It started with the clone. Crew cut, plaid flannel, faded button-fly Levi’s with a sandpapered crotch. And let’s not forget the unfortunate mandatory upper-lip hair. The clone begat the polo queen (button-down with sport shirt underneath, collar turned up), who in turn begat the act up punk boy (button-down with frayed collar, ratty corduroy jeans), who begat the prototypical gym bunny, early versions of which would by now resemble the proverbial 98-pound weakling.
Somewhere in this time line AIDS happened. And the prevalent iconography of (largely white) gay maleness took an unfortunate turn. Wifebeaters gave way to wheelchairs. White-tipped canes replaced strategically displayed keys. Cachexia took over from sculptured cheekbones, and looking “gay” became synonymous with appearing sick and sad.
Then the medical semimiracles came along. Combo therapies brought to a halt the ugliness, the lesions, and the disappearing people. By
coincidence, the drugs some people used to
arrest wasting syndrome turned out to be a great way to accumulate muscle mass. The hormonal supplements you’d normally associate with Steve “Stone Cold” Austin or the Undertaker went into wider circulation; there wasn’t a gym south of 23rd Street where someone didn’t know someone who was “stacking” on steroids. Briefly there was even a beefed-up drag queen who ironically adopted the name of a popular supplement. She called herself Diana Bol.
It was about this time— the mid ’90s, say— that the body style favored by a certain group of gay men entered a new phase of evolution. Partly it was a reaction to AIDS; it may also have been a wrinkle in the consumerist pathology dictating that bigger is always best. But a flat stomach and an attractive pectoral arrangement were suddenly insufficient. Every halfway decent ween has those. If a guy
wanted to be seen as bar bait at the Boiler Room or Splash or the Lure or G, what he needed was corrugated abs and a rack.
This won’t come as news to anyone who’s visited the quaint Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea, where certain blocks have long given the appearance of being populated exclusively by bendable action figures. So entrenched in Chelsea is what performance artist Ron Athey once called “titty boy culture” that a weekday crowd at Big Cup can often resemble a casting call for a Wonderbra ad.
By late August, a good part of this population decamps to a small town on a barrier island 40 miles east of Manhattan, a place whose boardwalks and sand dunes form a littoral backdrop for the ongoing theater of white gay maleness in the late 20th century. Was it surprising that the Advocate recently designated this place the number one gay resort community in the country? Not really. When it comes to per capita pulchritude, the Russian River or Provincetown, or even South Beach, doesn’t offer much serious competition to the Pines. “At some point,” says writer Chris Moore, “the best-looking gay guy from every hometown in America, the beauty star of his high school, winds up standing in the Pines Pavilion.” This one small beach town is, in a sense, says Moore, “a Miss America pageant,” with testosterone and masculine pronouns added, a place where “all the contestants are grinning and pretending to like each other, but each one wants to be queen.”
¤ The contestants will be wearing hip-slung nylon surfer shorts. They will have V-shaped bodies surreally free of fat. Their tans and teeth and body hair will be perfectly even. They will be waxed and clipped and buff. “I do a lot of groin grooming,” for Pines residents, says electrologist Peter Dabal. “I do front and back waxing. I clip the shaft of the penis so it drapes longer. I shave scrotums and wax perineum, anus, and butt.” Dabal charges $55 for an hour-long depilation session and claims that his clients consider it money well spent. “They look masculine and clean, but not pissy. If your body is together, there’s no reason for their groins to be a mess.”
As an archetype of manly vigor, the Pines guy may be almost too good to be believed. It’s a quirky irony of life there that a sizable percentage of these robust specimens owe their beauty not to natural selection but to a disease. “It’s gotten extreme,” journalist Steve Bolerjack, a longtime seasonal resident of the Pines, says of some locals’ abuse of prescription steroids. “The fact is that a high percentage of guys here are [HIV] positive and able to get steroids easily. For some of us, it’s a medical and not a vanity issue; I’m on testosterone therapy myself.” But among the unanticipated side effects of combination therapies for HIV and AIDS, Bolerjack says, “is that protease
inhibitors can increase your vascularity and testosterone and steroids can increase muscle mass. So, if you work out, you can really get so pumped up you wind up looking better than you ever have in your life.”
You see them on the ferry dock each weekend evening, magnificent specimens pulling little red wagons filled with cranberry juice, Diet Coke, bottled water, and mesclun from the Pines Pantry, the town’s sole grocery store. You see them on Saturday morning working up a prebeach pump at the Pines gym. You see them afterward, “promenading in the sand,” adds Bolerjack, and again in the early evening at the Pines Pavilion’s tea dance, which is no dance and takes place well past tea time, from eight to 10.
Following a late dinner and a disco nap, the men return to the Pines Pavilion to start partying in earnest. Saturday night doesn’t truly get under way until well into Sunday morning. The season’s densest concentration of buffed bodies will probably convene this weekend at Pines 99— a community-sponsored party aimed at undoing the bad press generated by GMHC’s notorious annual Morning Party, which was discontinued after an overdosed partygoer was removed to a mainland hospital by medevac.
“It’s a very odd scene now,” says Moore, who first visited Fire Island Pines two decades ago, “before the big disco was built.” In those days, he says, “the Pines was about transplanted Manhattan fabulousness,” whereas the “Long Island gays and drags and old fairies” were relegated to the neighboring community of Cherry Grove. “The vibe was fantastic, this beautiful place with these beautiful men by the sea. In the olden days, one or two guys would stand out because they had a body. Now the majority are hulks. My lover’s brother-in-law, his ex-lover’s brother, is this guy who used to call himself the King of Fire Island. He had this great natural body and this massive chest that was all about the tits.” These days, says Moore, the King of Fire Island would hardly rate a second glance.
“It’s too much,” Degen Pener, a freelance writer for In Style, says one August morning, surveying the sea of shaved and bloated pecs on the upper deck of the South Bay Clipper ferry. “It’s over the top.” Steroid stacking, pyramiding, and illegal drug cocktailing, says another longtime visitor to the island, “have gotten out of hand.” It’s a strange situation, says Bolerjack. “You have a generation of young guys who
never really saw the effects of AIDS. They
never saw someone bleed to death through his capillaries. They never changed diapers and saw KS lesions and smelled the smell of AIDS. Naturally, they feel the invincibility of youth.” Weeks before a summer-defining party, a number of people start ingesting graduated doses of, say, the testosterone substitute Deca-Durabolin, he claims. “A couple weekends ago, I overheard some guys planning their drug strategy for Pines 99. They were going to 200 milligrams the first week, then 300, then 400, so they’d peak out on that one ‘incredible’ night.”
¤ “I can’t really explain what happened here,” says a longtime Pines resident who asked not to see her name in print. “I first came out in 1967. My husband and I had our first island house in [the straight community of] Seaview, but we used to come over here to dance. I raised my kids here and it was so much fun in the late ’60s and ’70s. It was a different atmosphere. This was even before Stonewall, when guys couldn’t even dance together anyplace else. It was all about Halston and music and fabulousness. We had a fine, fine time.” And the men, this woman observes, “used to be so pretty, so fabulous, the most beautiful. Now, no one’s pretty anymore. I don’t even think the look is masculine. It’s a feminine look, basically. With these pecs and things, they look like women with boobs.”
August’s first rain has thinned the crowd for a midweek tea dance. Only about 100 or so customers are clustered beneath the Pines Pavilion’s red-and-white awning. This is a smattering compared to the weekend’s capacity hordes. The mood of this gathering is mellow. The atmosphere is not markedly different from that of a neighborhood bar. There’s a healthy number of guys with love handles and male pattern baldness; few bodies here would turn heads at a Blarney Stone. As for celebrities, well, there’s a well-toned weatherman for a local station. There’s Democratic National Committee treasurer Andrew Tobias giving an enthusiastic bear hug to a radiant muscle boy. But that’s about it for wild, unbridled sex. “It’s funny,” says Kevin Burris, a promoter who stages gay parties at the Bronx disco Warehouse. The weekend scene here among gay men, “and not just white ones, is total body, but not necessarily doing anything sexual.”
Two to three years ago, Burris estimates, 40 percent of the men at his events were pumped up: “Now it’s maybe 70 percent. You’ve got to have a body, and the bigger the better, so you can be nonchalant about it with your shirt off on the dance floor. But that’s where it ends with a lot of these guys. It’s modeling. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a sex thing at all. It’s just a way of disguising how soft you are inside.”
Seated on a bench, a man with an immensely convex chest is sipping a vodka tonic. His friend, a body builder with arms the circumference of Smithfield hams, is playing with the straw in his daiquiri. There’s a quality of permanent pubescence about their conversation. Momentarily, they seem out of place.
“He said he wanted a real man,” the first man is saying.
“Well, of course,” the second man remarks dryly, “if you’re going to take it up the ass, a
‘real man’ is what you want.”
Another man, this one in workout clothes, is studying the scene from a spot nearby. He’s buff, but not grotesquely so; if his smile seems a little loopy it’s because he’s bemused, he
explains, not stoned. Bob Pfeiffer works at NYU’s America Reads work-study program and also does part-time DJing at Global 33. He’s here in the Pines on a weeknight because the body Nazis don’t arrive en masse until Friday night. The Pines, explains Pfeiffer, “is a weird trip, a monoculture, but it’s also a wonderful place.” It’s a transcendently beautiful and fragile fringe of sand in the ocean. It’s a sexual sanctuary with an almost fugitive history. It’s a place where “you’re ultimately forced to see and reflect on how you register difference, and how comfortable you are with that.”
What Pfeiffer refers to as the Pines’ “cult of hypermasculinity” most likely arose in spontaneous reaction to the depredations of AIDS. But there’s another reason for the presence here of men who resemble cartoon figures, whose greatest pride is possession of impervious,
action-hero physiques. “It’s AIDS-reactive,” says Pfeiffer, “but it’s also acceptance-reactive. I had a gay brother who’s gone now, and I used to come out here with him. The Pines felt like a safe place for us before our fashions and attitudes and sexuality were commodified. Now that we’re mainstream, queers are looking for other ways to set themselves apart.”