Each summer, the gay vacation destination known as Fire Island Pines plays host to thousands of people, most of them beautiful gay men with sun-kissed skin, gym-toned abs, and double-fisted cocktails.
Every Fourth of July, however, the status quo is shaken up with "The Invasion," a yearly tradition that brings a ferryboat full of drag queens to the Fire Island Pines harbor, where they are greeted by throngs of revelers in what has become a joyous, raucous spectacle.
The Invasion began as something quite different. The summer of 1976 was a much more conservative time for the Pines community, and when a drag queen (whose real name was Terry Warren) visited from the neighboring Cherry Grove community, she was denied service at the popular dockside restaurant, the Blue Whale. She returned to Cherry Grove and shared what had occurred, prompting her friends to rally behind her. All dressed in drag, they boarded a water taxi to the Blue Whale and demanded service. This bold "storming of the Pines" by a gaggle of drag queens became known as "The Invasion" and has been symbolically repeated ever since.
One of the drag queens on that original mission was Panzi (real name Thom Hansen), who has served as the Mistress of Ceremonies ever since.
"The first year, we were actually frightened as we were approaching, not knowing what was to happen," Panzi explained. "But once we arrived, we felt empowered. Although we were there to make a bold statement, we were also there to communicate that we are sister communities, and united we stand, divided they pick us off one by one."
The Invasion may have started as something tense and uncomfortable, but it gave birth to an event that truly unites the adjacent gay summer communities.
"I really think it brings the Pines and the Grove together," says drag entertainer Gusty Winds, who has participated in The Invasion for 17 years. "But of course, it's also a subtle reminder that not so long ago, members of our own community had trouble with acceptance."
Panzi agrees: "The Invasion is a day when the Pines and Grove come out en masse, giving them an opportunity not only for celebration but to show a unified front. Sometimes we put too much emphasis on the seriousness of life; The Invasion is really just a day of fun!"
Hedda Lettuce, who has been taking part in The Invasion for so long that she can't remember how many years it's been, also enjoys the spirit of carefree joy that The Invasion encourages.
"I think it is a way for everyone to celebrate diversity in a colorful, over-the-top way," she shares. "Plus, I think the Pines can take themselves a bit too serious, and this is a great way of lightening things up!"
One element of The Invasion that some may find surprising is the generous amount of straight party-goers in attendance. The harbor and pool deck are overflowing with celebrants from all walks of life, many of them straight and from the surrounding areas of Long Island.
"This event has such amazing energy," shared Amanda Silvestri, a straight 27-year-old from Manhattan. She and her fiancée made the trek out to the Pines with a couple of friends, who brought their parents along to enjoy the show. "It was our first time in the Pines, and we could not have felt more welcome. There was a lot of love in the air!"
With rainbow and American flags waving proudly, hordes of harmonious, happy people "let their hair down" and celebrated together in a rarely seen state of complete solidarity for the sake of fun, patriotism and, of course, hedonism.
"The Invasion has become a day of celebration and fun, not only for the drag or cross dressers but for everyone," explains Panzi. "It gives people permission to express themselves in a way they might not otherwise -- sort of like Mardi Gras!"
And express themselves they do! Costumes ranged from a take on Black Swan (four men dressed in tutus) to pop-political satire (a Paula Deen impersonator holding a sign that read, "I Need a Job, Y'all!"), and they only get more outrageous each year.
"The craziest thing I've ever seen?" mused Gusty. "Probably when a pregnant Virgin Mary disembarked the boat riding a live donkey."
And there you have it.