In the decades leading up to the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, an LGBTQ community took shape among New Yorkers in a remote hamlet of Fire Island known as Cherry Grove.
There, visitors spent summer weekends sunbathing and partying, forming one of the country’s first gay beach towns as being openly gay could result in ostracism or imprisonment. It was not until 1980 that New York State eliminate most of its laws against sodomy.
A new outdoor exhibition in the courtyard of the New-York Historical Society, on display until October 11, features dozens of enlarged photographs that document this story, illustrating how the hamlet made it possible for visitors “to become themselves, rather than who they were. thought they were meant to be, ”said Susan Kravitz, one of the curators. The images for “Safe / Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove” are from the Cherry Grove Archival Collection, a voluntary organization formed in 2011, approximately 40 years after the community archivist Harold Seeley began to collect files.
Some of the photographs show the everyday ease and pleasure that comes with expressing forbidden sexuality in a safe space: in one, two men kiss at a house party; in another, two women are sitting against each other on the beach. Other images capture moments of costume parties and theatrical performances. Many photos were found in the trash cans after residents died and their homes were emptied.
Residents of Cherry Grove were not immune to raids and assaults from drunk visitors. Yet gays and lesbians flocked there every summer, including writers Tennessee Williams, Patricia Highsmith and Truman Capote. Photographer Richard Avedon and his wife were also visitors.
While the photographers behind the images remain mostly unknown, many were likely the gay white men who began infiltrating the island in the late 1940s and 1950s, followed by lesbians. The images themselves therefore represent a lasting act of resistance, probably recorded by those who shaped this little-known history.
“Mainstream America wasn’t really documenting us or telling our stories,” said Parker Sargent, who curated the show with Kravitz and Brian Clark.
Ms. Kravitz, who has visited the Grove for 40 years, is counted among the photographers. Two of her images show how, as a result of the civil rights movement, Cherry Grove became more welcoming to blacks and Latinas in the LGBTQ community.
That acceptance – and the characteristic joy 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.”