Fire Islanders: The Myth-Making Geography of ‘Boys in the Sand’

Sam Moore / April 28, 2021

One of the first, most potent images in Wakefield Poole’s groundbreaking 1971 adult film Boys in the Sand is that of Casey Donovan emerging from the waves before making his way onto the beach. The image feels like a queering of a common cultural touchstone: a figure of great beauty surrounded by water, as if the waves and sea came together to create it. From Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Ursula Andress in 1962’s Dr. No (subverted decades later by Daniel Craig in 2006’s Casino Royale), there’s something about the water as a site of (re)birth that’s full of power and myth. This idea of a loaded geography, at once physical and representative of something greater, runs deep in the DNA of Boys in the Sand; the film wouldn’t exist without the Fire Island locale that it calls home. 

Poole’s film explores both the reality and mythical unreality of New York’s Fire Island, a place that’s taken a heightened place in queer art and culture for decades now—a kind of sanctuary, a place of freedom, one made all the more tempting by the fact that it isn’t available for everyone. In the director’s commentary for Boys in the Sand, Poole says that when it came to Fire Island, “a lot of people had heard of it, but never seen it.” Boys is a kind of strange travelogue, capturing both the island’s reality—how elemental it is, the heat and the water—and also imbuing it with a kind of magic, helping to turn the place into a myth. The film is a perfect escapist fantasy: there are no straight people, there’s no violence, all the men are beautiful, and the sex is plentiful. It becomes something utopian, the kind of gay-only place that people might normally have only dreamed of. The nature of queer life at the time, the extent to which it was something that had to be kept secret, is one of the things that’s gone on to make Fire Island such a staple of queer culture, an iconic part of its history. This idea—attractive men bathed in a sunlight so bright that it seems almost unreal—is echoed in a lot of art that explores the Fire Island milieu, perhaps most explicitly in the images detailed in Tom Bianchi’s 2013 Fire Island Pines: Polaroids 1975-83. 

Bianchi’s images echo the aesthetic of Boys in the Sand, and looking at Donovan in the film alongside some of the men who appear in Bianchi’s Polaroids, it becomes clear that they share the same approach to Fire Island: both artists echo the same Arcadian myth of the pines. A certain type of body populates the vast majority of the snapshots: buff, gym-going, masculine, tanned—the tan lines on Bianchi’s subjects, in fact, are often vivid in contrast to their sun-kissed bodies. Poole’s actors fall into a similar camp, and this creates the sense that Fire Island is a place that’s by and for a narrow group of people within queer communities: conventionally attractive men. The prevalence of these images inverts similar ideas in a straight tradition: tempting women on distant islands, stretching all the way back to the sirens in The Odyssey. From a queer perspective, this idea is both new and old all at once; while it changes the ways in which male bodies are viewed—and challenges mythical traditions that often only frame female bodies in this way—it continues to show that only certain kinds of bodies are worth immortalizing via images. 

For all of the possibility in the air, the bodies that occupy these spaces make it clear that the Fire Island that exists in queer art is a place to showcase a certain type of body, a way to look and a way to live that’s the price of admission for this very specific utopian escape. Boys in the Sand finds power in these bodies as objects of desire—a magical pill literally causes a boyfriend to materialize out of thin air in the film’s “Poolside” section—the currency with which the place is navigated. This is echoed in some of the queer art that comes in the wake of Boys in the Sand. The Andrew Holleran novel Dancer from the Dance (which uses one of Bianchi’s Polaroids as a cover photo in a recent reprint) is obsessed with the mythical image of Fire Island, populating it with characters who exist through gossip and assumption as much as through their own lives, much like the island itself, so it makes sense when Holleran writes: “we queens loathed rain at the beach, small cocks, and reality, i think, in that order.” None of these things exist in the images of Fire Island put forward by Poole and Bianchi; the sun is always out, and the real world is always on the other side of the water. 

How one stayed at Fire Island is one of the other great dividers of the place. Poole himself acknowledges this in his Boys commentary, where he argues that the economics that defined much of the island came down to whether you came in on the ferry or owned your own boat. None of Poole’s characters seem to be on the lower end of the economic spectrum; the houses they stay in are nice, and the integration of domesticity—a lot of the characters in Boys want relationships beyond a sexual fling, and there’s an air of loneliness that exists in a push-and-pull dynamic with the possibility inherent on the Island—carries with it the idea of a kind of ownership that not everyone can afford. The idea of loneliness—both on and beyond Fire Island—is echoed in an interesting way in Bianchi’s Polaroids: it’s rare for any of his subjects’ faces to be seen, as if the specter of the world beyond the island stops them from revealing all of themselves to the camera. 

This is one of the things that makes Fire Island such a strange, liminal place in queer art. It exists in a singular way, unlike anywhere else, and also unlike a real place. There’s a scene in Boys where a door is opened to seemingly nowhere, a sort of non-space that’s divorced even from the rest of the island. The episodic structure of the film—”beachside,” “poolside,” and “inside”—break the place down into a series of fragmented landscapes, at once connected and not connected to one another. This is never a place that people will stay in for the long-term, we know. Even if the domestic moments suggest some kind of future, it isn’t a future that’s possible here.​

​And yet, queer art keeps returning to Fire Island, this place that’s at once impermanent and inescapable. For Poole, much of the drama in Boys is the act of cruising itself: the slow-moving camera that follows the movements of his lonely lovers, the immediacy and intimacy that’s only available on Fire Island. For Bianchi, it’s a bright escapism, even if his images don’t always show all of their subjects—that incompleteness allows viewers to fill in the blanks, imagining their own dream man.

Holleran’s novel makes for a fascinating contrast with both Poole and Bianchi. He seems more willing to engage with the idea of the myth, where the others, knowingly or not, contributed instead to the act of myth-making. The echoes of Fire Island also echo some of the problems inherent in the ways that queer culture is understood. There’s a reason that the bodies across all these different media are so uniform, and one of the strangest, most compelling parts of the Fire Island myth is how explicit it is about the fact that freedom and joy won’t be offered to everyone who arrives. The thing that most clearly, most viscerally ties together the film, the photographs, and the novel are these bodies—their conventional, masculine attractiveness serving as a kind of shorthand for the acceptable face/facelessness of Fire Island, a small sample of the kind of men who are most likely to be accepted here. Even though the entrance to Fire Island is restricted—by how you look, by how much money you have—the return, season after season, still seems inevitable. It makes sense. All of these people, fictional or otherwise, escape here because the island offers them something that the real world won’t.

Sam Moore‘s writing on queerness, politics, and genre fiction in art has been published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, Little White Lies, Hyperallergic, and other places. Their poetry and experimental essays have been published in print and online, most recently in the Brixton Review of Books. If their writing didn’t already give it away, they’re into weird stuff.
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