and rhinestones glitter. In a black-and-white photo from 1987, someone in a blonde wig and polka-dot ruffles frowns into the distance. In 2011, a photo depicts a gaggle of swimmers in yellow bathing caps and 1960s-style bathing suits strutting on a red carpet while a crowd cheers. The book also includes essays from regulars at the event, who share reflections on the significance of a place as accepting as Cherry Grove.

“Sometimes coy, sometimes brash, sometimes slyly sneaking a peek and other times boldly holding ground for a long hard stare, Susan and her camera partied hard,” writes Stephen Mayes, a photo expert and queer activist who helped edit the book. “To immerse yourself in the energetic tumble of these pages is to put yourself in heels and to join the ladies with an attitude.”

Kravitz was a sociology major at Barnard with no plans to become an artist, though an art history course taught by Professor Barbara Novak showed her “how to look at and talk about art.” She also studied psychology and sees that field as the linchpin of her photography. “I’m looking for what is inside a person that makes them who they are,” she explains. As a young mother, she took a photography course at a community center on Long Island, where she lived, setting her on her path. Later, after earning an MFA in photography, she became a professor and then a dean at Nassau Community College.

What makes Mascara, Mirth, & Mayhem notable is not only the images of a changing time and place but also the journey of the photographer herself. Kravitz, now 72, at first experienced “the same internalized homophobia many have when they grow up in suburbia,” but she found herself fascinated by everyone she met at her friend’s vacation home when she first visited in 1979.

“It was the most amazing array of people sitting around on the floor,” she says, “and I was attracted to how unique and different they were from the people I had known all my life.” The next time Kravitz went back, several years later, she was divorced and had a female partner.

Coming out was a gradual process, says Kravitz. “I didn’t consciously seek out to become a lesbian, but it happened, and I wasn’t even sure that I was a lesbian for many years. I just thought, Well, this is something different, and it’s great. And then I had to stop and look at myself and say, Could it be that you really are a lesbian? And it took a long time to come to grips with that.” She adds that the sense of freedom to experiment that prevailed during the 1970s also played a part.

The issue of drag has long been controversial. Some argue that the practice is misogynistic, reinforcing gender stereotypes. Still others worry that it minimizes the gender struggles of those who are LGBTQ. Defenders say drag is a means of self-expression. Kravitz has observed a shift in drag over the years reflecting the new discourse. As LGBTQ people have gained civil rights, analysis of drag and its practices have become more complex and nuanced.

Kravitz’ Cherry Grove photos “capture that first excitement” of the gay scene there from 1979 through the early ’80s, according to The New York Times. Its photojournalism blog, Lens, singled out “the otherworldly spectacle that was then in full bloom—the parties, the drag shows, the afternoon teas at which the whole community dressed up, and nobody drank tea.” A series by Kravitz called “80 from the 80s: Living and Dying in the Shadow of AIDS,” depicting the years when AIDS began to ravage the Cherry Grove community, was exhibited in September in Pingyao, China.

Two Barnard alumnae helped get Kravitz’ images of the Invasion into book form: Lyn DelliQuadri ’67 is one of her literary agents, and Nancy Freeman ’81 is a sales director for VeronaLibri, which printed the book for the publisher, KMW Studio.

Today, Kravitz and her partner continue to rent a house share of their own in the Cherry Grove community. “Even in a time of crisis, it was a place where people didn’t judge you,” Kravitz says. “More than going back to photograph, I was going back to find myself.” 



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