In July of 2012, as part of a research project conducted by Public Space Research Group out of City University New York (CUNY), I set out to explore some of the peripheral, informal spaces associated with Jones Beach on Long Island, New York. I was told by one of my Spanish-speaking colleagues that I should take a look at the gay beach east of field six, and that I need only walk east until I hit “un pared de hombres” (a wall of men). Taking this advice I found that Maria was correct, and that her description accurately conveyed the clear gendered message of the space, which was overwhelmingly male. Over the course of the project I conducted interviews with users of the gay beach to determine use patterns and special connections to the space. Several comments addressing the issue of bringing restrooms, lifeguards, and trash receptacles to the informal “gay” space prompted me to explore the implications of shifting spatial and temporal boundaries for gay visitors, and the feelings of uncertainty for the future of the beach expressed by my informants.
In Carol Warren’s 1974 ethnography of gay community around the time of Stonewall she argued that “space and time are the concrete boundaries of a community, in a not quite metaphorical sense,” implying that for groups both marginalized and stigmatized, community building relies on bounded notions of space and time, deliberately set apart from those of the mainstream. The gay beach is one location in which space and time have traditionally been set apart in order to facilitate the creation and celebration of community in a safe context. This creation of a safe space in which to enjoy the natural world has typically meant the construction of walls. With safe space also comes safe time. In this retreat and deliberate exclusion from the workings of heteronormativity, the essential psychic conditions for identity construction, reflection and engagement with one’s consciousness (internal time), are free to operate in ways that have not always been accessible to LGBT individuals within mainstream society. I argue, based on the research at Jones Beach, that these notions of gay space and time remain relevant and necessary to my informants, even in light of the increasing complexity of queer theory and its critique of essentialized gay identities. While I applaud and recognize the evolution of queer theory and its skillful deconstruction of collectivist, essentialized identities, in the field I was compelled to question its cultural legibility, particularly in terms of the lived experiences of the men occupying the gay space at Jones Beach. I found that my informants not only operated from within a traditional, liberal gay rights agenda (with its reliance on gay identity), but also that they demonstrated a clear need to construct walls around their coveted space at Jones Beach in ways that mirror Warren’s earlier theoretical paradigm.
This need for walls became evident in the interview process where I found that both the meaning of the space, and its physical composition are created by the men on the beach through a variety of narratives dealing with topics such as pride in the early “settlers” of the gay space, contesting “territorial invasion” by heterosexual voyeurs, feelings of personal safety in which to enjoy the solitude of the natural environment, and in expressions of romantic and sexual freedom.
The uncertain future of the space was expressed by my informants in the context of a recurring debate concerning the rights of gay beach users to nonexistent amenities (eg, restrooms, lifeguards) versus the potential crowds that these would bring, and ultimately the implications of this for maintaining the site as a gay space. The overwhelming consensus emerging out of this debate spoke to the persistent need for the preservation of the beach as a gay, safe space. This need is further complicated by Hurricane Sandy’s devastation of Jones Beach, which I argue has brought an added sense of urgency to the issue. Sandy illustrates the need for applied anthropological studies of gay beaches to inform policymakers of their continued importance to the communities they serve. Although applied research on gay beaches may do little to inform policy concerning rising ocean levels and global warming, it does have the potential to influence post-disaster reconstruction efforts by giving a voice to users of these spaces, highlighting the need for their continued existence as crucial sites of identity construction.
Kevin Zemlicka is an MA candidate in the anthropology department at California State University at Northridge. His thesis research explores the role of Pentecostal Christianity in the lives of Ugandan transnational migrants in Los Angeles, with particular emphases on identity construction, the reproduction of ethnicity, and gendered experiences of increased agency and empowerment.
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